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Heller praises bipartisanship

Published March 7, 2007


TALLAHASSEE - State Rep. Bill Heller of St. Petersburg seemed an unlikely pick to deliver the Democratic response to Gov. Charlie Crist's State of the State speech.

Heller is a freshman lawmaker, for one, and his disposition is more elder statesman than tooth-bearing partisan.

He also voted for Crist.

But in the cozy, cooperative spirit Crist whipped up Tuesday, the Democrats' choice signaled an embrace of the governor's direction.

"While I, along with my colleagues, will not abandon our responsibility to be a responsible check on the majority party, I believe our governor seeks to establish a new and more bipartisan and centrist tone in Tallahassee," Heller said in a response carried on television and radio.

"My friends," Heller said, "this is an exciting time to be a Democrat in the Florida House."

Heller, 71, met Crist almost the same day he moved to Florida in 1992. Crist was standing on a street corner in St. Petersburg and campaigning for the state Senate.

"I'd never seen anything like that, so I walked up and struck up a conversation with him," Heller said.

The men talked mostly about football. Crist had been on the team at Wake Forest, and Heller had been a halfback at Bradley University in Illinois.

"I liked him from that moment on," Heller said.

The bond grew when Crist became the state education commissioner and Heller was dean of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Heller gave Crist an office at the school.

During his own campaign against Republican Angelo Cappelli, Heller got a boost when Crist would not take sides in the race, considered the most competitive House contest in the state.

Heller's victory was a big win for the Democrats, who reclaimed the seat after Republican Frank Farkas held it for eight years. In all, Democrats gained seven new seats. (Republicans are still firmly in control, but Democrats have enough members to matter in important votes, such as the upcoming debate on property taxes.)

Rep. Dan Gelber, the House minority leader, said Heller was picked to deliver the Democratic response because he is a "very special" guy. "He is the kind of citizen that you hope seeks public office."

Heller called the opportunity a "major privilege."

The response, which Heller helped craft with Democratic leaders, was mostly positive but made a few soft criticisms.

While commending Crist for seeking higher teacher pay, Democrats said a bonus-oriented plan benefiting only 25 percent of teachers is not the best approach.

Wearing a fresh pinstriped suit and a red rose on his lapel, Heller sat before a gaggle of reporters alongside Democratic leaders. He seemed to relish his time in the spotlight, unflinchingly expressing admiration for the Republican governor.

"When he says he believes in the people, he really does. You just look at his track record."


[Last modified March 7, 2007, 01:00:01]

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