ST. PETERSBURG — Incumbents are usually a lock to win the state Legislature in Florida, which makes state Rep. Bill Heller something of an anomaly.
At 75, the former dean and chief executive officer at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg is fending off a well-financed challenge from a 34-year-old political novice named Jeff Brandes.
"I'm used to the Republicans targeting me," said Heller, who teaches special education at USF. "It's nothing new. It's the district."
Florida has few legislative districts like House District 52. Covering portions of Largo, Clearwater, unincorporated Pinellas County and north St. Petersburg, the seat is drawing statewide interest because it's split almost evenly between Republicans and Democrats.
That pretty much makes it a tossup each election year. Before Heller won in 2006, Republican Frank Farkas had it for eight years. In his first time out, Heller was able to defeat Republican Angelo Cappelli, a candidate with twice the campaign funding and backed by then St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker.
Heller faced little challenge in 2008, but this year the district has slightly more Republicans than Democrats, leading Republicans to target it again. The first candidate they backed, former insurance businessman Connie Deneault, quit in May.
Before Deneault announced he was leaving, top Republicans were on the hunt for a replacement. State Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said he met with Brandes before he announced, warning him how tough a campaign against Heller would be. Brandes would need to campaign aggressively to build a presence in the district, said Weatherford, who is assisting incoming House Speaker Dean Cannon in overseeing crucial campaigns.
After Deneault dropped out, Republicans shifted his campaign's management and consulting team to Brandes. The party seems happy with his campaign so far, and has poured more than $55,000 into his war chest compared to the $34,000 Democrats have given Heller.
"There's a good reason — there are people looking for someone new," Weatherford said of the GOP's support of Brandes. "First of all, it's a good year to be a Republican."
Brandes' lack of public experience helps him in a year in which voters are disenchanted with the economy and politics as usual, said Weatherford, who is expected to become House speaker in 2013.
"He's kind of fed up with the situation in Florida," he said "There's an opportunity to bring in new blood."
But being new to politics doesn't fully explain the GOP's backing. Tom Cuba, who's running for another St. Petersburg state House district, hasn't received money from the Republican Party in his challenge of Democrat Rick Kriseman.
One bonus feature that Brandes has over Cuba is a personal fortune that he estimates at about $11.7 million. His family owned Cox Lumber Co., which was sold in 2006. Brandes said he still manages the family's real estate interests in Florida and the Cayman Islands. He personally loaned the campaign $50,000, and raised at least $14,000 from family.
Brandes said he's a better candidate because he knows people through his family.
"If you're going to run for this office in this district, you need to be from St. Petersburg," he said. "You need to run in that vein of having those relationships that come from your mom's and dad's schools. When you're walking down the street, you're walking into people you know."
And yet, Brandes is trying to position himself as the anti-establishment candidate, even with the family connections and contributions from heavyweights such as Mel Sembler in St. Petersburg.
In TV ads and a mailer, he has promised to take wayward leaders in Tallahassee to the "woodshed," despite the fact that the Republicans controlling the Legislature are the ones directing his bid. In an interview, Brandes declined to identify who would go to said "woodshed," but said it referred to anyone misspending taxes or "party funds" — an allusion to the state GOP's scandals over spending.
Heller has poked fun of Brandes' metaphor. Last week his campaign sent a mailer comparing his long record with that of Brandes, describing his rival's job as "woodshed owner."
"The people he says he would take to the woodshed have to be the ones who have been in charge the past 14 years," Heller said. "And they're the ones financing his campaign."
Brandes hews closely to the party line. He's prolife and antitax.
"There's so much uncertainty with the economy," Brandes said. "Employers won't hire. One position the Legislature can take is say it won't raise taxes."
He supports cutting red tape, though he provides few details as to which programs or departments he would cut.
"There are regulations that need to be modified," he said.
Still, he said he would have voted against the Republican-led teacher merit pay bill, which Gov. Charlie Christ vetoed.
Heller calls himself a moderate. Representing a district so evenly divided, he'll often support ideas normally associated with conservatives, such as school choice and vouchers.
"I go where my constituents tell me to go," said Heller, who voted against the merit pay bill.
Heller said his minority status provides a check on Republican excess in Tallahassee. He said he's an advocate for things the state needs that the Republicans oppose, such as greater spending in public schools and more transparency in government.
He questions how Brandes can portray himself as an outsider.
"The Republican Party wouldn't be supporting him if he were an outsider," Heller said.
Brandes counters that his job managing real estate for his family's business gives him the security he needs to be an independent voice in Tallahassee.
"I don't need this job," he said. "I can stand up to my own party."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or [email protected]