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Outgoing Florida Sen. Jeff Brandes still chasing a legacy in prison reform

This session will be Sen. Jeff Brandes’ final one, termed out after 10 years as a state senator and two as a representative.
Sen. Jeff Brandes, photographed at his district office, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, in St. Petersburg.
Sen. Jeff Brandes, photographed at his district office, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Jan. 5

It’s a story Jeff Brandes tells often.

In 2014, a Department of Corrections official stood before a panel of Florida lawmakers and described how prison guards had walked an inmate into a scalding hot shower and left him there, pleading, as his skin peeled off.

Brandes, a Republican state senator from St. Petersburg, listened in disbelief.

Newly minted as a member of the Senate’s criminal justice committee, he felt out of place. It wasn’t his expertise. Senate leaders put him on the committee anyway.

Over the next few years, the seemingly arbitrary assignment would change Jeff Brandes. He went from a tourist in Florida’s criminal justice world to an authority determined to make sweeping change to what he saw as a crisis.

The role pit him, at times, against high-ranking Republican lawmakers and powerful special interests.

“The challenge is some legislators don’t know what they believe and want to be told what they believe,” Brandes said. “It’s never hard to step up if you truly believe in something.”

The legislative session that starts Tuesday will be Brandes’ 10th as a state senator. Because of term limits, it will also be his last.

Though criminal justice has become part of the Brandes brand, he hasn’t delivered tangible policy change. Every session for the past few years, he has filed bills aimed at reducing the prison population through programs like medical release, earlier gain time and reduced mandatory-minimum sentencing. And every year, those proposals have died or been watered down.

He said he knows his agenda this year will again face long odds. But with correctional officers in short supply and a swollen prison population, Brandes said, the entire system could see catastrophe, so he’ll try.

“I have a vision for how Florida should look like,” he said. “We’re not there to be part of the collective. We’re there to be individuals.”

A political maverick

Outwardly, Brandes, 45, seems built for battle.

A former high school football defensive back, he stands more than six feet tall. His athletic bulk makes him an imposing presence in the Capitol’s elevators, hallways and cramped meeting rooms.

Yet he speaks softly and debates eloquently, disarming would-be adversaries.

In many ways, Brandes is not unlike his Republican colleagues that control the Legislature. He’s a fiscal conservative who advocates for small government. But his libertarian views often make him an outsider.

Brandes was born in St. Petersburg, to parents Mary and Russ Brandes, and graduated from Northside Christian School, where his mother was headmaster.

He went on to attend Marion Military Institute in Alabama and earn a degree in business administration from Carson-Newman College in Tennessee. After 9/11, he joined the Army Reserve and served in the Iraq War. When he returned home, he worked in real estate for his family business, Cox Lumber Co.

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He made his first bid for elected office in 2010 against an incumbent state representative, a moderate Democrat named Bill Heller.

Nick Hansen is the GOP strategist who recruited Brandes to run. He said he knew the race would be tough, but saw a way to eke out a win.

“And we ended up winning by the skin of our teeth,” Hansen recalled.

It was one of the most expensive races in Pinellas County, and Brandes — who has a net worth of about $19 million according to financial disclosures — contributed $50,000 of his own money. In TV commercials, he promised to “take people to the woodshed,” if they tried to increase taxes or add regulations.

Even as a rookie lawmaker, Brandes voted against bills that were popular within the GOP. But Brandes and those close to him say he’s never been one for hyper-partisan politics. He’s driven instead by his “true North,” and the idea of civil liberties.

That included a 2011 proposal supported by former Republican Gov. Rick Scott to drug test welfare recipients. The governor’s office pressured him to change his mind, he said. But he voted no anyway.

After just two years in the House, in a surprise move, Brandes challenged a fellow Republican, Rep. Jim Frishe, decades his senior, for an open seat in the Florida Senate. Brandes, positioning himself as an outsider, easily won.

In the Senate, Brandes cemented his reputation as unafraid to buck his party’s leaders on high-profile issues. In 2013, he was the lone member of the Senate to vote against Medicaid expansion, siding with a more conservative House in a move that denied insurance for more than 800,000 residents.

Former Senate President Tom Lee said he appreciated Brandes’ willingness to dissent. In debates, he added, Brandes was always well prepared.

“I never saw him stumped by a question,” he said.

Last year, Brandes again opposed the party on several high-profile issues, including a bill championed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to limit street protests, a proposal to punish social media companies for flagging users’ content and a commission to oversee gambling in Florida.

The votes cost him. That session, Brandes served as the chairperson of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He was supposed to hold the position through 2022. But Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, removed him in July, installing a close ally in his place.

When asked about Brandes, Simpson provided three anodyne statements to the Times praising Brandes’ commitment to his family and the military, and thanking him for his service to the Senate. He made no mention of his decision to remove his chairmanship.

Though stripped of power, Brandes feels he was ultimately vindicated.

The two bills he voted against were both deemed unconstitutional. And in November, a federal judge threw out Florida’s gaming compact, dismantling the gambling commission Brandes had opposed.

‘Second chances’

Brandes never intended to champion criminal justice policy, he said. But his interest in the subject dovetails with his Methodist faith and his libertarian ideals.

The ideas of mercy and grace motivate him, he said. He looks at a system filled with people who have been incarcerated for decades and sees organizational disarray, huge operation costs and staffing issues, but also a lack of opportunity.

“People deserve second chances,” Brandes said.

Though the most sweeping reform policies Brandes has pitched haven’t passed, some advocates credit Brandes with changing the culture in the Senate.

Greg Newburn, former Florida Director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said legislators for years focused on making punishments harsher. More recently, however, proposals like a 2017 bill to create a new mandatory minimum sentence for fentanyl possession faced a fight.

Howard Simon, the former director of the Florida American Civil Liberties Union, commended Brandes for tackling difficult criminal justice issues and confronting opposition from high-powered lobbying groups like the sheriff’s association.

But Simon also pointed to a measure that Brandes championed in 2019 that blunted the effect of Amendment 4, a voter-approved ballot measure allowing felons to restore their voting rights.

Brandes’ bill required felons to pay their court fines and fees first, effectively disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of people.

“He, I think, bears substantial responsibility for leaving the state of Florida with a shamefully unjust voting system,” Simon said.

In the weeks and months ahead, Brandes will have another opportunity to try changing the system he has argued is so deeply flawed.

But he doesn’t consider the session his last stand.

He said he’s open to running for office again, although not immediately. He wants to be home until his four children are out of school.

After session, he said he plans to start a nonprofit focused on some of his policy passions, including criminal justice. He sees these ideas as inevitable, moves that will happen whether in the next year or next decade.

“You feel like Sisysphus rolling the ball up the hill to watch it roll back down again,” Brandes said. “You have to have hope.”

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