Hernando Sheriff Richard Nugent had retirement in his sights.
Nugent, 59, looked forward to kicking back in 2012 after four decades in law enforcement and 12 years as the county's top cop.
Then, in March, he got a call from U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, who decided not to seek a fifth term in the 5th District seat because of her health problems. Would Nugent consider running in her place?
Nugent agreed. He quietly entered the race just before the filing deadline, and Brown-Waite announced her retirement and her support for Nugent after the deadline — riling GOP members who said other candidates would have joined the field had they known Brown-Waite was bowing out.
Now, after handily dispatching tea party favorite Jason Sager in the Republican primary, Nugent seems favored to clinch the seat Nov. 2. The district, which includes all or parts of eight counties stretching from Levy to Polk, heavily favors GOP candidates after the boundaries were redrawn in 2002.
But Democrat Jim Piccillo is putting up a fight from the middle of the political spectrum.
The 36-year-old small-business consultant was a registered Republican until 2008. He filed to run for the seat in April 2009, a full year before Brown-Waite dropped her bombshell. An Army veteran and a former financial auditor, Piccillo is trying to put the focus on the economy, building his campaign around an economic revitalization plan that aims to bring clean energy manufacturing jobs to the district.
Both candidates are casting themselves as crusaders against business-as-usual in Washington. They share similar views on some issues, but diverge on social issues, such as abortion and gay marriage.
Piccillo contends that Nugent, as Brown-Waite's chosen candidate and the recipient of thousands of dollars in donations from political action committees affiliated with sitting members of Congress, might as well be the incumbent.
"I think, after all is said and done, voters believe I am more qualified to handle the issues facing the nation," Piccillo said. "People don't want political insiders with back-room deals."
Nugent insists voters can trust that he will be an independent thinker who won't bow to party pressure.
"My life, in regards to what I've done as the leader at the Hernando County Sheriff's Office, is an open book," Nugent told an audience at a recent candidate forum in Brooksville. "Last time, I was re-elected with 73 percent of the vote. It's because we did deliver. It's because we had an organization that listened to the people we serve. That's not what's happening in Washington, D.C."
Nugent: Making tough decisions
Nugent's tenure as sheriff has generally been unmarred by scandal, though there have been bumps.
Last year, Nugent clashed with county commissioners over the size of his department's budget, something Piccillo has pointed out to cast doubt on the sheriff's claims of fiscal conservatism. Nugent's budget has grown by more than 100 percent in the last decade, nearly twice the rate of growth in population and the Consumer Price Index.
Nugent points out that he returned $2 million from his budget to the county's general fund last year.
"I make no excuses for providing the best possible services in law enforcement that I was elected to provide to this county, but being a conservative means you don't spend every nickel of that just because you have it," he said at a forum this summer.
A big fish in Hernando County's small pond, how would Nugent do as a cog in the Washington machine?
"I like to say listen to the lips but look at the life," said Mike Hensley, a former chief deputy for the Sheriff's Office who has known Nugent for about 26 years. "He's had to make tough decisions. If he's convinced it's the right thing to do, that it's the moral, ethical and legal thing to do, he does it and doesn't worry about the fallout. Isn't that the kind of people we want in office?"
Piccillo: Shaped by ups and downs in life
The last few years have been tough ones for Piccillo.
He went through a difficult divorce in 2008, gaining shared custody of his two young daughters. The same year, he lost his job as a financial auditor with HSBC Bank when the business moved its consumer lending division overseas. He even tried, but failed, to qualify for food stamps to help support his girls.
"I had a choice," Piccillo said. "Did I want to continue down that route, or did I want to take personal responsibility and take control of my life?"
He formed Piccillo Enterprises to offer consulting services for small businesses, but says he has essentially put the business on hold since he started campaigning for Congress.
These experiences — managing millions for HSBC, scraping by like so many Americans, running a small business — will help him in the U.S. House of Representatives, he says.
Seeking to represent a district with one of the highest numbers of veterans in the country, Piccillo also is emphasizing his military service. He joined the Army at age 22 and served for six years, including roughly four years with the 101st Airborne Division in Kentucky. He never saw combat.
Piccillo says he decided to switch parties after watching the national conventions in 2008, when he saw that one party was "focused on moving the country forward and the other one was focused on, 'Don't vote for that guy.' "
"I've always been moderate," he told the St. Petersburg Times recently. "My views didn't change; my belief in the political party did."
Piccillo has a knack for getting business done while remaining personable and approachable, said Chris Canton, a former branch manager for HSBC Bank who has known Piccillo for about eight years. Canton described him as competent and detail-oriented, qualities that would serve him well in Congress.
"He's truly in it for the public," Canton said.
Where they match, where they diverge
Piccillo has not held back criticism of some of President Obama's policies, and he lashed out at Nugent for sending a fundraising letter over the summer calling Piccillo the "hand-picked candidate" of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Piccillo said he has never met Pelosi and would vote to replace her, and says he will tell party leadership not to count on him for every vote. He has criticized what he called "the Obama/Pelosi reckless and wasteful spending."
That sounds like one of Nugent's talking points. In fact, Piccillo and Nugent share similar stances on other issues.
Neither man supports amnesty for illegal immigrants and both say they understand why Arizona passed its controversial immigration law, but contend the federal government should enforce current laws so other states don't have to go that route.
Neither supports the cap-and-trade emissions control policy. Both support the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.
Nugent says he would favor some limited additional financial regulation. Piccillo shies away from additional regulation but acknowledges a need to make derivatives trading and the mortgage business more transparent.
Nugent pans the recently passed health care reform law and would support its repeal. Piccillo, who supports a single-payer plan, doesn't much like the reform law, either, citing its cost and level of government intervention. But he would have reluctantly voted for the measure to get results like closing the Medicare benefit "doughnut hole" and outlawing denial of insurance to those with pre-existing conditions.
Nugent wants to make all of the Bush tax cuts permanent. Piccillo supports making permanent the cuts for households earning up to $250,000 annually and says those for the wealthier should be extended for a few more years.
The main plank in Piccillo's platform is a plan to create jobs by bringing together investors and universities to make the district a haven for clean energy research and manufacturing.
Nugent supports a tax deduction of at least 25 percent on income for small businesses to give employers resources to add jobs.
"Democrats, Republicans, independents, they're telling me that would be a huge help," he said.
Nugent also supports a spending freeze for the federal government, bringing the budget back at least to 2008 levels. He calls the stimulus package a failure and says the government should not spend any money that is left over and put the dollars toward the deficit.
Piccillo said the stimulus, while far from perfect, helped stem job losses and that unspent funds need to be released to continue that.
The starker differences are on social issues.
Both men support capital punishment. Both oppose gay marriage, but Piccillo supports legally recognized civil unions.
Nugent said he has never considered offering benefits for same-sex partners at the Sheriff's Office and probably never would. Piccillo said if he were in Nugent's place, he would make such an offer.
Nugent says Roe vs. Wade should be overturned but maintains that abortions should be allowed in the case of rape, incest or to protect the health of the mother. Piccillo says the landmark case should stand, but he does not support late-term abortions unless the health of the mother is at risk.
Nugent said the military's don't-ask-don't-tell policy regarding gay members of the military seemed to be working and that the debate over its repeal should await the outcome of a Pentagon survey of service members. Piccillo says the policy is fundamentally flawed.
Creationism should not be taught in schools, said Piccillo, a Catholic. Nugent, a Christian, disagrees, saying he's comfortable with the theory being mentioned in science class.
"I think that's a positive thing — to expose children to multiple ideas," Nugent said.
Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431.