BROOKSVILLE — Every time Sheriff Richard Nugent logs on to his department's internal Web site, he sees a timer ticking down toward zero.
"One hundred eleven days, 13 hours and 21 minutes," Nugent said Friday morning, reading the clock on his computer.
It's the time remaining until Nugent is expected to take over operations of the Hernando County Jail from Corrections Corporation of America, the private corporation that has run the county-owned facility for the past 22 years.
After offering to take over the jail and then rescinding that offer because of decrepit conditions there, Nugent is once again the next expected caretaker now that CCA has decided to back out of its contract and County Administrator David Hamilton has recommended that the County Commission turn over the duties to the Sheriff's Office.
There isn't a visual cue for it, but the clock is also ticking for Nugent the congressional candidate.
Nugent, 58, pulled a political shocker April 30 when he qualified at the last moment to run for the District 5 seat in Congress at the urging of Brooksville Republican Ginny Brown-Waite, who announced shortly afterward that she was bowing out because of health problems. Nugent will face Republican Jason Sager in the primary and, if successful, Democrat Jim Piccillo of Land O'Lakes in the general election.
Though a political pillar in Hernando, Nugent has to get his name out to voters in the seven other counties that make up the district.
Nugent says he is prepared for the grueling demands of arguably the two biggest endeavors of his professional and political career: a jail takeover and a bid for Congress. Some, including his would-be general election challenger, have called for Nugent to resign to be fair to taxpayers.
But to Nugent, that would mean abandoning the department when it needs him most.
"Let me tell you something. There is no way in hell I would do that," he said. "Nothing that someone can say is going to make be back down on that. If I didn't think I could do it, I would be the first one to walk away."
By law, he doesn't have to. Election laws state that federal candidates need only resign from their current elected post at the time they take office.
But is it realistic to run a congressional campaign at nights and on the weekends? What if he changes his mind and decides he does want to be a full-time candidate for the next three to six months? Would the outcome of a special election for sheriff be any different than an appointment by the governor?
Won't step down
Earlier this week, Piccillo pounced.
The 36-year-old small business consultant said Nugent can't have it both ways and called on the sheriff to step down or get out of the race.
"The citizens of Florida's 5th District deserve to have a fair voice in their democracy," Piccillo wrote in an open letter to Nugent. "Florida tax payers should not have to pay their Sheriff a full time salary for part time work and, most importantly, you simply have unfinished business as Sheriff."
Nugent says people within the department and in the community have told to him to ignore calls for his resignation.
That's logical, County Commissioner David Russell said.
"Alex Sink is running for governor, and she's (chief financial officer) of the state," Russell said. "(Gov.) Charlie Crist is running for Senate. Why would you call for the sheriff to resign when it's not common practice to do so?"
But in politics, as in life, timing is key, and if Nugent did decide to step aside to run full time, the clock is ticking on his ability to let voters decide who would succeed him.
State election laws say that if a sheriff's seat comes empty because of, say, a resignation, the office would be filled by a special election unless the vacancy occurs within 28 months of the end of the term. If the vacancy comes within that 28-month time frame, the governor appoints someone to serve the remainder of the term.
Nugent's term ends in January 2013. That means if he resigned by this September, Hernando voters would get to choose his successor in the general election Nov. 2, said Jennifer Davis, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of State. If he resigned before the June qualifying period and candidates from both parties jumped in, a primary would take place along with other races Aug. 24.
Whether he intended to or not, Nugent could be setting himself up to hand off his seat in a way similar to Brown-Waite's move. If Nugent doesn't resign and wins, he would leave the sheriff's post in January. He acknowledged that he would recommend to Crist someone within the top ranks of his department to replace him.
It's unlikely that a governor would overlook the chosen candidate of a sheriff who has served for a decade and is leaving to take his just-won congressional seat, said David Johnson, a former executive of the Republican Party who is now a Tallahassee-based political consultant.
It's unclear whether a special election would produce a different outcome. In 2008, Nugent did not face a serious challenge from inside or outside the department. But the man who likes to say that the Sheriff's Office "grows leaders" certainly has potential candidates in mind, and there are least two potential candidates from outside the department.
Last July, facing a tough budget picture and the impending retirement of his chief deputy, Michael Hensley, Nugent announced a reorganization. He eliminated the position of chief deputy and elevated the role of three bureau chiefs.
With Hensley's departure and the February 2009 death of Capt. Scott Bierwiler in a traffic crash, the office lacked an obvious frontrunner to replace Nugent. It did, however, have three new bureau chiefs.
Bill Kicklighter, the director of information technology, became chief of the agency's new public safety bureau.
Kicklighter, though, is a civilian. More likely to get the nod from Nugent is one of his two other bureau chiefs, both of whom are longtime lawmen.
Chief Royce Decker is head of law enforcement services. Decker, 54, started his career at the North Miami Police Department in 1976 and has worked at the Hernando Sheriff's Office since 1983.
Chief Michael Maurer, 47, leads law enforcement operations and has been at the Sheriff's Office since 1988.
In recent months, Maurer has been showing up more frequently for photo opportunities as a representative of the Sheriff's Office, even accepting Nugent's Citizen of the Year award from the Brooksville Elks Lodge 2582 recently.
A sign that the grooming of Maurer has begun? Nugent wouldn't say. But he noted that both Maurer and Decker share the duties of filling in for him.
Neither man could be reached for comment for this story. But Nugent says Maurer has expressed interest in the sheriff's post; Decker hasn't.
