Brandes is a freshman who defeated Democrat Bill Heller in the Pinellas County seat last fall, one of five house seats that the Democrats lost to Republicans, and a crushing one for St. Pete Democrats, who hope to win it back in 2012.
There were plenty of union oficials, teachers and pro-choice advocates in attendance with accompanying signs expressing their displeasure with the legislative session.
Pinellas County Teachers union head Kim Black said that the budget passed last week cuts $66 million from Pinellas County Schools. Representative Brandes told CL that his mandate in trying to balance a $3.8 billion deficit was to do so without raising taxes, but that answer did not impress Black.
"I don't know when taxes became a dirty word," she said, explaining that a high-quality public school system has to come at some cost to taxpayers. "If the costs means laying off all these young employees and closing schools and consolidating bus routes, letting go support personnel, then shame on them, because I don't believe that's what the voters truly want."
CL spoke earlier in the day with Representative Brandes, who said in general about the protest, "I think the reality is that I’m glad that we live in a country that they can exercise their rights to free speech and I’m glad that I’m a legislator who supports those rights."
One of the issues that has angered Democratic voters is the elections reform bill, which reduces the amount of early voting days, and also penalizes voters who have moved outside of the county they were previously registered in, potentially taking away their vote. Democratic party activist Jim Shirk said he and other Democrats had to make sure that the bill (which he called illegal) doesn't affect voter registration in 2012.
"Pretty soon we're going to start going door to door, giving people forms to fill out and a stamped envelope to send in. We can't accept any signed forms because of the registration suppression that's taking place now. We have to make sure that people are encouraged to be properly registered, " he said.
But Brandes says the reasoning behind reducing early voting days is a sound one, saying that the data he heard was that the initial early days of voting were sparse and expensive to run in many cities. "We thought if we maybe shortened the time, but provided a good number of hours that would be uniformly adopted by the counties, we thought that was an appropriate measure," he said, adding that "whether it’s eight or nine or 14 days ….people have ample opportunities to get to the polls."
Some bloggers felt that Brandes was the wrong Republican for progressive activists to protest. St. Petersblog 2.0's Peter Schorsch wrote that of all the local GOP members to bash, Brandes was most undeserving, considering he's done such unorthodox things as speak out against a plan to drug test welfare recipients — earning him an award from the ACLU for doing so.
Meanwhile blogger Ben Kirby suggested that activists would be more productive if they could actively recruit a competitive
candidate to run against Brandes next year.
But activist Mike Fox, one of the chief organizers of the protest, said that he was very aware of Brandes' record on that and other issues, saying, "We took all of that into consideration in the grades that you see." (Awake the State gave Brandes "F's" in all categories but the environment and workers' rights, in which he was given "D's.")
Fox emphasized that the event was non-partisan, so he himself refused to discuss his thoughts on a Democrat beating Brandes when he comes up for re-election in 2012 in House District 52, very much a swing district.
"We're not saying he's the worst one there," Fox continued, speaking of Brandes. "What we are saying first and foremost is the bills that were passed by this group of people were arguably the worst in the state of Florida from a working person's standpoint."