Closing time: Jeff Brandes — integrity, bucking trends and ‘running to the fight’
TALLAHASSEE, FLA. 3/2/22-Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, gives his farewell remarks during Senate Session, Wednesday at the Capitol in Tallahassee. COLIN HACKLEY PHOTO

Brandes is fine with his term limit. “I’m ready to go home.”

While no one would mistake Sen. Jeff Brandes for a Democrat, he has charted his own course on Republican politics. Among other things, exposure to the state’s prison system has turned him into a strong advocate for reforming such features as mandatory minimum sentencing and a second chance at voting rights for felons who have served their time.

At farewell remarks for him in the Senate, numerous colleagues who had fought Brandes on other issues praised his commitment to taking a longer look at Florida’s prisons.

“We share a vision — ‘Please look at criminal justice reform,’” Sen. Darryl Rouson, a Democrat, told Brandes before reciting part of Theodore Roosevelt’s prose, The Man in the Arena.

“You are the epitome of the Somalian warlord,” Rouson said. “You run to the fight.”

Democrat Sen. Shevrin Jones joked about an experience familiar to many: a sinking feeling when a piece of legislation you worked on comes back from Sen. Brandes laden with amendments. It might as well be a rite of passage: Your bill has been “Jeffed up.”

Even so, Jones told Brandes, “Although we see things differently, we always find ourselves in the center one way or another, whether we agree or disagree. And I appreciate you for the integrity that you have.”

That same commitment likely cost Brandes his chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. At the very least, his opposition last March to cutting $2.8 billion from the state’s corrections budget, immediately preceded his reassignment by Senate President Wilton Simpson to a different committee on government oversight.

Simpson denied a cause-and-effect connection; Brandes categorically affirmed one. Par for the Senator’s sometimes bumpy but productive ride through the legislative process.

A St. Petersburg native, Brandes matriculated through Northside Christian School. His mother, Mary Brandes, was the first teacher hired at Northside. (In 2005, she emerged atop a national search as the school’s new headmaster.) A three-sport athlete in high school, he worked summers at the family business, Cox Lumber.

Brandes joined the Army Reserve a week after graduating from high school. His father, Russell Brandes, had served with the Marines in Vietnam, and was “as black and white a person as you can get,” Brandes told Senate colleagues and an audience that included both parents and his wife, Natalie.

“There is probably nobody I know in this world who sees something as either right or wrong as much as my dad,” he said. “That’s just the honest truth.”

Brandes graduated from a military junior college, the Marion Military Institute in Alabama, then earned a business degree from Carson-Newman College in Tennessee. He worked for Marriott hotels but returned to Florida after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The Army called him to active duty in February 2003. A first lieutenant trained as a transportation officer, he led more than 75 convoys over 14 months through war-torn Iraq, part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Back home, he joined the real estate team for Cox Lumber. The family sold the business in 2006. He managed the family’s real estate holdings but felt an urge to do more. A devotee of free-trade, small-government economist Milton Freidman, he saw local schools scraping near the bottom of national performance ratings, while not spending enough on technical education.

He ran for the state House in 2010 on jobs and education, against Democrat incumbent Bill Heller.

“My odds were not great,” Brandes said. “My consultant said, ‘Listen, if you do everything right — everything right — you’re going to win by 1,000 votes.’ And we won that race by 999 votes.”

He jumped to a Senate race representing parts of Pinellas and Hillsborough counties in 2012, where an endorsement from former Gov. Jeb Bush helped him defeat Rep. James Frishe in the primary. He ran unopposed in the General Election but faced plenty of opposition over the ensuing eight years, much of it from his own party.

He bucked Gov. Rick Scott on requiring welfare recipients to be drug tested and was one of just two Republicans to vote against a bill favored by Gov. Ron DeSantis that would limit what public schools can disseminate about gay or transgender issues. The “don’t say gay” bill, as characterized by critics — and framed by advocates as a vote for parental rights over how much touchy material their kindergartners through third graders need to hear from teachers — passed March 8.

Brandes also voted against the “anti-riot bill” DeSantis signed into law last year, which grants immunity in certain circumstances to motorists who drive through protesters who are blocking a road. He knew the political risks each time.

“That’s what I love about our Senate staff, their deep-rooted knowledge of what is right and what is wrong when it comes to public policy. And every now and then, of course, there are quiet nudges to me that say, ‘If you do that, you’re going to get in a lot of trouble.’ I got that a lot.”

After 10 years dominated by the Legislative Sessions for the first three months, Brandes is fine with his term limit.

“When you sign up to get married, you marry Jeff, you don’t marry the Senator,” he said. “I’m ready to go home.”

He hasn’t ruled out running for office again, though it’s too early to say how or when. He has been roughing out the specs for a nonprofit that would seek “data-driven solutions for criminal justice and prison reform,” according to Florida Trend. Republican Majority Leader Debbie Mayfield was among the senators who referenced the plan.

“I hope you do what you say you are going to do,” Mayfield said. “And that was to go out, create your (nonprofit organization), bring us back suggestions on the work you are going to do outside this process on the housing shortage, on prison reform, on insurance reform. I really want to work with you.”

Brandes leaves office with three combined proposals still stalled in committee. A pair of bills would increase the amount of marijuana a physician may prescribe to certain patients and to conduct evaluations via telehealth. Another would authorize business owners to install renewable energy devices on their property, or contractors to sell the electricity generated.

Another sought relief for Robert Earl DuBoise, who spent 37 years in prison, including three on death row, for a rape and murder he did not commit. DuBoise was released Aug. 27, 2020, after DNA evidence thought to have been destroyed excluded him as the suspect. Brandes’ bill would have compensated DuBoise for the wrongful conviction and paid tuition for his education.

He tweaked colleagues on the way out the door.

“I just want to say, I’ve learned something from each and every one of you,” Brandes told Senate colleagues. “To the ones who accepted my amendments I’d like to say thank you. To the ones that didn’t, there’s still time.”

Andrew Meacham

Andrew Meacham is a writer living in St. Petersburg. He worked for the Tampa Bay Times for 14 years, retiring in December 2018 as a performing arts critic. You can contact Andrew at [email protected].

One comment

  • RonDeSantisSucks

    March 14, 2022 at 5:56 pm

    If all Republicans were like Jeff Brandes, this state, and the party, would be 1000x better. Republicans, when you vote in the primaries, please vote for people like him. As a moderate democrat who used to be a Republican, I admire him the most out of everyone in the Florida legislature, even though I don’t always agree with him.

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