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3/29/2007

Politics

EVERYONE HATES FRED
He was a belligerent jerk in the State House. What's Fred Brummer up to on the county commission?

 

It was 1998 and a stout, middle-aged accountant had just been elected to the Florida State House, where he would remain for eight years. He had yet to do anything to draw attention to his tenure in the Legislature. That was to be expected; only a few days had elapsed since he’d taken the oath of office. At that point, Fred Brummer was an unknown.

Then he made his first move: He wanted plans to build the now- popular West Orange Trail — a 19-mile corridor for everything from rollerblading to biking — scrapped. It was too close to his Apopka home, he said; damn the constituents and their desire to recreate.

The trail got built, but so did Brummer’s reputation as a self-absorbed curmudgeon who seems to relish having the power to say no. He’s abrupt, headstrong, unapologetic and egotistical. Sometimes it seems he’s working against the people he’s elected to serve. He’s considered hell on wheels by everyone you might conceivably want on your side: residents, environmentalists, lawmakers, etc.

And the best part? Brummer doesn’t care what you think of him. In fact, he basks in his reputation. Try and have a sit-down interview with him, the kind many other politicians would use to sell you on the idea that they’re just another selfless public servant trying to do what the people elected them to do; he’ll dodge you like a convicted sex offender chased by a TV camera. Though we made a dozen phone calls, sent two e-mails and tracked him down at public meetings, Brummer refused to be interviewed for this article. An aide in his office physically blocked a photographer who tried to take Brummer’s picture.

After eight contentious years in the Florida Legislature representing his Apopka district, Fred Brummer is now the newest member of the Orange County Commission. He was one of 100. Now he is one of six with a say in the county’s $3.2 billion budget, one of a handful of influential politicians with a direct say in the county’s future. And that has more than a few people nervous.

“He’s one of the most arrogant politicians out there. I do not understand what makes him tick,” says Doug Head, former chairman of both the Orlando Democrats and the nonpartisan watchdog group CountyWatch.

Brummer and his wife of 35 years, Cathi, first moved to Florida in 1957. According to his Florida House and campaign websites, he enjoys a quiet suburban life with a gamut of vague, personal ad–sounding hobbies like music, reading, traveling, antique cars and golf. He’s a Lutheran.

After moving from South Florida more than two decades ago, Brummer settled in Apopka, relying on a pair of business degrees from Florida Atlantic University and his status as a certified public accountant, which he earned in 1976, to build his accounting business, Brummer & Rogers, in 1981.

Seemingly most at home in a suit, the 61-year-old New York native has the balding, ruddy look of a seasoned lawmaker. Brummer often displays a cheeky grin on his round face. He appears to be in a perpetual hurry, racing between county events, business meetings and volunteer work.

According to Brummer — or, more accurately, according to his website — community service is what qualifies a person for public office. And his résumé is full of volunteer work for Apopka organizations including the Apopka Historical Society Fund Raising Committee, Lake County Fire and Emergency Service Advisory Committee, the city of Apopka Fire Pension Board and the Apopka Rotary Club, where he served as president. He’s also a fan of the Apopka Chamber of Commerce, which named him Businessman of the Year in 1991 and Rotarian of the Year in 1993.

Brummer worked in the tax business for years, reportedly meeting the town’s political elite as they showed up at his doorstep for tax or accounting help. Having befriended what exists of a political force in Apopka didn’t hurt when in 1997 Brummer decided to run for the State House in District 38.

Apopka city commissioner Bill Arrowsmith, who “never quite saw Brummer in politics,” says the new county commissioner has done his taxes for years. Brummer served as the campaign treasurer for Apopka Mayor John Land. Not to mention his work as accountant and campaign treasurer for Bob Sindler, who previously held Brummer’s District 38 House seat and just left the Orange County commission, where, like Brummer, he represented District 2.

“He knows a great deal about the people of Apopka; he knows everyone’s dirty little secrets,” says Head. “The guy that does your taxes knows more about you than your mother.”

