The race for Pinellas sheriff has taken a nasty turn, with two of the candidates hurling insults and questioning each other's integrity and ethics.
Republican incumbent Jim Coats and Democratic challenger Randall Jones had only five minutes at a candidates forum in Lealman on Wednesday night and spent most of it trying to shred each other.
One woman got so angry at Coats she stalked out of the meeting, and another audience member joked that it might not be wise to antagonize someone who carries a gun for a living.
It was a dramatic departure for an otherwise low-key campaign, and Coats said Thursday he hopes the final weeks will see a return of civility.
"I'm going to try not to allow it to reach the tempo it did last night," Coats said. … "Sometimes it can get frustrating, dealing with rhetoric that has no substance to it."
Jones could not be reached for comment. Independent candidate Greg Pound did not appear at the forum, sponsored by the Lealman Community Association.
Jones started the dispute by reminding the audience of Coats' response when told to cut his budget by 10 percent. Coats told Pinellas County commissioners the streets would be "littered with human carnage," that "law-abiding citizens will become prisoners in their own home" and that "innocent citizens, including children, will be caught up in a deadly crossfire."
Jones said Coats' comments amounted to irresponsible threats.
"Those words were reckless," Jones said. "Your sheriff said these words." Jones invited the audience to visit the county Web site, pinellascounty.org, to hear a recording of what Coats said about the cuts.
Coats acknowledged making strong statements about budget cuts. "I was just trying to make a point for the benefit of the community for the citizens we serve … I think I made my point because the deputies are still there."
During the debate, Coats said Jones was "misinformed, uninformed" and "misleading the public," a charge he repeated Thursday. "He has a habit, has had for a long time, of misleading the public," Coats said.
For example, Coats said, Jones has said there were 50 homicides in Pinellas, which is true, but only 10 were in Coats' primary jurisdictions — the unincorporated county and cities where the sheriff provides police services. The rest were in cities that have their own police agencies.
Coats also attacked Jones' qualifications and competency to do the job. Jones, an 18-year veteran of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office who resigned to run, has only the bare qualifications to be a law enforcement officer, Coats said. Jones has no college education and failed the sergeant's exam.