"In my mind, this discussion doesn't happen until I'm successful in November. Then we talk about the transition at the Sheriff's Office," Nugent said.
He acknowledged, though, that an experience from his own political past comes to mind.
More than a year before the 2000 election, then-Sheriff Tom Mylander moved Eddie McConnell from his high-profile job as head of community services to the more mundane task of overseeing purchasing, supplies and fleet management. McConnell called the move politically motivated, accusing the sheriff of trying to hinder his election bid against Nugent, Mylander's protege.
The following January, after losing to Nugent in the election, McConnell decided to leave, saying he did not want his presence to hinder Nugent's administration and split department loyalties. Both men claimed to have significant support from within the agency during the campaign and openly admitted that the election had caused tension and division within it.
Nugent, sooner or later, will find himself in the same position of endorsing a successor. When asked if there could be other staffers in the department harboring sheriff ambitions, he would say only this: "You never know."
McConnell, who also ran unsuccessfully for sheriff in 2004 and is now a police captain for the city of Groveland, said Friday he hadn't ruled out a bid in 2012.
Would the Brooksville resident run in the unlikely event there is a special election in November?
"There's a good possibility," he said.
There is at least one other possible candidate outside of the department: Assistant State Attorney Don Barbee.
"I can say I've been asked by a lot of people to consider it," said Barbee.
And the former police officer and FBI agent acknowledged he was doing so.
A packed schedule
Last Monday, three days after news broke of Nugent's qualifying for the congressional bid, he told a Times reporter that he would devote his nights and weekends to the campaign. A few hours later, he was on a plane to Washington to meet with GOP leaders and strategists. He didn't return to work until Thursday.
The weekday trip had to happen to get the campaign off the ground, Nugent said. The man who has led three of his own bids for local office is now faced with hiring a full-fledged campaign machine. He said he will not simply inherit Brown-Waite's team.
"It's not Ginny's campaign," he said. "This is my campaign."
In D.C. last week, Nugent met with strategists, pollsters and communications specialists. He said he made it clear that he has a full-time job that will limit his campaigning abilities.
"I was real matter-of-fact about that," he said. "They've run campaigns for people in my type of situation before. My evenings and weekends are going to be booked. But that's okay. That's my time."
He saw Brown-Waite briefly, during a Republican committee breakfast. Nugent spoke for a couple of minutes in front of 80 or so GOP members of Congress.
Nugent, who loaned his campaign the nearly $11,000 filing fee, says he came home with campaign contributions from various members of Congress. Brown-Waite also gave him the $5,000 allowed by law. Nugent's campaign finance activity hadn't shown up in the Federal Election Commission's disclosure database by Friday. He said he will announce his campaign team this week.
While Nugent was gone, a body riddled with gunshot wounds turned up in a front yard of a Ridge Manor home. About 14 hours later, deputies arrested two men, one of them the son of the victim. Nugent said he kept in touch by phone, but his department was successful without him hovering.
"If it took the sheriff to do that, then we have all the wrong people working for us," he said.
Mitch Kates, campaign manager for state Democratic Sen. Charlie Justice's congressional bid, is skeptical.
"If you're a real candidate, there's no such thing as a part-time campaign, and nights and weekends are part-time campaigns," Kates said. "There are plenty of candidates that have to multitask, and it's a very challenging life that you lead when that process is happening. When you factor in this guy is head of public safety of a county, I'd be a little concerned about that."
Both Sager and Piccillo have been campaigning for months in the district, which includes all of Citrus, Hernando and Sumter counties, most of Lake, Levy and Pasco counties and portions of Marion and Polk.
Sager, an unemployed former audio-visual technician who is now campaigning full time, is closely aligned with the tea party and has called Nugent the new establishment candidate.
"We're doing well, getting our message out there," Sager said. "We're still going to stay on our game plan, and we've been very effective so far."
Brown-Waite, since her election to Congress in 2002, has won handily against Democratic challengers in a district drawn to favor a GOP candidate. David Wasserman, House editor for the Cook Political Report, said Brown-Waite's absence from the ballot doesn't change the outlook for a Democrat to get elected.
"There is no chance," Wasserman said.
Piccillo says that national Democratic Party officials have reached out to him since Brown-Waite bowed out. National party officials have declined to comment about strategy to the Times.
Cy Wingrove, chairman of he Hernando County Democratic Executive Committee, said he's more optimistic, especially since Brown-Waite's maneuvers prevented big-name Republicans like state Sen. Mike Fasano and Public Service Commission Chairwoman Nancy Argenziano from entering the race.
"I definitely feel that it opens it up quite a bit," Wingrove said. "We've got a good candidate, and he's been working hard."
Johnson, the consultant, said Nugent may be starting behind, but he has immense advantages, too.
Being a three-term Republican sheriff that Brown-Waite handpicked will go a long way, he said. So will access to her donor lists. And Brown-Waite has vowed to work as hard for Nugent as her health will allow.
That doesn't mean he doesn't have to meet with the Republican clubs, the Kiwanis and Rotary clubs "and just about anybody that gets together" in a district with more than 800,000 residents spanning some 4,800 square miles, Johnson said.
"There's still lots of legwork, lots of shoe leather to be expended, and lots of telephone time ahead for him," he said.
Nugent says he's ready.
"It really has energized me, more than I've felt in a long time," he said, "and that's a good thing."
Times staff writer John Frank contributed to this report. Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.