BROOKSVILLE — There often comes a point in political debates when the candidates take off the proverbial gloves.
Moments after the two Republicans running for Hernando County sheriff sat down Monday for a debate hosted by the Tampa Bay Times, it became clear they didn't bother to put on gloves at all.
Incumbent Sheriff Al Nienhuis and challenger Bobby Sullivan shot barbs back and forth throughout the half-hour encounter at the Times' Hernando office.
Sullivan attacked Nienhuis' record as undersheriff in Pasco County and as sheriff in Hernando since he was appointed to the post in December 2010. Nienhuis repeatedly criticized Sullivan as a mudslinger who misrepresented facts and offered no real ideas of his own.
"Rather than running a campaign that tells the citizens of Hernando County specifically what you would do for them as their sheriff, you are focused on throwing mud at me, all in attempt to make people believe things that are simply not true," Nienhuis said near the end of the debate.
Neither candidate, however, opted to use the debate's format to ask his opponent about how he would improve the agency or cut the budget.
Each candidate was permitted to ask four questions during the debate, which was moderated by Mike Konrad, the Times' Hernando County editor. The Times did not place restrictions on the questions or review them in advance.
The two men have a history. Nienhuis served as the undersheriff in Pasco for a decade under then-Sheriff Bob White before then-Gov. Charlie Crist appointed him to complete the term of Richard Nugent, who was elected to Congress. Sullivan, a Brooksville native, worked for the Pasco agency for 26 years before retiring as a captain in 2007. Nienhuis was Sullivan's direct supervisor for about six years.
From the start of the debate, Sullivan tried to characterize Nienhuis as a carpetbagger who won the Hernando post based on his loyalty to White and their connection to Crist, who picked Nienhuis over Nugent's recommendation, Col. Mike Maurer.
"You played your political capital and called in a favor to lame-duck Gov. Crist and secured that appointment knowing that this was in opposition to the will of the people of Hernando County," Sullivan said as a preface to his first question. "So after poking the citizens of Hernando County in the eye as well as Congressman Nugent, is it not disingenuous for you now to say you truly care about the people of Hernando County?"
Nienhuis, who immediately made Maurer his chief deputy, said the two men make a good team. The crime rate is down, and the clearance rate is up, he said.
"Things are going very, very well at the Sheriff's Office, and citizens have had the unique opportunity to be able to see my performance over the last year and half," Nienhuis said.
Nienhuis noted that Sullivan applied for the same appointment and said he would not run for election this year, if appointed.
That's accurate, Sullivan said.
"I saw the political skullduggery that was getting ready to occur, and I tried to do everything in my power to keep that from happening," he said. "I just wanted to make it a level playing field where someone did not have the position of appointed incumbent and use that to their advantage during the upcoming election."
He noted that he never said he wouldn't run if he was not appointed.
Nienhuis asked Sullivan about a statement he made at a recent candidate forum that he "would not put the citizens of Hernando County first" if elected.
The quote wasn't taken in its entirety, Sullivan said.
"I have to put the men and women of the Sheriff's Office first and meet their needs, provide the leadership for them, provide the backing for them (and) provide the support if I expect them to be able to turn around and serve the citizens the way the citizens need to be served," he said.
Nienhuis criticized Sullivan for what he called a false claim in a campaign mailer that Hernando's crime rate increased during 2011. The actual crime rate, Nienhuis said, is the lowest it's been in 20 years, and the clearance rate — the percentage of crimes solved — is the highest in 20 years. To suggest anything else, Nienhuis said, is an insult to the employees of the Sheriff's Office.
"What explanation can you give them that would justify making the results of their hard work a farce and to the public that it's okay to falsely claim that the crime rate is rising at a pace in Hernando County that should make them scared to leave their house?"
Sullivan called Nienhuis' crime rate claims "trickonometry."
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement's Uniform Crime Report shows the total number of crimes committed, or the crime index. That is up, Sullivan said.
"I do not buy his numbers and nor should the public," he said.
The index showed an increase because of an error in reporting, Nienhuis replied. The crime rate, adjusted for population, is the only fair way to compare crime over the years, he said.
Sullivan questioned why Nienhuis shifted longtime sheriff's secretary Barbara Renfroe to a newly created position coordinating volunteers for the agency, among other duties, at a salary of about $51,000. Nienhuis brought his own secretary from Pasco and put her in the post.
At the same time, Sullivan criticized Nienhuis for one of his first decisions after he took office: to forfeit the agency's state accreditation. Given the heavy costs and staffing necessary to maintain accreditation, the sheriff said at the time, it wasn't worth it.
"It makes no academic sense, no practitioner sense, no legal sense why the first thing you do is cut accreditation and bring your friend from Pasco County to keep your schedule," Sullivan said.
Nienhuis said he moved Renfroe because she had planned to retire about this time and he didn't want to have to find a new assistant during an election. Renfroe's position coordinating volunteers and their training ultimately saves the agency money, he said.
"She is absolutely critical to the operation of the Sheriff's Office," he said.
Nienhuis noted that Sullivan ran unsuccessfully for Pasco sheriff in 2008, which seems counter to Sullivan's claim now that a homegrown candidate is preferable.
"Can you explain why your position, your opinion and your promises keep changing to suit your situation at any given time?" Nienhuis asked.
Sullivan responded that he had a connection to Pasco County at that time, too.
"I've been shot at, stabbed, worked the streets for 27 years in Pasco County," he said.
"You were plopped in here a year and a half ago."
Sullivan claimed that Nienhuis had a history of "employee cruelty" at the Pasco agency that has carried over to his current post. He alluded to the controversy over Nienhuis' decision to open internal affairs investigations of three longtime employees for their involvement in a fledgling financial services company. And he claimed that Nienhuis "politicized" the death of Deputy John Mecklenburg by arranging a public signing ceremony for a state law that bears his name, despite the wishes of the deputy's widow, Penny, for a private ceremony.
Nienhuis said he cut highly paid employees at the Pasco agency at the behest of his boss. He said he felt it was "necessary and appropriate" to have a bill signing that could be attended by Mecklenburg's co-workers and the public.
"My opponent keeps bringing it up and making (the bill signing) political, and he should be ashamed of himself," Nienhuis said.
Nienhuis, who now lives west of Brooksville, defended his commitment to his new home, noting his involvement in several civic groups.
"My wife and my daughters love it here," he said. "We are a part of the community and have been for a year and a half."
The winner of the Republican primary on Aug. 14 goes on to face Democrat Eddie McConnell and write-in candidate Nicholas Piccinich in the November general election. Nienhuis asked Sullivan if, in the event Sullivan loses the primary, he would cross party lines to endorse the Democrat in the race as he did in Pasco in 2008.
Sullivan said partisanship has no place in a sheriff's race. He said he supported the Democrat because he had "absolutely no faith in the Bob White/Al Nienhuis administration."
If he loses and decides to back a candidate this time, Sullivan said, "it's going to be someone that I think has the best interest of Hernando County and the education and the training and the experience."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]