DeLeon Springs farmer Jeff Brower is no stranger to unexpected events that steer his life.
Back in 1985, when he married Terri, the newlyweds planned to wait two years, then have two children.
But Terri was pregnant shortly after the honeymoon. Thirty-five years later, the Browers have nine children and 11 grandchildren.
“We didn’t plan it, but I wouldn’t change it for the world,” Jeff Brower said.
Late May 2019 brought another unexpected turn.
Brower was watching election returns with a group of folks he had led in an effort to defeat a proposed half-cent increase in Volusia County’s sales tax.
Brower said he didn’t trust that the money would be spent as promised, and he feared it would be used to pay for infrastructure needs caused by sprawl development — or to set up infrastructure that would make even more sprawl possible.
“All of those mass developments with 6,000 homes going in in our wetlands, where we shouldn’t be building,” he said.
Proponents of the tax increase were well-funded. The members of Brower’s group were realistic as they awaited the outcome.
“We won by eight points, and we just sat there stunned for a minute,” he recalled. “Then everybody at the table turned to me and said, ‘You have to run for county chair.’”
Brower did. He filed to run in September 2019. And, on Aug. 18, it was his turn to do the stunning.
Pretty good, for a newcomer
A comparative newcomer to local politics, Brower won 44.85 percent of the countywide vote in a three-way race that pitted him against a little-known DeLand Democrat and a well-known, well-funded County Council incumbent who had also served on the Volusia County School Board.
“Yes, it surprised me,” said DeLand Mayor Bob Apgar, a political veteran with an uncanny ability to predict election results.
Apgar said he thought County Council Member Deb Denys’ name recognition would have boosted her higher than the 40.23 percent she got. The third candidate, Gerard Witman, got 14.93 percent.
Brower said his support reflects the voters’ support for his platform: Stop overdevelopment, protect the environment, and safeguard water quality.
Although Brower is a Republican, as is Denys, his positions aren’t exactly out of the Republican playbook.
“If I go to Republican meetings and talk about the environment, I get standing ovations. But the people in charge of the meetings want to throw me out,” he said with a laugh.
Denys, too, has an idea why Brower did so well in the primary.
“While I’ve been busy solving issues and serving the needs of the residents of our great county, my opponent has essentially been campaigning for a seat on the County Council for three straight years,” she said.
Brower ran unsuccessfully for the County Council District 1 seat in 2018.
Denys noted that voter turnout in the primary — 27.95 percent — was much lower than it will be in the Tuesday, Nov. 3, general election.
“In the general election, it will be a much different and larger electorate,” she said. “I’m confident that we’re going to come out on top when all of the votes are counted on Nov. 3.”
If money wins races, Denys should be right. As of the most recent finance reports, filed Oct. 4, Brower’s campaign had raised $71,147. The Denys campaign had raised $199,665.
Although Denys has almost three times the money, Brower has more contributions. He lists 571 contributors, while Denys lists 419.
“We’ve got a lot more $20 donations,” Brower said.
He also notes that contributors to Denys’ campaign include many of the developers whose projects he opposes.
“I’m a big proponent of private property rights,” Brower said. “But your rights you get when you buy your property doesn’t come with an automatic Comprehensive Land Use Plan change or a zoning change. … It shouldn’t be a matter of who contributed to your campaign.”
Denys bristled at the suggestion that financial backers influence her decisions on the County Council.
“I have a strong environmental record and broad support across the county from countless industries,” she said. “That’s because they know we need a leader who can continue to lower taxes, protect our natural resources, and lead the charge in recovering from the impact of COVID-19 on our community.”
She said much of the development Brower objects to is happening within municipal boundaries, out of the County Council’s control.
“Without a doubt, growth, land-use regulations, infrastructure, water protection and environmental protections are significant issues. But they must be addressed through effective leadership, legislation, and collaboration, not sound-bite politics and baseless allegations,” Denys said.
While the campaign has become heated in recent days, with both candidates accusing the other of lying, Denys and Brower agree on one thing, at least. They’ve both broken from the Volusia County Republican Party to support extending the ECHO and Volusia Forever programs, which provide property-tax-funded grants for “environmental, cultural, historic and outdoors” projects (ECHO) and the purchase of land for conservation purposes (Volusia Forever).
The question of whether to extend both programs is on the Nov. 3 ballot in the form of two separate county referendums.
Brower adds a caveat.
“We need to pass it, and we need a County Council that will use it for what the people are voting for,” he said.
On the day we talked with Brower, he had started the morning in the company of a clam and oyster farmer who wanted to show him the effects of treated sewage effluent being dumped in the Halifax River. His concerns mirrored those of fishing guides, commercial fishermen and others Brower has met with.
“They’re almost in tears,” he said.
A graduate of the University of Florida with a degree in agriculture, Brower envisions steering the county toward environmentally friendly solutions, like floating mats of toxin-eating plants, and commercial-scale composting.
“It’s just using nature,” Brower said. “It’s simple. And, it’s beautiful, too.”
A dilemma for Democrats
The Brower-Denys matchup presents a special dilemma for the 33 percent of Volusia County’s 395,154 registered voters who are members of the Democratic Party. If they want to vote in the chair race, they have to choose between two Republicans.
While Brower’s environmentalism might seem to more closely match the Democratic point of view, Dr. T. Wayne Bailey of DeLand, longtime dean of Volusia County’s Democratic Party, theorized that many of his left-leaning colleagues would go with Denys, out of concern about Brower’s stated distrust of government in general (remember the sales-tax vote), compared with Denys’ eight years on the County Council.
But, Bailey cautioned, “I’m sure Democrats are very diverse.”
He recalled the quip: “I’m not a member of any organized political party; I’m a Democrat.”
“I think the Will Rogers statement probably will hold,” Bailey said.
Brower on growth
Jeff Brower, on the type of growth and development he does favor:
Brower is a proponent of the Strong Towns movement, which emphasizes infill development and slow growth fueled by individuals and entrepreneurs, as opposed to multimillion-dollar projects by big developers that stress the environment and infrastructure.
“You know what pays for itself? … Looking at the history of America, the way we built our downtowns — incrementally,” Brower said. “You start with the existing businesses and help them grow. … Economic gardening. That’s what the people who created it call it.”
He recognizes that shifting the seven-member County Council’s collective view of growth won’t be easy.
“I’ve got to convince the other six,” he said. “It’s a shame that it’s a ‘rebel’ who’s saying we should take care of our environment.”
Denys on leadership
Deb Denys, on her strengths as a candidate: “Volusia County is my home. I have raised a family here, grown a business here, and served here for over 30 years. My passion for service and my record of protecting small businesses, listening to residents, and most importantly, always supporting our law enforcement, are my greatest strengths.”
A former foster parent who has volunteered for a number of organizations, Denys has a bachelor’s degree in business management and administration. She noted the special need, now, for a county chair who can hit the ground running.
“During challenging times like these, Volusia County needs a leader who can help get our economy back on track after COVID-19, make sure our families are safe, and protect our way of life. That’s what I aim to do as county chair, and that’s my message to voters.”