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New Faces to the Right

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  • | 4:27 p.m. January 14, 2011
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What. New state and county politicians representing the Gulf Coast.

Issue. Term limits foster musical chairs for county and state seats.

Impact. Newly elected Gulf Coast politicians are 92% Republican.

The national revolution in November was mirrored on the Gulf Coast, as the 26 newly elected county and state officials are decidedly more conservative.

Of the 26, a total of seven county commission and legislative seats previously held by Democrats are now in the hands of freshmen Republican lawmakers. None went from Republican to Democrat.

Two state Senate seats, three House seats and two county commission seats flipped to the GOP in the eight-county region. Pinellas County voters cast ballots in four of those seven races: a Senate seat, both House seats and the district two county commission seat.

And across the region, they're not exactly all rookie politicians. They range in age from 28 to 70 averaging 49 years old, and more than a third of them have represented constituents before.

By profession, nine are lawyers, one of whom — Collier County Commissioner Georgia Hiller — is also a former certified public accountant.

Six are involved in small businesses or other business ventures; six are, or have been, in real estate, property management or real estate development; two are community relations executives for public entities; one is a former county commissioner elected to the state Senate, one is a community activist and one is a plastic surgeon. Only one has direct ties to education.

Seven are also pretty familiar names around Gulf Coast political circles, such as state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, the first term-limited state senator to be later re-elected. Latvala served previously from 1994-2002. He's one of nine who have previously held an elected office in state or local government, though one was a state legislator in another state.

Another recycled politician is Lee County Commissioner John Manning. First elected to the county commission in 1988, following service on the Cape Coral city council, Manning served the county for 12 years. He was appointed in July by then Gov. Charlie Crist to replace Bob Janes, who died March 10. Manning was subsequently elected in November.

Another Crist appointee is the newest of the new: Sarasota County Commissioner Christine Robinson, appointed last month to fill the final two years of departing Commissioner Shannon Staub's four-year term.

All but two of the 26 newbies are Republicans. The two new Democrats — Manatee County Commissioner Michael Gallen and Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller, Jr. — each defeated an incumbent Democrat in their primary.

Miller is a former state senator and House member, and also the only African-American in the bunch. He's part of a triumvirate of former state legislators who now hold three of the seven commission seats. (See sidebar.)

There are seven women, all Republicans.

The youngest new face is 28-year old state Rep. James “J.W.” Grant, R-Tampa, an attorney, and son of former state Sen. John Grant. But he's not the only under-30 new face in government.

State Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, a real estate appraiser, turned 29 in August.

At the other end of the age spectrum is 70-year old Republican Charlotte County Commissioner Stephen Deutsch, a former owner of a real estate and housing management company in Rhode Island. He's also a former state senator and House member from there.

The 'Energizer Bunny': Robin DiSabatino

She's lived in Bradenton for only six years, and now Robin DiSabatino, 57, is the District 4 commissioner for Manatee County.

Originally from Wilmington, Del., “with strong conservative values,” she first came to the area in 2002, before moving permanently two years later. A Michael Saunders broker-associate since 2004, DiSabatino holds a Bachelor of Science degree in home economics from the University of Delaware, and a paralegal degree.

DiSabatino says she first got motivated to run for the seat in 2008. “During the last presidential election I got very involved with my Republican party — and had some marches on Main Street down in Sarasota — and got very interested in moving on and getting involved with Republican clubs,” she says. “One thing led to another. ... I didn't want to let it go.”

Like most conservatives, she's focused on the economy, taxes, and crime.

Her urban district in south Manatee stretches from Cortez Road south to the Sarasota County line and from Sarasota Bay to east of U.S. 301. It includes the Bayshore neighborhood around State College of Florida and also Pride Park, a lower income neighborhood with its share of socio-economic challenges

“The three main issues that were paramount, of course, were jobs, communities facing economic hard times, and we wanted to keep our taxes down,” DiSabatino reflects about her 2010 campaign.

DiSabatino, who is married to a retired periodontist and has a daughter, has been spending lots of time going to neighborhood meetings and gotten involved in the South County Community Redevelopment Agency and the 14th Street West CRA.

“Their main issues are mainly law enforcement related, safety, noise and code enforcement,” says DiSabatino. “That's number one on my list and also getting people back to work,” she adds. Her long-range goal is improving safety “up and down U.S. 41” with sidewalks and lighting.

The commissioner is also working closely with the county's neighborhood services department, which oversees corporate incentive programs targeted both at new and existing businesses. She says the county has granted incentives for five companies to locate in the county and that others are in the works.

Like the “Energizer bunny” she is, DiSabatino would like to keep going and going.

The county is looking at asking voters to approve the economic development property tax exemption allowed under state law. Expect DiSabatino, who also serves on the county's Port Authority and the Civic Center Authority, to help lead the effort.

“I thought my district needed a fresh face,” she says, “and energy to revitalize our district.”

Restless Native: State Rep. Jeff Brandes

When you've led more than 75 convoys through regions of Iraq during 14 months of duty, taking on a Democratic incumbent with a voter registration advantage for a Florida House is not daunting.

State Rep. Jeffrey Paul Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, outfought incumbent Bill Heller to win the District 52 seat in November. Despite a district with less than 37% Republican voter registration, the St. Pete native rode the Republican wave — with the help of independent voters — to win by 999 votes, 51.2% of the vote.

“I had a desire to serve when I got out of the military,” he reflects.

Hard work and community service were ingrained in Brandes early on. He worked in the lumberyard of the family business, Cox Lumber Co., which his grandfather bought for $1,500 in 1949.