Whether by befriending the right people or by running a hard campaign, Brummer was elected to the House in 1998. He won handily, securing 53 percent of the vote in a field of Republicans. His re-election in 2000 was tough. Democratic candidate Jerry Girley pulled in 48.8 percent of the vote and Brummer narrowly won with 51.2 percent. But he was easily re-elected in 2002 and 2004, pulling in 63 percent of the vote and 58.9 percent, respectively.

At first it seemed Brummer — who didn’t sponsor a bill until 2003, according to the official House site — would be a do-nothing politician. But he did step up to the plate; just not in the way his constituents or even fellow lawmakers had hoped.

In the Legislature, Brummer was regarded as an inept representative who bumbled through his tenure. He often made a mockery of the process, ridiculing fellow lawmakers and doing little to help his constituents.

As chairman of the House Finance and Tax Committee, a position he held since 2004, Brummer liked to hand out the business card of a colleague, an undertaker, to legislators whose bills he planned to kill. Such antics earned Brummer the nickname “Chairman No.”

State Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, R-Miami, knew the ease with which Brummer shot down bills before he ever working with him. Lopez-Cantera says he’s happy to take “any chance to bash Fred,” since even Republican lawmakers don’t seem to feel any allegiance to him; he’s equally despised across party lines.

Lopez-Cantera first met Brummer when he asked that his Florida Marlins arena-funding bill be added to the agenda. Brummer listened briefly to his plea before flatly telling him no, not once but several times. And not “no” as in “the timing is off”; “no” as in “not today, not tomorrow, not ever.”

“He’s a stubborn SOB, but there may be a method behind his madness,” Lopez-Cantera says. “If it’s something he likes, he’s a great guy. If it’s something he doesn’t like, well, you could see some abrasiveness.”

On the bright side, Lopez-Cantera says Brummer never appeared biased toward one political party or the other. Perhaps the best description of Brummer, he says, would be as “an equal opportunity no-sayer.”

State Rep. Carl Domino, R-Jupiter, says he had the distasteful task of working with the Brummer for four years, “which didn’t go well in large measure.” Domino calls Brummer a closed-minded coward who’s afraid to debate bills.

“He wants to bully people because he had a committee where he could stop a bill. It was just stupidity. I have little to no respect for him,” Domino says. “He used it for his own agenda, because he was afraid to debate bills.”

Brummer showed little appreciation of decorum while in the Legislature. In 2003, for example, he made a racist comment on the House floor, shouting across the room that a partisan basketball game would be unfairly weighted because all of the black legislators are Democrats. The Black Caucus was not pleased.

During the 2005 legislative session, Brummer killed two of his home county’s top priorities: nearly $100 million in state tax dollars for a renovated Orlando Magic arena available after a tax break established in 1987 allowed major pro franchises to access sales taxes that were going to the state; and another $1 million a year in sales-tax rebates generated by the Orange County Convention Center.

His excuse for the latter? “Bad tax policy,” he said at the time.

Which is odd, considering that one of Brummer’s biggest legislative “victories” was sponsoring the 2006 bill to grant tax-exempt status to the Holy Land Experience theme park. The legislation — designed only to protect the Biblical amusement park — meant it got out of paying about $1 million in taxes over a 5-year period. Orange County Property Appraiser Bill Donegan spent years fighting the tax exemption status.

And then there’s Save Our Homes. Brummer twice blocked bills to increase the homestead exemption. He aggravated lawmakers when he turned away legislation because he didn’t support portability clauses — which many considered the key component — that would allow homeowners to keep their exemptions even if they moved.

In 2006 he did a double take and supported doubling the $25,000 homestead exemption in an effort to repair Save Our Homes, this time drawing flak because the effort would remove too many homes from the tax rolls. Even tax cut–happy Gov. Jeb Bush thought this one was a bad idea.

But perhaps Brummer is most detested for obstructing preservation of the Wekiva River basin, a slam-dunk in the minds of environmentalists and many residents and lawmakers. The act — designed to protect the environment and public health by creating rules to control nitrogen pollution from septic tanks — wasn’t controversial. But Brummer dug in his heels on the project to pander to a small group of citizens concerned about replacing their septic systems, pissing off a wave of constituents and environmentalists in the process.

