Man in the Middle
Sen. Jeff Brandes leaves behind a legacy of big ideas and principled dissents
Last March, as lawmakers cobbled together a spending plan in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, a Senate budget subcommittee rolled out a proposal to cut $140 million from the Department of Corrections $2.8-billion budget — a move expected to result in at least four state prisons closing.
The move rattled Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican and then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee who has been spearheading prison reform efforts for years. Worried the closures would “accelerate the collapse” of the state’s corrections system, he peppered Sen. Keith Perry, the subcommittee’s chairman, with questions about who was really behind it. “We’ve heard as a committee the Department of Corrections come in and say they would not recommend closing any prisons. Where did, specifically, this language come from? It doesn’t seem like it came from the chair,” Brandes said.
Perry responded that the spending proposal was a collaborative effort between himself, Senate budget chief Kelly Stargel and Senate President Wilton Simpson and emphasized it was just a “starting point” in negotiations with the House, but Brandes was recalcitrant. Several minutes later, when Perry attempted to move the budget proposal along by unanimous consent, Brandes objected and requested a roll call vote that he hoped would stop the plan from going forward because of the objections from senior leadership at the Florida Department of Corrections.
The budget got approved anyway after a Democrat flipped his vote, but the public clash didn’t go unnoticed by party leaders. Five days later, Brandes was left out of a bill-signing ceremony for the COVID-19 liability protection measure he had sponsored, and last July, Simpson stripped Brandes of his Judiciary chairmanship, assigning him to lead the Committee on Governmental Oversight and Accountability instead. Simpson said in a statement he switched Brandes’ assignment because he had shown a “great interest in the operations of state government,” but Brandes believes his persistent questioning was to blame. “That one act got me removed from leadership, got me sent to a different committee, and most of my legislation stalled and most of my appropriations stalled,” Brandes says.
It was an ironic twist for a politician who promised Pinellas County voters in campaign ads over the years that he’d hold the Tallahassee establishment accountable for what they said and did — and “take them to the woodshed” if needed. It may also have been the predictable climax of the political career of an unabashed nonconformist, who repeatedly has broken GOP ranks to vote his conscience and hasn’t been afraid to cross the aisle to work with Democrats on legislation.
Last year, for example, Brandes partnered with Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, a Democrat, on a bill to legalize and tax adult use of recreational marijuana. He also stood with Democrats against two of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ major 2021 priorities — a bill limiting protest activity and a crackdown on social media companies that block users from their platforms. Brandes was the only Republican to vote against Florida’s withdrawal from OSHA during the November special session.
On more than one occasion, Brandes has been the Senate’s only “no” vote in either party. During last year’s legislative session, he was the only senator to oppose SB54, which would have repealed Florida’s nofault auto insurance system (a top priority of Simpson’s that was ultimately vetoed by DeSantis) during the bill’s first full vote on the Senate floor. He was also the lone dissenter opposing a new 30-year gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe.
Brandes is unapologetic about ruffling party feathers. “Yes, I disagreed with them on a number of policy positions,” he says — but he says he feels a sense of duty to stand up on issues he believes are unconstitutional or “not appropriate,” such as a bill last session that placed new restrictions on voting by mail and the use of drop boxes for ballots.
“We had the best election we’d ever had in the history of Florida, and now they want to put through an election law that frankly every one of your supervisors of elections, including all your Republican supervisors of elections, hated and did not support?” Brandes says.
Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Miami Democrat who shares a Tallahassee house with Brandes during the session, says Brandes’ maverick style stems from an almost “Bobby Kennedy-esque” devotion to his principles and beliefs. “He made what were probably politically unpopular votes last year but did so following a better sense of self rather than being worried about polling,” says Pizzo. “If you were to remove a lot of stuff that either holds people back from saying or following their heart, their gut and their consciences, and you were able to strip that away from someone to be able to act with the purity of heart, then you’d have a pretty good idea of Jeff Brandes.”
Lessons in leadership
The “woodshed” imagery in Brandes’ campaign ads has roots in his family’s lumber business. His grandfather, Linton Tibbetts, moved in 1948 from the Cayman Islands to St. Petersburg, where he purchased and grew Cox Lumber into the largest independently owned lumber and building material supplier in Florida. Tibbetts branched into other ventures, including hotels, shipping, banking and also founded Red Carpet Airlines, which ran flights between Florida and the Caymans and among the islands.
“He immigrated here with $16 in his pocket and over the course of his lifetime lived the American dream,” says Brandes. “I remember him telling me a story about how he was crossing the Sunshine Skyway bridge once and he saw one of his trucks from his lumber company on the bridge; he saw a ship that he had an interest in going under the bridge and the airplane that he owned was going over it.”
During high school, Brandes spent his summers working in his family’s lumber yard, but another family tradition — military service — led him to join the Army seven days after graduating from high school. “The military, frankly, is one of the best leadership courses in the world. They spend billions of dollars every year training leaders, and I wanted to get that experience in,” he says.
