LARGO — Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri held on to his job Tuesday in a bitterly contested primary election to head the county's largest law enforcement agency, turning back the challenge from a well-funded and politically connected Republican rival who had once seemed unbeatable.
Former sheriff and state representative Everett Rice conceded the race at a campaign gathering in Treasure Island not long after the polls closed Tuesday night, when preliminary tallies showed Gualtieri with a sizable lead.
At the end of the night, with all precincts reporting, Gualtieri had 57 percent of the vote to Rice's 43 percent.
Gualtieri, 50, a resident of East Lake, will now compete against Democrat Scott Swope and write-in candidate Greg Pound in the Nov. 6 general election. He faces a credible opponent in Swope, a Palm Harbor lawyer who has served as a sheriff's deputy and traffic magistrate and has raised $26,000.
However, a Republican has won the Pinellas sheriff's race in every general election since 1980, and the party's historic dominance of the position kept all eyes on Tuesday's GOP primary.
"Tomorrow is a new day," Gualtieri said, declaring victory within an hour of Rice's concession in a speech to supporters at Bascom's Chop House in Largo. "We're going to stop and breathe for one second, and then get right back on the campaign trail."
The grinding, 15-month campaign between Rice and Gualtieri marked the first time the Pinellas sheriff's post has been seriously contested since 1988. That was the year Rice unseated incumbent Sheriff Gerry Coleman, going on to hold office for four consecutive terms.
The race was characterized, particularly in its final weeks, by relentlessly negative campaigning. Both candidates, as well as a political committee backing Gualtieri, poured their large treasuries into barrages of television commercials and direct mail attacking each other, spending a combined $660,000.
Gualtieri and Rice had each run the Sheriff's Office, but during different eras. Under Rice, who was in office 16 years before stepping down in 2004 and serving a single term in the state Legislature, the agency's budget grew by $151 million, buoyed by rising property tax revenue.
Gualtieri, who became chief deputy at the cusp of the housing market collapse in 2008, was forced to downsize the agency's budget by $72 million. Last year, he was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott to finish the term of former Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats, who retired.
With Pinellas unlikely to see a surge in tax revenue in coming years, Gualtieri cast himself as the candidate with more experience keeping county residents safe on the shoestring budgets of a weakened economy.
"The choice was about the future or the past," he said in his victory speech. "Do you want to stay in yesteryear, or do you want to move forward into the future?"
St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, who endorsed Gualtieri and was at his campaign party Tuesday, said the sheriff had worked to improve the traditionally chilly relations between the Sheriff's Office and St. Petersburg Police Department, resulting in an "unprecedented" level of cooperation between the county's two biggest law enforcement agencies.
"He's the right guy for the job," Foster said. "This is a good night for Pinellas County."
Handicappers of the race initially thought success was likely for Rice. The former sheriff had name recognition and endorsements from powerful interest groups such as the National Rifle Association and the Suncoast Police Benevolent Association, which represents Pinellas sheriff's deputies. This spring, Gualtieri was hamstrung by a scandal in his agency's narcotics division, when drug detectives were accused of trespassing and lying in order to obtain search warrants.
Throughout the campaign, Rice, 67, held a steady fundraising advantage. Gualtieri raised $225,000, while a committee supporting him, Citizens for a Safer Pinellas, raised $122,000. Combined, that money did not match the $364,000 amassed by the Rice campaign.
In June 2011, Rice's campaign publicized the results of an internal poll showing he had a 43-point lead over Gualtieri. On Tuesday, Gualtieri acknowledged his own campaign's internal polling in January had still showed him 40 points behind his rival.
Yet voters began scrutinizing Rice more closely this summer, after the Tampa Bay Times reported on his courtship of far-right activist groups and adoption of extreme positions on issues such as immigration and gun laws.
Speaking to a reporter shortly before he conceded Tuesday night, a visibly crestfallen Rice blamed the Times' stories on these stances for his first losing campaign in the more than two decades since he first was elected.
"When you cast me to be right-wing, anti-government, that wasn't true," Rice said. "All I did was to refuse to validate the president's birth certificate, which I have no way of doing."
Rice has repeatedly refused in interviews and at public forums to acknowledge that President Barack Obama is a U.S. citizen, and told the NRA he supports legalizing the open carrying of firearms in Florida. He also signed the pledge of a controversial anti-government group, the Oath Keepers, vowing to defy the federal government if he deemed its laws unconstitutional.
Photojournalist Lara Cerri contributed to this report. Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.