“He gave us fits with the Wekiva stuff,” says Charles Lee, director of advocacy for the Orange County Audubon Society. “It was complicated with Wekiva. In 2003-2004, he sponsored the Wekiva Protection Act. Typically the sponsor of an act is the chief proponent, but it was complicated by the fact that he responded more for the bill’s opponents and it wasn’t passed until after a lot of wrangling.”

Lee says Brummer “stormed in like gangbusters” into the rule-making committee with lobbyists from the septic-tank industry in tow. Despite the stunt, the Wekiva Protection Act was adopted in 2004.

Brummer voiced support for the new rules in a letter published in the Apopka Chief in August 2005. A day later he wrote health officials asking that the rules be put off until the following legislative session.

Ultimately, the septic tanks didn’t even need to be replaced.

So how does Fred Brummer stay in public office? Surely he is personable in some quirky, endearing way?

“He’s completely humorless unless it’s in a nasty vein,” notes Head. “He’s a terrible curmudgeon. Just a mean old man who’s terribly unpleasant.”

Then again, you have to take Head’s comments with a grain of salt; Brummer likes to call him a “communist” because he’s a Democrat, then giggle like a schoolgirl.

Orange County Mayor Richard Crotty sings Brummer’s praises, calling the new commissioner his “warm, personal friend,” with more than a hint of sarcasm in his voice. He also uses the terms “likable” and “independent” to describe Brummer.

Crotty told the Orlando Sentinel in 2004 that he “wouldn’t tell” what he thought of Brummer. The assumption, of course, is that this was the politically correct way to call Brummer a prick. Crotty now says the comment was taken out of context.

Prick or no, Brummer won the District 2 race easily with nearly 54 percent of the vote in a four-way race. His closest competitor, College Park attorney Lawrence Kolin, only managed 20 percent. Brummer spent heavily to win the race, raising more than $171,000. By comparison, Kolin raised just over $87,000 and candidates George Collins and Gary Metzger each logged about $35,000.

Bob Sindler, a term-limited Democrat who sat in Brummer’s District 2 seat, did little to help recruit a Democrat to run for the position when he left — all but vacating it just for Brummer.

Fellow county commissioner Bill Segal, who only recently began getting to know the newly elected commissioner, says he expected Brummer would be quarrelsome, brisk and somewhat offensive. He was apprehensive of Brummer’s county commission term. But so far his expectations seem unfounded.

“He’s a man of few words but he’s honest and consistent,” Segal says.

Arrowsmith, the longtime Apopka commissioner, met Brummer more than 25 years ago when he first moved to Apopka.

“I’ve enjoyed knowing him. He’s been very dedicated and has really built up a big CPA practice,” Arrowsmith says.

Land, who has served as mayor for 55 years, met Brummer in the 1980s while standing in line at the grocery store. But then he began bumping into Brummer on a more regular basis because Brummer’s business was only a couple of blocks from city hall. Brummer also leased office space from Land for his House of Representatives office.

Land describes Brummer as a hard-working conservative who carefully watches tax dollars, though on a personal level the mayor says he remains a close friend.

“He’s a lot of fun and has a great sense of humor,” Land says.

The decisions Brummer may make over the next four years will help shape the county’s growth and ultimately how the county evolves. Based on his record, speculating he will be a divisive member of the commission seems reasonable. He’s never been a uniter, and there’s a strong possibility that at least half of the commission will despise him by year’s end.

Thus far Brummer has remained a rather quiet and agreeable commissioner. But that likely won’t last, especially with the Orlando Magic arena on the horizon. Brummer already has called for a referendum to allow taxpayers to approve the new Orlando Magic arena, performing arts center and upgrades to the Citrus Bowl, estimated to cost $1 billion. Crotty and the other commissioners don’t see the point in a vote because local taxpayer money isn’t at stake.

What’s next for the commissioner? Will he stay true to his nasty habits and bad behavior?

“He’s going to look out for the developers in Apopka. What else do they need in Apopka besides the annual corn festival?” Head says.

Segal, who notes Brummer is “not rah-rah, but pleasant enough,” hedges, noting it’s “just too early” to predict how the brisk former lawmaker will fare.

“I’m keeping my fingers crossed,” says Lee of the Orange County Audubon Society.

And so is the rest of Orange County.

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