BROOKSVILLE — A Brooksville Democrat who worked at the Hernando County Sheriff's Office for more than two decades and has twice run for the top job will try again.
James "Eddie" McConnell, a 58-year-old lieutenant with the Groveland Police Department, filed papers Friday, with hopes of taking the Hernando sheriff's post from Al Nienhuis.
Former Gov. Charlie Crist appointed Nienhuis, 48, to the position one year ago after longtime Sheriff Rich Nugent was elected to Congress. Nienhuis was second in command of the Pasco Sheriff's Office at the time.
McConnell, who worked for the Hernando Sheriff's Office from 1978 to 2000, was among the applicants for the appointment. On Friday, he touted his ties to the community.
"I feel that a local person with the experience needs to show the voters there is a qualified choice out there," he said.
McConnell is the third candidate to enter the race. Brooksville native Robert "Bobby" Sullivan, who retired from a long career at the Pasco County Sheriff's Office in 2007, will run in the Republican primary against Nienhuis, his former supervisor.
Sullivan has also stressed his Hernando roots. Like Sullivan, McConnell says there are some stark differences between his law enforcement philosophy and that of Nienhuis.
Those differences, he said Friday, will come out later in the campaign. He has already gone on the record disagreeing with Nienhuis' decision to forgo accreditation for the Sheriff's Office. Given the heavy costs and staffing necessary to maintain accreditation, the sheriff said it wasn't worth it. In the long run, McConnell contends, giving up the independent, outside review won't be worth the short-term savings.
McConnell worked his way up through the ranks of the Sheriff's Office. Before the 2000 election, then-Sheriff Tom Mylander moved him from a high-profile job as head of community services to the task of overseeing purchasing, supplies and fleet management. McConnell accused the sheriff of trying to hinder his election bid against Nugent, Mylander's protege.
The next January, after losing to Nugent by 3 percentage points, McConnell left, saying he did not want to hinder Nugent's administration and split loyalties.
McConnell was hired as a detective with the Crystal River Police Department, then joined the Brooksville Police Department in 2002. He was working as a detective when he ran for sheriff in 2004. Nugent handily won that two-man contest, garnering more than 61 percent of the vote.
Two years later, McConnell joined the Groveland department, earning the rank of captain. The department later reorganized and eliminated the position, and McConnell took the rank of lieutenant.
McConnell has taken coursework toward a bachelor's degree at Saint Leo University and Kaplan University. He's not enrolled now, but says he still plans to work toward a degree. He is divorced with four grown children.
Crist's decision to appoint Nienhuis over some other strong, in-county applicants — including Nugent's recommendation, then-Chief Mike Maurer — was controversial. But it may be harder now to cast Nienhuis as an outsider.
Shortly after his appointment, Nienhuis made Maurer his second in command, giving him the rank of colonel. Maurer told the Times recently that Nienhuis has widespread support among deputies and that staffers within the agency who still consider him to be an outsider are in the minority.
Nienhuis navigated a tough 2011-12 budget season, too, compromising with a County Commission that asked him to cut his agency's spending by $2.5 million. He also has worked to get out into the community and has been active with the local Republican Party.
McConnell still has plenty of support among rank-and-file members of the agency, said Steve Zeledon, chairman of the Hernando Democratic Executive Committee. "I think Eddie would bring a feeling of camaraderie within the Sheriff's department," Zeledon said. "We need someone from Hernando County."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]