Brandes served in Iraq from 2003 to 2004 as a transportation officer, leading two-mile-long convoys of U.S troops and Iraqi truck drivers all over the country while being shot at, mortared and targeted with improvised explosive devices. “No matter what the day held, your job was to bring your own soldiers home safely, and you had to make good decisions in order to do that,” he says. “You had to figure out how to keep your soldiers safe and keep them motivated, because the middle of the desert’s a lonely place.”
It was in that lonely place that Brandes had a Libertarian epiphany of sorts while reading Milton Friedman’s 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom — a collection of influential essays extolling the virtues of free markets and limited government.
Repeatedly watching an associated lecture series on Friedman’s philosophy called Free to Choose, he began to realize that many of the problems society faced in the 1950s and 1960s still exist today. Friedman’s lassez-faire approach to governance made sense. “We should allow individuals to live their lives, and the less government interaction we can place on them, the more personal responsibility they have to take — that to me is kind of a core belief of mine. We should be focusing on individual, personal responsibility,” he says.
Brandes returned to St. Petersburg with plans to start a family and work for the family business but says that after the family sold the business to Home Depot he “had to find something else to do.” He managed some of the family’s remaining real estate assets for a while and began thinking about running for office. Rick Baker, then mayor of St. Petersburg, suggested Brandes seek a seat in the Florida House.
An opportunity presented itself in 2010, when the GOP candidate planning to challenge then-Rep. Bill Heller, a Democrat, dropped out of the race. Brandes stepped in. “I was told if I did everything right — raised the amount I needed to raise, knocked on the number of doors I needed to knock on — that I would win by 1,000 points,” he recalls. He won by 999 votes.
Chasing big ideas
Brandes began showing his independent streak in his first year, voting against a measure (supported by then- Gov. Rick Scott) that would have required mandatory drug testing of Floridians applying for welfare because he believed it violated the Fourth Amendment. Brandes acknowledges it was “kind a big deal” in a legislative body known for having a “herd mentality”— but he says the legislation just didn’t pass the constitutional smell test. “I said just because you’re poor doesn’t mean the government gets to violate your Fourth Amendment rights (prohibiting unreasonable search and seizure). You can’t just drug test somebody because their only issue is they’re applying for government benefits,” Brandes concluded. A federal judge struck the law down in 2013.
Brandes — who describes himself as a “little-r republican” and a “capital-L Libertarian” — walked away from that floor fight feeling like he’d earned the respect of his colleagues. “After the debate, the speaker pro tem of the House came up and said, ‘You know what? You made some great points. Had I not been speaker pro tem, I would have been with you,’ ” he recalls. “Nobody even got mad at me, but it began to show me that sometimes my colleagues aren’t going to be right, and I can have my own opinion on many of the topics.”
His constituents don’t seem to have minded. In a purple district that stretches from the beaches of Pinellas County to St. Petersburg, Brandes has bested each Democratic opponent by nine to 15 points during his past three re-election bids.
“Unlike many other GOP legislators, Brandes represents an area with a more diverse population — an urban area that is becoming more racially, ethnically and politically diverse than districts that many other GOP members represent,” says Susan MacManus, a distinguished professor emerita of political science at University of South Florida.
Brandes has also managed to stand out by adopting a “big idea” approach to policymaking. As he sees it, there’s “one big idea” in each public policy arena, and he decided when he got to Tallahassee that he “was going to be focused on the big ideas.”
He found his first big idea — autonomous vehicles — watching a 2010 TED talk by Sebastian Thrun, a scientist who ran Google’s self-driving car project. Brandes immediately reached out to Google’s lobbying team. “Maybe it was my experience in Iraq, having driven thousands of miles across the country and realizing it would have made the lives of my soldiers radically better had they not had to be shot at and mortared. Or maybe it was my family background, where I recognized that in the logistics piece of this, this was the big idea that was going to transform the mobility industry,” says Brandes.
The tech giant’s lobbying team helped him craft the details of his Autonomous Vehicle Technology bill and brought two self-driving cars to the Capitol to take lawmakers for a spin. Brandes’ bill passed unanimously, and in April 2012, Florida became the second state in the country (after Arizona) to allow fully autonomous cars on public roads.
After being elected to the state Senate in November 2012, Brandes chaired the Senate Transportation Committee, where he led a successful four-year battle to pass legislation allowing ride share companies like Uber and Lyft to operate in Florida without being subject to fees and vehicle inspections and other regulations imposed by local governments. He went on to champion successful legislation that opened most roads and trails to electric bikes and legalized e-scooters — arguing that both were important “micro-mobility” solutions in urban centers.
The 45-year-old lawmaker has also carved out niches in property insurance policy and criminal justice reform — though he’s been unable to achieve as much as he’d hoped for in either area.
Most lawmakers, Brandes laments, have never visited a prison. He toured dozens during his first year on the Criminal Justice Committee to “get an understanding of what life is like, what the challenges are like and how we needed to think strategically about how we manage public safety in Florida,” he says.
