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Race for Pinellas Senate seat getting nasty early

TALLAHASSEE — The battle between a pair of Pinellas County House members for an open Senate seat is getting mean, and it's just getting started.

Reps. Jeff Brandes and Jim Frishe both want to be the new senator from District 22, which takes in South Pinellas and a chunk of Tampa.

Brandes got a big head start in a way that Frishe calls "unethical" and "gaming the system." Brandes says he is following the law that applies equally to everybody.

Brandes, 36, a wealthy member of the Cox Lumber family business, raised $143,000 in his bid for re-election to the House, even as he publicly voiced interest in becoming a senator. It all depended on how legislators reshaped district lines in this redistricting year.

On June 1, Brandes withdrew as a House candidate and closed his fundraising account and one minute later became a Senate candidate instead.

Brandes could have transferred all of his unspent House campaign money to his new Senate fund, but that would have required offering all donors pro-rated refunds, a time-consuming burden in the midst of a 10-week sprint to the Aug. 14 primary.

Instead, Brandes must dispose of the unspent House money in other ways.

But what irks Frishe is that Brandes also can legally ask donors for a second contribution of up to $500 for his Senate campaign.

In a letter to hundreds of Tampa Bay Republicans, Brandes wrote "in hopes that you will once again consider investing in my leadership … by matching your previous contribution.

"By opening a new account," Brandes wrote, "all contribution limits have been reset."

Brandes' campaign treasurer, accountant Nancy Watkins, said the practice has been legal since 1993. But Frishe doesn't like it.

"I'm not sure it's the ethical way to do business," Frishe said. "Gaming the system with other people's money is just the sort of thing that makes people crazy."

"It's following the letter of the law," Brandes said. "That option is open to all candidates."

Asked why he didn't also open a House re-election fund, Frishe said: "My momma taught me better than that."

Brandes withdrew as a House candidate at 10:51 a.m. on June 1, state records show, and he became a Senate candidate a minute later, at 10:52 a.m.

Through March, Brandes had $101,000 in his House account. He cannot use the money to support his Senate campaign, but he does not have to reveal how he spent the money until Sept. 1, 90 days after the date of his withdrawal and long after voters will have nominated him or Frishe as Tampa Bay's newest senator. (No Democrat qualified to run for the open seat.)

"We will comply with the laws of the state of Florida in how we dispose of those funds," Brandes said.

He can donate the money to charities or to a political party or committee.

But Frishe's suspicions were further stoked when TV ads promoting Brandes as a House candidate surfaced in recent days, more than a week after he declared for the Senate.

"That's a bait-and-switch," Frishe said. "Is it legal to run an advertisement for an office you're not running for?"

Brandes at first said that was impossible, but it did happen.

Bright House Networks sent Brandes a letter of apology on June 13, citing "human error" in the airing of Brandes-for-House commercials on Rays games, Fox News and Bay News 9 from June 10-12, or nearly two weeks after Brandes became a Senate candidate.

The letter said the cable outlet "received instructions" to switch Brandes' TV ad June 7 but didn't.

"A traffic error was made," Bright House sales manager Jennifer Beaver told Brandes' campaign. "We apologize for this error."

Said Brandes: "Obviously, we're not happy about that."

Brandes owned up to a second paperworkerror, which the campaign said it discovered after a Times/Herald inquiry.

Brandes' media buyer, the firm booking his TV ads, continued to list him as a House candidate even after May 24, the date his House ads were to have ended. "They used an old House form," said Nick Hansen, a Brandes campaign consultant.

The firm has filed a proper document with Tampa Bay TV outlets.

Frishe said he suspects Brandes used campaign money from his defunct House account to prepay for time for Senate ads, a charge Brandes vehemently denied.

"Absolutely not," Brandes said.

He defended his decision to run TV ads as a House candidate while pondering a Senate bid.

"My House ads were just meant to give me maximum flexibility," Brandes said. "Why take anything off the table?"

Frishe, 62, a real estate broker, relies for strategic advice on Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, an astute student of Florida's campaign finance laws.

Latvala also aspires to be Senate president in 2016, a post decided by other senators. Frishe is in his corner. Brandes is not as of now.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

Race for Pinellas Senate seat getting nasty early 06/15/12 [Last modified: Friday, June 15, 2012 9:49pm]
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