BROOKSVILLE — Hernando Sheriff Al Nienhuis can now say he officially earned the post he has held for the past 22 months.
The Spring Hill Republican won in convincing fashion Tuesday, taking more than 60 percent of the vote over Democrat James "Eddie" McConnell.
It was a satisfying victory for a candidate who had to win over a skeptical community when he was appointed two years ago by then-Gov. Charlie Crist.
"To say it feels humbling is an understatement," said Nienhuis, who celebrated the results with his wife and three daughters at Rookies Sports Bar and Grill in Spring Hill. "I've got to give a lot of credit to the people in the Sheriff's Office. They are responsible for the community being happy with the sheriff's performance over the last two years. They've taken my family and I in and made us part of their family."
The loss was the third unsuccessful bid for sherifff by McConnell, a Brooksville native who worked at the Hernando Sheriff's Office from 1978 to 2001 and recently retired as captain from the Groveland Police Department. He also ran for Hernando sheriff in 2000 and 2004.
McConnell did not return a call from the Times on Tuesday night.
Nienhuis, who served for a decade as second in command at the Pasco Sheriff's Office, said he was glad both sides ran clean campaigns. McConnell, however, did try to cast Nienhuis as an outsider who didn't have the street credibility to earn respect among the rank and file.
Nienhuis sought to convince voters in a Republican-leaning county that he was a qualified, steady hand to lead an agency that was already running smoothly when he was appointed to succeed Richard Nugent in January 2011 after Nugent was elected to Congress.
His success in that regard became clear when he fended off an aggressive Republican primary opponent in Robert "Bobby" Sullivan of Brooksville.
"We're going to continue to try to keep the crime rate as low as we possibly can, keep the clearance rates high, and become more efficient in the process," Nienhuis said.