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  1. Florida Politics

Brandes, McLauchlan squaring off in Senate District 22 race

Voters in the competitive state Senate District 22 have been known to swing from left to right when it comes to representation.

The behemoth district, which stretches from St. Pete Beach to South Tampa, went for President Barack Obama and Democratic U.S. congressional candidate Alex Sink in the past. But two years ago, voters sent conservative Jeff Brandes, a Republican from St. Petersburg, to represent them in Tallahassee.

With less than a month to go before Election Day, the two candidates for the seat are focused on highlighting their stark differences.

Brandes, 38, said he has spent the past two years championing issues like education and charity reform.

His Democratic challenger, University of South Florida St. Petersburg political science professor Judithanne McLauchlan, 46, of Madeira Beach, said she's best equipped to work for middle class Tampa Bay families.

"I've never seen a state Capitol as corrupt as we have in Tallahassee," she said. "Well-heeled lobbyists are basically writing our laws."

Brandes, who has raised almost three times as much as McLauchlan, said he is not really paying attention to what McLauchlan is doing.

That doesn't mean negative ads and fliers haven't shown up in voters' mailboxes.

The campaign has heated up over the last several weeks, with Brandes and the Republican Party of Florida attacking McLauchlan for a past bankruptcy. Her allies have fired back about the lawmaker's wealth and opposition to Medicaid expansion and other issues affecting the poor to middle class.

"I have a pretty proven track record of success," Brandes said in a recent interview with the Tampa Bay Times. "I try to be an independent voice in Tallahassee. Sometimes I'm the only 'no' voice on the board. I really try to look at (issues) individually."

McLauchlan said one of Brandes' votes — he was the only dissenting vote in the Senate against Medicaid expansion — has been particularly costly to middle class families.

She said her own experience shows that. She said that years ago, she declared bankruptcy because medical bills forced her to go into debt and live off credit cards.

Brandes, whose net worth is reportedly $14 million, has attacked on that point, saying a bankruptcy is relevant when someone is expected to deal with a multimillion-dollar state budget.

McLauchlan, a first-time candidate, also said ads directed at her are full of lies, pointing to one in particular that suggests she favors a state income tax. She doesn't.

PolitiFact Florida, a fact checking website of the Times, recently rated the Republican party ad as "Mostly False."

McLauchlan, whose own ads have attacked Brandes for being a career politician, said her opponent, whose family owns Tibbetts Lumber in St. Petersburg, is out of touch with local priorities.

McLauchlan supports Greenlight Pinellas, a transit tax voters will be asked to approve Nov. 4.

Brandes has attacked the initiative and called for investigations into how the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority spent funds to inform residents about the plan, which would increase the sales tax by a penny.

McLauchlan supports medical marijuana. Brandes said he supports it too, but doesn't believe it should happen through a constitutional amendment going before voters.

"The Legislature is the right body to make these types of decisions," he said.

Though both candidates have criticized Duke Energy for its recent billing and refund fiasco, McLauchlan accused Brandes of only recently speaking out against the utility.

According to finance reports filed at the end of September, Brandes had raised $672,736 in monetary contributions to McLauchlan's $242,478.

McLauchlan said she's not worried about that. The fact that voters have such a stark choice makes the race competitive, she said.

"It is true that most places in Florida, voters aren't really getting a choice," she said. "I think the difference in this race is that people are tuning in."

Contact Kameel Stanley at kstanley@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @cornandpotatoes.

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