The 2010 Vote: Bill Heller vs. Jeff Brandes in FL House District 52

Even though Heller is a relatively popular legislator on good terms with the St. Pete political establishment, his re-election is no lay-up – not with the financial resources Brandes brings to the race. Plus, the district (unlike most in this ludicrously gerrymandered state) is evenly balanced between Republicans, Democrats and independents.

Democrat Peter Rudy Wallace held the seat in the 1980s and ’90s (when it was District 56) and calls it a “mainstream, competitive” district.  Before Heller won the seat in 2006, Republican Frank Farkas held it for eight years. Before that, a Democrat, Margot Fischer, had control. But the Republicans think they can take it back this year.


At his general election launch party at St. Pete’s Push Ultra Lounge earlier this month, Brandes, a 34-year-old political neophyte, begins his remarks to dozens of supporters and family members by paraphrasing free market economist Herb Stein, saying “things that are unsustainable tend to stop.” It's his segue into the number one issue in the state: jobs.

The Iraq war veteran and real estate executive had been contemplating a run for office in 2012. But in the late spring, the original GOP candidate in the race, Connie Deneault, dropped out, and Brandes quickly swooped in. Finances are not expected to be a problem: Brandes' grandfather is Linton N. Tibbetts, who owned Cox Lumber in St. Pete until it was bought out in 2006.

Brandes' message is direct — in addition to jobs, which he says can be created by keeping taxes low, he calls for diversifying the state’s economy. His solution is a more educated work force, which for him means  allowing for more parental choice.

And he wants to tackle the property insurance issue by allowing for a system akin to a health savings account, saying it would provide “some type of tax advantage for you to put some money into and to raise your overall deductible.”

With the district’s moderate image, Brandes can’t afford to come across as too much of an ideologue, and doesn’t sound like when one when discussing issues like the extremely controversial SB 6, the education reform bill vetoed by Governor Charlie Crist. “I probably would not have supported SB 6,” he tells CL at Push Ultra. “I really think you gotta get it down to the local level and put parents in control.  We’ll support anything that gives parents more control.”

When asked his thoughts about illegal immigration, Brandes is resolute in saying that it should be a federal responsibility. When pressed if that means he’s for or against an Arizona- style bill, he says only that the status of that bill is “amorphous."

Brandes is just as vague when it comes to his favorite word: sustainability. It's not clear exactly what he means by it (he's not using the word in its familiar green-living context), but he sure likes to use it. When CL asks him about sending Tallahassee to the “woodshed," he replies, “Our program is to put Florida on a sustainable plan… a strategy that’s sustainable. We need to encourage people that are on board to getting people on a sustainable path… that’s the key. Getting Florida on a sustainable path.”  Got it.


Brandes' Democratic opponent is more than 40 years his senior. Bill Heller turned 75 on September 3, but looks and sounds as robust as any of his colleagues in the Legislature. In our interview, Heller recounted in detail his extensive career in education, which for many years was concentrated on the mentally disabled. His academic achievements brought him to many different states and jobs over the years, but he ended up settling down in St. Petersburg 19 years ago, and in 2002 became the dean and CEO of the USF- St. Pete campus.

After some dissension during USF-St. Pete's quest for accreditation, Heller stepped down in that role in 2002, but continues to teach special education at the campus.

Earlier this year, when Charlie Crist was debating whether to veto SB 6, he consulted with Heller, whose influence was evident as the governor told reporters how concerned he was about the bill being unfair to teachers in special education. Heller speaks fondly of the governor and his family, and demonstrates why he’s pained to choose between him or Democrat Kendrick Meek in the Senate race.

And it also shows that like Crist, he’s not an overt partisan. Heller says he told former USF President Betty Castor when she recruited him to run in 2006 that he would never sign a loyalty oath for the Democratic Party.

When asked if it gets frustrating being in the minority party, Heller says yes,

“It doesn’t bother me who the majority party is, if we had some balance,” he says. "Right now, it’s so out of balance. I tell people, do your own math. How many bills is a group of 44 out of 120 gonna pass?”

The answer is painfully obvious for Democrats — not many. Which is why it's critical for the state party that they keep District 52 in Democratic hands. House Minority Leader Ron Saunders says the concern is how much Brandes and the state party will spend on the seat.

“Bill Heller is like Santa Claus, “ Saunders says. “Everybody knows and loves him. The problem is the money  — if [Brandes] can self-fund like Rick Scott, people might believe it.”

But Peter Rudy Wallace cautions that Jeff Brandes needs to be positive, saying, “I do think that the voters are much more into substance than sloganeering.”

Whether that will be the case depends on what happens between now and November 2.

In his first television ad for the House District 52 race, Republican candidate Jeff Brandes stands in a lumber yard discussing how his family’s lumber business created hundreds of jobs over the years.  But because of high taxes and government regulation, he complains, those types of businesses are now under siege. “If Tallahassee gets in the way, we’re taking them to the woodshed,” he says, looking sternly into the camera.

Who is it he wants to take to the woodshed?" asks his opponent, Democratic incumbent Bill Heller, during an interview last week in St. Pete campaign headquarters. "It’s his party that’s been in control.”

The ad demonstrates what other Democrats running for re-election statewide say they’re encountering: In a year when Floridians are disgusted with seemingly all their elected officials, the party in power is trying to camouflage who’s been in control of state government.


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