ST. PETERSBURG — The 75-year-old professor in state Rep. Bill Heller gave way Tuesday to the Democrat stuck in a pitched re-election fight.
Heller, a two-term Florida House member, went after Republican challenger Jeff Brandes at a forum by the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club, accusing Brandes of distorting Heller's record and leaving voters guessing about the specifics of Brandes' own plans.
Heller borrowed from Brandes' signature campaign slogan of taking untrustworthy lawmakers to the "woodshed" — a nod at Brandes' family's former ownership of Cox Lumber.
"Who exactly are you planning to take behind the woodshed, and what are you going to do once you get them there?" asked Heller, telling Brandes, "You talk more about being a member of Tallahassee's majority party than about what you will do, what legislation you would offer."
Brandes accuses Heller of seeking to raise taxes and increase government regulation. But Heller says the attacks distort his work against bad measures by the Republican-led Legislature and his work for voter-approved measures, such as a tax increase in Pinellas for teacher pay in 2004.
Backed by the Republican Party of Florida, Brandes, 34, a real estate director in his family's development company, has hit television and mailboxes aggressively with advertising. Heller and state Democrats have begun to respond likewise — although less prominently — in swing District 52, which has slightly more Democrats than Republicans.
Results of an internal Republican Party poll provided Tuesday to the Times show Brandes leading Heller, 42 to 39 percent. The poll, a survey of 300 voters on Sunday, had a margin of error of 5.8 percentage points. However, Heller said Brandes' attacks bore the mark of a campaign trailing.
For his part, Brandes stuck to his campaign themes of adding jobs and limiting government. He didn't give specifics when asked which departments he would cut as part of his campaign promises. Instead, he said cuts need to be "across the board."
When other candidates at the Tiger Bay forum answered whether they were insiders or outsiders, he also declined to answer without any explanation. He also made the accusation that Heller is "trying to leave his own party as we stand here and move to the middle. And the reality is that simply isn't true."
Their banter contrasted with debate between Republican Jack Latvala and Democrat Nina Hayden for the state Senate District 16 seat. Latvala, a former senator, and Hayden, a Pinellas School Board member, complimented each other on running positive campaigns. Latvala has dominated the fundraising and is the front-runner to win Nov. 2.
Instead, they merely disagreed over supporting President Barack Obama's health care and stimulus spending — Latvala against it, Hayden for it. He touted his experience, while she promised to be a new voice.
"I don't know about you," Latvala said, "but all this talk about woodsheds makes my butt hurt."
David DeCamp can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.