From local kids to Senate dreams

Kim Berfield and Charlie Justice got hooked on politics early .

By CURTIS KRUEGER, Times Staff Writer
Published October 22, 2006

Kim Berfield was in high school when she stood inside the Old Capitol and promised herself she would return one day as a Florida lawmaker.

She kept that promise about a dozen years later, winning election to the state House as a Republican.

Charlie Justice was a college student when he caught the political bug, volunteering for a former professor's campaign for the state House and then working for him as his legislative aide.

He won his own House seat a dozen years later as a Democrat.

Now Berfield and Justice are opponents in an increasingly rancorous campaign for state Senate in District 16, one of the toughest legislative races in Florida.

Long before this, though, they were just local kids riding bikes, attending church and occasionally dreaming of a way they might make a difference.

They both grew up in Pinellas County, attended public school, went to St. Petersburg Junior College and started running for office in their 20s.

They were elected to the Florida House in 2000, part of a huge influx of freshmen legislators created by an exodus of veteran lawmakers prompted by term limits.

Each has realized youthful dreams of making a difference. But for one of them, that dream is about to end.

* * *

Berfield grew up in Clearwater and attended Kings Highway Elementary School and Dunedin Junior High School. Her family was active in the Baptist church, and she describes herself as a born-again Christian who was saved at age 7 and baptized in a church member's swimming pool in the Countryside area.

As a girl she "would be outside playing anything from war to flag football to roller skating to bicycling." In high school she joined the German Club, the Key Club, student government and the Skycrest Baptist Church Choir and youth group.

Her first taste of campaigning was a family affair: Her father, James, served on the Clearwater City Commission in the 1980s, and her mother, Sue, followed in 1990. Her mom is an aide to state Sen. Jim Sebesta, whom Berfield hopes to succeed.

She was always enthusiastic about politics, Berfield says, whether it was student government or assembling friends to campaign for her mother.

One of her biggest thrills was being selected for Girls' State, in which students are sent to Tallahassee and pretend to be legislators. She said she was taken with the notion that "you as an individual really could make a difference."

Before she was elected to the House, the Berfield family endured a difficult blow. Her father was elected a county judge in 1996, but resigned the next year after a jury found him guilty of perjury for lying on a financial disclosure form.

"As far as a family, it made us stronger," Kim Berfield said. "It made our faith stronger."

After St. Petersburg Junior College, Berfield received a broadcast communications degree from the University of Central Florida, where she also was active in student government.

Berfield later directed public relations and marketing for the Contractors and Builders Association of Pinellas County.

Berfield, 35, is single and until last year lived with her parents in the house where she grew up, outside District 16. Last year she moved into an apartment in the district.

During the Republican primary campaign earlier this year, unsuccessful Republican candidate Frank Farkas said he would relate to voters more than Berfield because of his experience "raising a family, having a business, owning real estate, a house."

Berfield said she's still single because "I'm just waiting to become the right person, so that at that point in time, then the Lord's going to bring the right person, who's at the right point in his life, into mine."

Berfield works part time for Creraytive Advertising in Tallahassee, which she said allows her to devote herself to legislative work.

"I think when you look at it, I've truly decided that I wanted to be engaged in the process and in creating policy," she said.

"There's a quote, 'Winners always want the ball.' And I really think that I'm the type of person that wants the ball."

* * *

Charlie Justice grew up in St. Petersburg and went to Tyrone Elementary School and Tyrone and Azalea middle schools. He was president of the Spanish Club at Boca Ciega High School.

He spent countless hours shooting hoops with a group of buddies "on probably every court in the city. ... We played a lot at Garden Crest Church over off Tyrone because they had a light and it was right near my house that I grew up in."

His father, Marcus, was a psychologist whose business phone rang at the office and at home so his wife, Judith, could manage the office and tend to their five children.

Justice said his parents instilled in him the importance of community service, more by doing than by talking. He remembers plenty of family traditions, such as helping to cook Easter breakfast at Lakeview Presbyterian Church and making the rounds to pick up donated canned goods for the Sertoma Club. They also supported various local political campaigns.

When 27-year-old St. Petersburg College professor Lars Hafner decided to make a second bid for state House in the late 1980s against a Republican incumbent, Justice and a handful of college friends dove into the campaign with enthusiasm.

"It kind of had that us-against-the-world feeling," he said. "It was a great experience in that way. ... You're young and you're going to take on the world."

Hafner won the 1988 race. Justice was hooked.

Justice, who graduated from the University of South Florida with a geography degree and worked at Sears and a local bank, ran unsuccessfully for the St. Petersburg City Council in 1995 at age 26.

He then took major steps in both his personal and political life.

Justice proposed to Kathleen Chance, a USF student whom he had been seeing since their first date at the Hurricane restaurant. They decided spring break would make a good time for the wedding. But then Justice accepted a job as Hafner's legislative aide, which would require him to go to Tallahassee during legislative sessions.

So they were marred on a Saturday, flew to Tallahassee on a Sunday "and she's lived with sessions ever since," Justice said.

Justice worked for Hafner until he got elected to the House himself in 2000. Since then he also has worked as an academic adviser for the College of Business at USF St. Petersburg.

One Wednesday night in 2002, Justice flew home from Tallahassee just in time for the birth of his first child, Allison, who wasn't expected to arrive until after the legislative session.

Justice likes to show off a cell phone video of 4-year-old Allison and 1-year-old Erin splashing in their swimming pool. It's a way to keep the kids in his mind while in Tallahassee. He said he also uses his weekends for family time during the session.

Justice, 38, said he believes his experience in the Legislature and in the community makes him the best candidate in the race. Win or lose, he will spend the weekend after Election Day volunteering at St. Petersburg's Ribfest with fellow Exchange Club members.

"Since it's my first Ribfest, I think I'll have the grunt jobs of emptying the garbage or whatever they want me to do."