It grew from the smallest lumberyard in St. Pete to 28 yards in Florida with $400 million in sales until it was sold to HD Supply, a Home Depot company. He says he held most of the jobs the lumber company had.

Now 34, Brandes has accomplished more in his 15 years of adulthood than most do in a lifetime. After high school, where he played three sports, he went on to graduate from Marion Military Institute in Alabama and then received his business administration degree from Tennessee's Carson-Newman College.

Brandes then moved to Grand Cayman to work in the hospitality industry for Marriott Corp. After Sept. 11, 2001, he returned to Florida and joined a local U.S. Army Reserve unit and started his real estate career as an agent for ERA Lambrecht. His father and grandfather are also military veterans.

In early 2003, Brandes was called to active duty to fight in Operation Enduring Freedom in Iraq and was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division as a 1st Lieutenant working as a transportation officer.

He attended St. Pete's Northside Christian School, where his mother was at first a teacher, then principal and finally headmaster. Something must have rubbed off from that side of the family too.

Brandes is passionate about education reform and sits on the House education committee. “I ran on a platform of jobs and education,” says Brandes, who represents one of the worst performing school districts in the state and the nation. (See “Price of Failure,” Business Review, Dec. 24 issue.) He's looking forward to working with the Scott administration on what he terms “a paradigm shift” for education.

Part of that shift is a greater focus on technical education. “That's an area we've truly missed out on,” says Brandes. “I look forward to working with our local technical schools for kids on the fringe on dropping out by offering more technical training.”

“Giving parents options is the most dramatic thing we can do,” he says. “Right now they have no choice.”

Brandes supports school choice grants and vouchers. “I went to a private school,” he says. “I want other kids to have that opportunity.”

Budget Hawk: Georgia Hiller

Georgia Hiller is an unabashedly pro-business straight-talker in any language — she speaks five of them, two fluently.

In her first meeting, after other commissioners wanted to know why there was a second court reporter at a board meeting, Hiller defended the right of the court reporter to be in attendance, saying it wasn't the commission's business to know who the reporter was working for.

Hiller is also putting her straight-talking skills to use to turn around a business climate known statewide for being anti-business. The highest impact fees in the state are already coming down in the county, and she's looking for more ways to lower them in hopes of cutting the county's 12.4% unemployment rate.

“I'm committed to less taxes and less regulation,” Hiller says right out of the box.”

Call her a budget hawk eyeing future prey — next year's budget. Hiller says she'll be looking to eliminate unnecessary expenditures while trying to maintain levels of service.

The self-described fiscal conservative comes with impressive credentials beyond her mastery of languages. Hiller, 50, is an attorney and a former certified public accountant with “extensive experience in auditing,” according to the county's website.

She earned her law degree from Florida State University, graduating with honors. Hiller also holds two bachelor degrees: one in accounting and the other in international business. And she has an M.B.A. from Florida Atlantic University.

“It's obvious to what degree government can be accountable to the way it accounts for public funds,” says Hiller, who's keeping a keen eye on a proposal she opposes to spend $50 million to lure Jackson Labs.

“From a business standpoint, it makes no sense to invest in a company like Jackson when we are losing major employers on the other hand.” Hiller points to Arthrex, an existing company in the county that would like to expand, but has expressed “concerns about promotion of corporate welfare, crony capitalism.”

A widow after her husband Tony Hiller died from a sudden cardiac arrest in 2007, she's active in the American Heart Association, and a number of other community groups. Her fundraising efforts for a defibrillator program resulted in every sheriff's vehicle now carrying an automatic external defibrillator.

“I've always been very committed to my community and public service,” Hiller says. “My long-term involvement is what precipitated my desire to move into this position. In order to do more, this is what I wanted to do.”

Old faces, new places

There is a long list of punch lines to the old joke that begins, “Old politicians never die...” — they just lose their hot air, they just smell that way, they turn into radio talk show hosts, they just run once too often, and so on.

But, nine veteran Gulf Coast politicians have managed to get elected to new, and even old, offices. That's likely to become a more common occurrence due to term limits for legislators setting off rounds of musical chairs for politicians.

State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, became the first term-limited senator to be re-elected after first serving from 1994-2002.

Sen. Victor Crist was term-limited, so he ran and won a Hillsborough County Commission seat, effectively swapping seats with former county commissioner turned state Sen. Jim Norman, R-Tampa.

And former legislators Sandra Murman and Les Miller, Jr. also won Hillsborough County Commission seats.

Former Sarasota County Commissioner Ray Pilon is now state Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota, having defeated incumbent Democrat state Rep. Keith Fitzgerald. Further south, Stephen Deutsch, a former Rhode Island legislator, won a Charlotte County Commission seat.

And state Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Wellington, whose district crosses the state from Palm Beach County to Charlotte and Lee counties, was a councilwoman for the Village of Wellington from 2002-2010.

In Lee County, John Manning returned to his old county commission seat in July when he was appointed to fill the seat of Bob Janes, who died last March. Manning then won the seat for four more years in November.

Sometimes old politicians don't die, they just find other government jobs.


Sandra Murman, R

Age: 60

Job: Community activist, former state representative

Lee County

John Manning, R

Age: 60

Job: Local government consultant, Malcolm Pirnie; former Lee County commissioner

Manatee County

Robin DiSabatino, R

Age: 57

Job: Real estate agent (referral status)

Michael Gallen, D

Age: 36

Job: Teacher and attorney

Pasco County

Henry Wilson, Jr., R

Age: 37

Job: Former small business owner, managed care director

Pinellas County

Norm Roche, R

Age: 49

Job: Former business development and environmental health and safety officer for Gannettt Fleming, Inc.

Sarasota County

Christine Robinson, R

Age: 36

Job: Attorney


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