ST. PETERSBURG — Pinellas County sheriff candidate Everett Rice is battling suggestions he has embraced fringe conservative ideas, saying Thursday that he has been unfairly branded a "right-wing nut" over issues that should not be at the forefront of the election.
At a packed lunchtime candidate forum Thursday hosted by the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club, Rice faced repeated questions about his ties to antigovernment groups and his positions on issues such as immigration.
Other topics were raised, including how candidates would manage the Sheriff's Office under budgetary constraints and improve what some say is sagging morale among deputies.
Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who is running against Rice in the Aug. 14 Republican primary, said internal surveys indicate morale is not as bad as some say. Rice and Scott Swope, the Democratic candidate who will face off against the winner of the Republican primary in the Nov. 6 general election, disagreed, with Rice saying morale is the "No. 1 issue I would work on" if elected.
Gualtieri was not questioned about recent allegations of improper behavior by members of the Sheriff's Office narcotics squad, as the audience consistently returned to grilling Rice about statements he has made that appear to cater to extreme elements of the GOP.
A formerly moderate Republican who served as Pinellas sheriff from 1988 to 2004, Rice has signed on with the Oath Keepers, a group of military and law enforcement officials in the antigovernment "Patriot" movement. And he says he is unsure whether President Barack Obama is a U.S. citizen.
At one point Thursday, Rice was asked whether he would "go against" the U.S. government on federal laws he considered unconstitutional.
Defiance of federal authority is a key tenet of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, an organization headed by Richard Mack, the former Arizona sheriff and tea party celebrity who has endorsed Rice.
"I don't really think there would ever be an occasion where the sheriff would have to stand up to the federal government," Rice said. "However, if the occasion arose, I would."
Asked why he signed the Oath Keepers pledge, which includes promises never to obey orders to "disarm the American people" or turn American cities into "giant concentration camps," Rice said he "did not have a problem" with its contents. The pledge merely reinforces the notion that a sheriff should follow the Constitution, he said.
He cited the example of Rosa Parks, the civil rights icon who refused to obey segregation laws requiring her to give up her bus seat because she was African-American.
"Any decent human being would know that law is unconstitutional and would not enforce it," Rice said.
That answer didn't satisfy audience member Jerri Evans, who had questioned him about the Oath Keepers.
"I thought he evaded the question," Evans said after the forum. "I think it's frightening if sheriffs now think they can determine what's constitutional and what's unconstitutional."
At one point, while Rice explained his view that Florida could benefit from an Arizona-style law allowing police to check the immigration status of those they stop for questioning, several people shouted from the crowd, "Why?"
Responded Rice, "Because I think we should be doing everything we can to deport illegal aliens."
That brought a jab from Gualtieri. "I guess Everett wants to enforce the law, interpret the law as a 'constitutional sheriff' and create the law," he said, referring to Rice's promise in a recent campaign flier to "deport illegal aliens found in the county jail." The sheriff has no authority to deport immigrants, Gualtieri noted.
Earlier this week, Rice refused to affirm that the president is a citizen at another public forum held in East Lake. The only other candidate for sheriff who would not do so is Greg Pound, a write-in candidate.
At Tiger Bay, Rice said the president's citizenship is not of concern to him when he was questioned by Harvey Landress, who brought a copy of Obama's birth certificate with him.
Rice said he simply "refused to let (the Tampa Bay Times) force me to either validate or invalidate the president's birth certificate" during interviews.
The answer satisfied Landress.
"I think he made it clear that it's not his issue," Landress said after the forum.
Peter Jamison can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4157.