Brandes said he found a prison population reeling from mental health challenges made worse by idleness and a crumbling prison infrastructure, few educational opportunities and inadequate staffing. Forty percent of corrections officers quit during their first year on the job, and 60% leave in their second year. That churn has resulted in a shortage of more than 5,600 correctional officers and the temporary closing of two North Florida prisons last August, as well as the closing of most staterun re-entry centers.
A third facility was shuttered at the same time due to flooding. Meanwhile, the plan to close and demolish four prisons, which Brandes unsuccessfully tried to block in committee, was changed to eliminate just one facility in the budget lawmakers adopted last session.
Brandes isn’t sure the closures will change the trajectory of the crisis. “We are a couple of months away from the governor either calling in the National Guard to help deal with the prison system, or they’re going to have to issue emergency releases,” he says. “It’s not just a money problem. It’s the fact that there isn’t a strategy for the prison system.”
Brandes favors eliminating most mandatory minimum sentences, allowing more judicial discretion, providing sentence reductions for good behavior for non-violent offenders and streamlining the process of releasing ill and elderly inmates — but he’s found little appetite for such reforms in the Legislature. He’s also advocated for better prisoner education programs and has been talking with the Florida Virtual School about creating an education division for the Department of Corrections and Department of Juvenile Justice because of the difficulty in hiring educators to work inside the prison system. Approximately half of the state’s 80,000 inmates are functionally illiterate and read below a sixth-grade level — a problem that simply exacerbates recidivism, he says.
Disaster also is looming on the property insurance front, Brandes warns. “Rates are going up 30% a year, the overall property insurance industry lost $1.5 billion last year, investors are pulling out and not entering the market. I would not be surprised to see five to seven companies enter into receivership in the next 12 months,” he warns. At the same time, Citizens Property Insurance Co., the state-run insurer of last resort, is adding more than 5,000 policies a week, an unsustainable rate that poses a major financial risk to Florida taxpayers if a major storm hits the state since all Florida policyholders — not just Citizens’ customers — are on the hook if Citizens can’t pay its claims.
Brandes says the crux of the problem is “excess litigation” generated by trial lawyers and unscrupulous roofing contractors. Last session, the Legislature attempted to rein in questionable roofing claims by making changes to the way roofers and insurance companies handle claims, by banning contractors and public adjusters from providing incentives to property owners, by forbidding roofers from soliciting business by going door to door and by allowing insurers to offer modified coverage for roofs that are more than 10 years old, among other changes.
A better solution, Brandes says, would be to give companies flexibility on rates and formulas and allow them to modify their roof plans to allow for actual cash value, or stated value, versus having to pay replacement costs on roofs. “Floridians are basically buying their neighbors’ roofs, and they should stop thinking of property insurance as a home maintenance product because it’s not designed as one,” he adds.
Birds, wine and the next chapter
As he heads into his last legislation session before being term-limited out, Brandes has been grabbing headlines for less serious matters, including ditching the mockingbird as the state bird. “Florida is rich with incredible seabirds and upland fowl. We should have a state bird that immediately says Florida. Not the common northern mockingbird, which is also the state bird of four other states,” he recently tweeted.
He’s also making a last-ditch attempt to allow wine to be sold in containers larger than one gallon. “Here in Florida, you can own large bottles of wine, you can drink them, you can possess them, you just can’t purchase them from an in-state wine store. It happens that one or two companies that sell wine in Florida don’t want to modify their trucks to carry large bottles of wine, and therefore every person in the state of Florida can’t purchase large bottles of wine.”
Birds and wine aside, he’s laying the groundwork for his next big idea — a Florida think tank that he’s modeling after the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation and its affiliated initiative, Right on Crime. He hasn’t named it yet, but he says the non-profit will focus on finding data-driven solutions for criminal justice and prison reform and other key issues facing Florida. “We’re going to have to work with the sheriffs and state attorneys, and we’re going to have to work with the Department of Corrections system to solve all these problems,” he says.
Brandes hopes his think tank will fill a gap and keep policy conversations moving forward much in same way former Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education has. “Why is education policy one area where Florida has strategic vision? I think it’s because Gov. Bush, 20 years ago, started a foundation on education policy, and they carry the vision every year, and that’s the long-term strategy for Florida.
“Unfortunately, there isn’t a Jeb Bush or a John Kirtley or a Patricia Levesque in other areas of policy — definitely not on the insurance side, absolutely not on the corrections side and really nothing on the health care side.”
Given his age, experience and wealth, many expect Brandes to run for another office one day. Some were surprised he didn’t jump into St. Pete’s recent mayoral race. Brandes says hasn’t ruled anything out, but for now he’s eager to spend more time with his wife and four kids, who range from ages 8 to 13.
“I’ve been doing this for 12 years, and they’ve never known their dad outside this process. They know I disappear off the face of the earth for 120 days out of the year,” he says. “This process is a meat grinder for families.”