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Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats' succession plan skips election

Sheriffs usually like to handpick their successors. They help raise their chosen one's profile, then they anoint the replacement when the election arrives.

Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats wants to take that tradition a step further. He envisions literally handing over his reins.

If he wins re-election in 2012, Coats said, he could serve two years and resign. Then he would ask the governor to appoint his chief deputy, Robert Gualtieri, to finish the final two years of the term.

"That would give him some seat time in the position to campaign for the job," said Coats, 67. "I get two years, then I may want to step down then, and that would give him two years in the position to get comfortable."

The unusual suggestion surprised some fellow Republicans.

Pinellas County Republican chairman Jay Beyrouti expects Coats to run again — and someday Gualtieri, too.

But Beyrouti was unaware of Coats' idea. The approach may give voters pause, he said.

"This is news to me. … When people hear that, they'll have to make up their decision," Beyrouti said.

He gave Coats points for at least being upfront about it.

Turning over the office midterm to Gualtieri may not be so easy. Coats' plan presumes Gov. Rick Scott — a fellow Republican who put Coats on his transition team — would go along.

"That's a hell of an assumption that Scott's going to do what he wants," said Republican state committeeman Tony DiMatteo of Pinellas.

Gualtieri's profile has risen recently with his starring role in one of Coats' top priorities: creating a 500-person homeless shelter near the jail, Pinellas Safe Harbor.

Coats said Gualtieri has done a good job, and that he considers him his "heir apparent."

He wouldn't be the first. Coats was chief deputy before he succeeded Everett Rice as sheriff. Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee was chief deputy before succeeding Cal Henderson. Each was endorsed by his predecessor as he left office.

Gualtieri said he would be flattered by the chance to follow Coats — on the ballot or two years in. But the community has to "wait and see" what Coats decides, said Gualtieri, 49, a lawyer and officer who has been Coats' right-hand man since 2007.

"There is no plan," he said.

Coats said he intends to run in 2012.

"I have not in any way indicated that I was not going to run. I think it's too early for incumbents to open campaign accounts," Coats said. "Obviously, you never know what the future's going to bring, whether it's health, family or other opportunity, but as it stands, I plan to run."

Part of Coats' strength — and probably Gualtieri's, too — has been the office's reputation during his two terms that began in 2004. They have been scandal free. In 2008, Coats won more votes than any Pinellas candidate — including the presidential hopefuls atop the ballot.

Coats has been the face of the Sheriff's Office, his folksy manner appearing in public service announcements. But the stern-voiced Gualtieri oversees day-to-day operations, and has become heavily involved in budgets in an era of deep spending cuts.

Theirs is a relationship decades in the making but, for Gualtieri, mostly out of the public eye.

He attends neighborhood meetings, and went to the Pinellas Republican Party's Lincoln Day Dinner last month. But he backed away a bit ashen-faced when a reporter suggested people might think he's running for office.

Gualtieri has given $2,550 to candidates over the decade, including $1,500 to Coats. His wife, lawyer Lauralee Westine, has given $16,800, mostly to Republicans. Several years ago, they joined a Pinellas Republican Party group for donors, the Ivory Club.

The son of an elected New York district attorney, Gualtieri grew up in a family of lawyers, sparking his interest in law enforcement.

He joined the Sheriff's Office in 1982 as a detention deputy, and became a deputy the next year. He built a relationship with Coats while working in investigative and narcotics divisions.

In 1990 at the age of 28, Gualtieri was named deputy of the year for his work hunting local drug distributors, some associated with the notorious Medellin cartel of Colombia.

He left the agency in 1998 to become a lawyer, but even in private practice maintained his ties to Coats by representing the Sheriff's Office in employment matters.

With Coats in charge, Gualtieri took his offer to become general counsel of the Sheriff's Office in 2006. A year later, Coats made Gualtieri chief deputy, too. He is paid $152,000 a year, about $6,400 less than Coats.

When the sheriff and St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster pushed to open a homeless shelter last year, Gualtieri orchestrated the use of a vacant jail annex. He also has been the face of the Sheriff's Office at budget meetings. Commissioners want the Sheriff's Office to cut $14 million from next year's budget to make up for falling short of targeted cuts a year ago.

Gualtieri downplays suggestions that his role is being purposely elevated.

"That stuff isn't any different. I think some of it has just kind of happened, and we've got a lot of stuff going on," he said.

Yet he has attracted enough notice that State Attorney Bernie McCabe asked him if he was planning to run for his job. Gualtieri's answer: No, that's not where his interest lies.

There could be another job opening closer to his heart.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats' succession plan skips election 03/12/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 12, 2011 8:33pm]
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