Bob Gualtieri, 50, is the incumbent, sort of. He was named by Governor Rick Scott to succeed Jim Coats last November when the then sheriff retired, and has served off and on in the department for 30 years.
But he's being challenged by former Sheriff Everett Rice, 67, who previously led the department for 16 years (1988-2004). Rice then served one term in Tallahassee as a state representative before working as an attorney in Barry Cohen's office.
Rice has always enjoyed a solid reputation, but that appears to be changing after a recent series of stories in the Tampa Bay Times has depicted him as moving alarmingly to the extreme right, an image he rejected as false at today's Tiger Bay Club forum, which also featured independent (and erratic) candidate Greg Pound, and the lone Democrat in the race, Scott Swope, who won't be on the ballot until November. Swope is a former deputy sheriff in the department who has been a practicing attorney for the past 14 years.
With the conventional wisdom being that Rice is still the favorite in the August 14 primary, the current chief slashed at the former one from the jump at today's forum. Gualtieri blasted Rice for saying at a forum earlier this week that he was the only candidate who has kept his campaign promises, quoting Rice as saying he would provide higher level of professional law enforcement without increasing the budget.
"Mr. Rice took over in January of 1989. Four months later, in May of 1989, he submitted a budget with a $12 million increase," Gualtieri said, and then went on to mention other budget increases in the following years before summarizing that Rice had increased the budget in total by $80 million, increases that he and his former boss Jim Coats had to reduce over the past five years.
The cutting of over $100 million from the budget and over 200 positions in the department were statistics that Gualtieri frequently mentioned in the forum at the St.Pete-Clearwater Marriott, as he done throughout this campaign.
Rice admitted that he had increased the budget by that much, but said he did it without any tax increases.
But it was Everett Rice who was on the hot seat, judging by the number and intensity of the questions posed by Tiger Bay Club members.
Such as his signing a pledge with the Oath Keepers, a conservative "Patriots" organization that has sprung up over the past three years. The Oath Keepers have declared that they will never obey certain orders they consider unconstitutional.
Rice said when he signed the oath he didn't have a problem with it, adding that a sheriff "has an obligation not to enforce a law that he believes is unconstitutional." He then cited the case of Rosa Parks, the woman who became a civil rights icon by famously being arrested for not going to the back of the bus in Alabama in the 1950s.
Rice said that any "decent human being knew that law was illegal and should not be enforced."
He then was asked about a story in today's Tampa Bay Times by reporter Peter Jamison that he would support a law similar to Arizona's controversial law on cracking down on undocumented immigrants, SB 1070 (that the Supreme will soon rule on).
Rice said he wanted to clarify his remarks. He said that his comment to the paper was if the law stands up in court, "we might look at an Arizona type law." When a questioner asked him why, he replied, "because I think we ought to be doing everything we can to deport illegal aliens, particularly those who are committing crimes."
But when he was asked about another Times report that he wasn't certain about whether President Obama is in fact an American citizen, Rice lost his cool.
"I don't know where that question about the president's birth certificate came out of nowhere when the reporter was talking to me, and he wanted me to validate whether or not the president's birth certificate is valid. And I said 'Peter, that's not an issue in the Sheriff's race. It's not an issue with me, it's never been an issue with me. I've never raised the subject. I never doubted it. The man's our president. We need to move on."
He added that for anyone to infer from the story that he's "some kind of right-wing 'birther' is wrong," adding that he refused to allow Times reporter Peter Jamison to validate the premise of the question in the first place.
A few minutes later a Tiger Bay Club member asked all of the candidates if they felt they had been treated fairly by the media organization with the greatest influence in covering the sheriff's race, the Tampa Bay Times.
Scott Swope said he had not, knocking Times political editor Adam Smith for writing days before the qualifying period ended earlier this month that the only Democrat who would be on the ballot in the race would be Randy Heine (Heine ended up not qualifying). "No, I don't think I've been treated fairly." He said because there were more Democrats than Republicans in the county, he ought to be taken more seriously.
Rice earned laughs by following Swope and saying, "They're not treating me fairly either..because I think we should deport illegal aliens."
But Gualtieri wasn't ready to give Rice a break there, later picking up on the idea that he could begin deported undocumented immigrants. A sheriff has "no authority," he said. "Period. End of story. To deport anybody. The law doesn't allow the sheriff to do that. But now he says 'that's not what I meant.' Well, this is his literature," Gualtieri said, holding up a campaign mailer. "He put it out. He says I'm going to deport people from the county jail. You can't do it. It's unlawful!"
Gualtieri later recited one of the oaths of the Oath Keepers that says that "I will not obey any orders to blockade American cities, thus turning them into giant concentration camps."
"Really?" Gualtieri said. "I took an oath. As a lawyer, and as a Pinellas County sheriff, to support, defend, protect the Florida and U.S. Constitution."
On another topic, Rice again pounded away with the message that the Pinellas Sheriff's department is suffering from poor morale, and that's why Gualtieri needs to go. Gualtieri responded that with no pay increases for years, it was natural for the men and women in the department to feel despondent.
Scott Swope said he would funnel around by shutting down the Safe Harbor homeless facility and taking that $1.6 million in savings to the rank and file in the department.
Swope said he's running because he believes the department is going in the wrong direction, saying the cuts that Sheriff Gualtieri has made are the wrong ones, such as eliminating the Cold Case Unit, detectives with the sexual predators unit, and the one representative on the Clearwater area Task force against human trafficking.
He also blasted the office for conducting a two-year surveillance investigation of Simply Hydroponics, a gardening shop on Ulmerton Road that (legally) sells equipment that some people use to grow pot. That investigation has turned into a major embarrassment for the Pinellas Sheriffs department, with several officers being the subject of internal affairs investigations.
"At the same time they're cutting public safety-related positions, and at the same time we're leading in Oxycodone-related deaths, the Sheriff's Department is spending two years writing down tag numbers of people who go in to buy hydroponic equipment," Swope said.
He also attacked the raiding of Internet sweepstakes cafes. "For what purpose?" questioning the idea of going after gambling when there are horse tracks, dog tracks and the Seminole Hard Rock that pursue the same activities.
Greg Pound is running as a write-in candidate, as he did in 2008. He derided the other candidates for being attorneys,and then went off on a variety of tangents when he had the opportunity to speak. After his opening statements you could hear somebody in the audience say, "Oh my God."
Blogger Peter Scorsch, a member of the Tiger Bay Board, wrote a post last week questioning whether Pound should have been allowed to participate in the forum.
By the reaction from most of the audience at Thursday's forum, the answer if posed to them would probably be no, he shouldn't have been.