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The staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Pinellas sheriff's tilt shaking up Republicans

CLEARWATER -- The news that Sheriff Jim Coats won't seek re-election means Pinellas County voters, particularly Republicans, will have an unusually competitive race to be sheriff in 2012. H

Everett Rice had hand-picked Coats, and Coats has been grooming Bob Gualtieri to succeed him. Rice and Coats had both been popular among voters. But Rice, who had considered running for state Senate, surprised Republicans by jumping in.

"It's going to put a lot of people in a difficult position," said state Sen. Jack Latvala, a longtime Pinellas Republican powerbroker.

Latvala questioned Rice's ultimate intentions, saying the former sheriff had recently asked him about running for state Senate but not sheriff. "Sometimes folks say they're going to run and don't actually end up doing it," Latvala said.

Rice has not yet filed to run. Meanwhile, Gualtieri has been preparing to file for weeks as Coats signaled he was waivering about running. He has taken an increasingly more public role, including leading the creation of Pinellas Safe Harbor, the county's largest homeless shelter, near the jail.

Coats announced his decision to the sheriff's office Tuesday morning. Gualtieri filed to run at 8:16 a.m. Tuesday, paperwork dated the day before.

Latvala would not divulge who he would endorse, saying he didn't want to crimp Coats' news. But Latvala repeatedly praised Gualtieri. "I need to have a conversation with Everett," Latvala said, calling Rice "a dear friend." 

"Gualtieri has been working very hard in that department for several years," Coats said, adding he was "very impressed" with Gualtieri.

Paul Bedinghaus, a former county Republican Party chairman, said Coats' support is valuable to Gualtieri. But Rice remains a recognizable name in Pinellas, less so than Gualtieri.

"Everett, when he was sheriff, was one of the most powerful people in the county, and he had the best operation and fundraising ability," Bedinghaus said.

Rice didn't immediately return a message seeking comment.

[Last modified: Tuesday, May 17, 2011 1:14pm]

    

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