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Defeated Hernando sheriff candidate expresses surprise, gratitude

BROOKSVILLE — Bobby Sullivan took a beating at the polls from his former boss on Tuesday, but said Wednesday he wasn't feeling beat down.

Sullivan garnered about 35 percent of the vote, losing big to incumbent Sheriff Al Nienhuis in the two-person Republican primary contest.

Sullivan, a retired Pasco County sheriff's captain who now works as executive director for public safety at St. Leo University, arrived at his campus office to find cards and gifts from students who knew that a job as Hernando sheriff was not to be.

"You showed me how to be a downright good guy," one student wrote. "You've been a mentor to me, and I would follow whatever path you tell me without thinking twice."

"How can you be down when you walk into your office and see stuff like this?" Sullivan said.

Still, he acknowledged the margin of his loss surprised him.

Nienhuis worked as undersheriff in Pasco County for a decade until he was appointed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist to finish Sheriff Rich Nugent's term after Nugent was elected to Congress in 2010. Sullivan retired from the Pasco agency in 2007 after working with Nienhuis for about seven years.

Sullivan tried to cast the sheriff as an outsider who was handed the post because of his political connections to former Pasco Sheriff Bob White and Crist. Noting Nienhuis' lack of experience as a patrol deputy, Sullivan called himself a "cop's candidate" who knew from experience how to fight crime. And he touted his status as a Brooksville native who still lives here.

"Perhaps I misread the sentiment of the community that they wanted a qualified local guy," Sullivan said. "Perhaps I did not provide proper justification for change."

"This has never been about me," he said. "The people spoke, and I respect the process."

During a debate last month, Nienhuis asked Sullivan whether he would endorse him if he lost, or if he would support the Democrat in the race as he did in Pasco in 2008, after he lost to White in the Republican primary.

A sheriff's race shouldn't be partisan, Sullivan responded, and if he does make an endorsement, it will be for the most qualified candidate regardless of party.

So will Sullivan endorse James "Eddie" McConnell, the Democratic candidate and a former Hernando deputy who recently left the Groveland Police Department to run for sheriff?

Sullivan said it would be disingenuous to turn around and support Nienhuis after all of the criticism he levied against the incumbent. And while Sullivan has known McConnell his entire life and calls him a personable man dedicated to Hernando, he said he doesn't know anything about McConnell's leadership skills. With Nienhuis, he had firsthand knowledge.

"I'm planning on staying out of (the November election) completely," Sullivan said. "I really don't see how my endorsement would mean a hill of beans to either one of the candidates."

Asked if he might consider a future bid for sheriff, Sullivan replied: "I never say never."

McConnell, who has been campaigning since March, said Wednesday that he would welcome Sullivan's endorsement. He agrees that sheriff's races should be nonpartisan.

He also acknowledged that as a Democrat in a GOP-leaning county, he has an even tougher climb than Sullivan had.

But McConnell has more than two decades of experience with the Sheriff's Office under his belt. He said he has also been encouraged by a sentiment expressed by people he's meeting out on the trail.

"A lot are saying, 'I used to be straight party line, but now I'm looking at the person and the issues,'" he said.

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1431.

Defeated Hernando sheriff candidate expresses surprise, gratitude 08/15/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 15, 2012 9:40pm]

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