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Old rival returns to challenge mayor

(Ran West edition)

On a June night almost 19 years ago outside City Hall, an angry resident grabbed a council member by the shirt collar, called him names and allegedly threatened, "I'll get you."

The resident dropped off the city's political radar soon after. But recently Randy Heine has made a comeback and revived the old rivalry.

He is facing off in the race for Pinellas Park mayor against incumbent Bill Mischler.

In a way, the mayor's race began in earnest about 2 1/2 years ago when Heine came to a City Council meeting to object to religious overtones during the meeting. Since then, he's used the council meetings to express his views, grandstand a bit and pepper Mischler with questions and the occasional insult.

Heine has provoked passionate opposition among Mischler's supporters, city employees and other council members who criticize his tactics, his views and his background.

The council has forbidden him to make "political" statements during public comment - although Mischler's supporters have criticized Heine at meetings while praising the mayor.

In recent months, city boards turned down his applications for membership. Some opponents have even mocked Heine's stutter behind his back.

Others think Heine's message is valid, but wonder if it's being lost because so many find the messenger objectionable.

To understand the 2006 mayor's race, it's necessary to go back to that night in June 1987. Heine, Mischler and others were at City Hall awaiting election results.

Heine, who had unsuccessfully tried to get on several city boards, said a council member at the time told him Mischler was behind it all.

He confronted Mischler outside and called him a "Christian hypocrite," grabbing him by the shirt.

Mischler told Heine there were others better qualified to be on the city's code enforcement board, according to a police report.

"Mischler stated that Heine then grabbed him by the front of his shirt by the collar area and was pulled toward Heine," the report reads.

"Mischler further indicated he couldn't recall Heine's exact words; however, Heine made reference to Mischler's being a "a scumbag Christian,' "that he would burn in hell,' and that "I'll get you.' "

Mischler said he was going to forget the incident but that then-assistant city attorney Tom Reynolds advised him not to. The situation was settled, Mischler said, when Heine agreed to behave properly in the future.

Today, Mischler denies that he tried to keep Heine off any boards. But, he concedes, "I would have a hard time putting him on a board. . . . You have to be able to work with others. I think he's lacking. . . . It'd cause chaos."

Heine said last week, "He lied to me. I don't like liars. . . . I was right. He is a Christian hypocrite. I can see he has a dark side. . . . I was just trying to get on a board to help my community. I was hurt that night. He hurt my feelings."

The two went their separate ways.

- - -

Mischler served as a council member for 18 years and became mayor in 1998. The last time he faced opposition was in 1984, which he says is a measure of his popularity and residents' approval of him.

He's been a high profile mayor, especially since his retirement a few years ago.

He can be found most mornings in the Parkside Cafe or McDonald's talking to constituents who greet him with smiles and handshakes. The Parkside has become a kind of casual office that he uses to meet with business people who want to come to Pinellas Park or move elsewhere in the city.

He's always with the city's monthly "business visitation team." He attends breakfast with a multidenominational group of ministers.

He helps needy city residents, whether it's sawing off low-hanging limbs or mowing yards. He attends ribbon cuttings. He formed People Helping People, a group that provides aid to those in need.

He's also quick to welcome people to the city during events at the bandshell, from Country in the Park to the Hispanic festival to the annual ecumenical Easter service. He has, however, avoided appearing at the Pagan Pride Festival.

On the other hand, Heine has spent the past 19 years building businesses. One is a ministorage facility. Another is Rockin Cards and Gifts.

The store, on Park Boulevard, is just outside the city limits. Heine caused an uproar a year or so ago when he told council members he would never annex it into the city.

Not only was that statement controversial, so is the store. As the sign outside has advertised at different times, it has "saucy costumes" and hookahs, among the merchandise.

Most people call it a head shop, which Heine angrily denies. He has threatened to sue people for defamation for classifying the shop as such.

Heine is emphatic that he sells nothing illegal. And he's quick to tell people that he was "set up" when deputies arrested him and charged him with multiple felonies in 1998.

Some were associated with one of his businesses where Heine sold "urine-cleansing" products. He was also charged with possession of marijuana and of drug paraphernalia, according to state police records. The charges were all dropped.

Heine points out that he's not the only political figure to be arrested: "So have Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela. . . . In every one of those cases, I was not guilty. . . . I was set up. They dropped the charges."

Voters, he said, "aren't going to be fooled."

Heine said he decided to become involved in city politics again because the "good old boy" system needs to be broken.

Mischler, he said, does not represent all the people or he would remove the Bible from the dais, which provoked a citywide debate a couple of years ago.

The council's treatment of him, including limiting his time and topics at meetings, is emblematic of the way they treat others who disagree with them, Heine said.

"They are stifling freedom of speech. They are taking us in the wrong direction. It's my destiny to make this wrong right," Heine said.

Pinellas Park voters will decide that come March 7.