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Pinellas sheriff leaving office a year early and with new priorities

CLEARWATER — Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats wakes up with a 46-foot boat docked outside his townhouse.

Each morning he had to decide: don the badge or fire up the boat.

For years, the badge won, pulling him from a retirement that was ready and waiting.

But on Monday, Coats will retire and his chief deputy, Bob Gualtieri, will take over.

Coats, 67, will depart after perhaps the most challenging year of personal and professional struggles in his 40-year career.

His wife of nearly 38 years, Cat, was diagnosed with an aggressive, early stage of breast cancer in June. That came weeks after Coats announced he wouldn't run again.

Her diagnosis forced him to question priorities quickly.

"When you find that out, you have no idea what's next," Coats said.

The boat symbolized a pivotal decision they faced.

"How do you want to spend the time we have left?"

• • •

Coats' announcement in August to quit a year early jolted Pinellas. He was stable and popular among elected officials. He spent the prime of his life at the Sheriff's Office. Now he would walk away from it all.

He joined the Sheriff's Office in 1971, a pilot interested in serving in the flight section. He rose up the ranks so well that then-Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed him twice to run two Florida Panhandle sheriff's agencies in turmoil.

Coats became chief deputy in 1995 and ran daily operations. He was easily elected sheriff in 2004, replacing the departing Everett Rice, and re-elected in 2008.

No one in Pinellas got more votes than Coats that year.

But the intervening years brought deep spending cuts that shrank the ranks and pinched morale — and sometimes frustrated Coats. Keeping the office stable during that period will likely be Coats' greatest legacy, said Tim Ingold, a former police union president now running for sheriff.

Coats remained a political force. He helped create a homeless shelter, Pinellas Safe Harbor, at an unused jail annex this year. He recently opened a multi-million-dollar high-tech firing range.

A genial, forthright demeanor insulated him from criticism, such as news that he had retired — before running for sheriff — so he could collect what's now a $10,000 monthly pension and a $158,000 annual salary.

Sometimes Coats would slip into the back during services at Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg. Few white politicians did that, said Democratic state Rep. Darryl Rouson, a church member. It suggested Coats was willing to listen and face scrutiny, Rouson said, such as a deputy's 2005 shooting of a teen.

"It says hey, I'm not just your sheriff Monday through Friday. I'm your sheriff Saturday and Sunday, and I'm here to worship with you," said Rouson.

Coats didn't chest-thump, and he joked privately about sheriffs who did, said Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee.

But Coats also wasn't a natural politician.

"He really knew how to run the department. I don't think the political part of the role came as easily to him, though he did have successes from time to time," said lobbyist Ed Armstrong.

In 2008, Coats suggested that a 10 percent budget cut would leave streets "littered with human carnage."

He agreed to a 9 percent cut after some opponents accused him of scare tactics. The cuts meant 60 officers were laid off.

"That was probably the worst thing I had to do in my career," Coats said.

But his way of building relationships paid off: Gee hired many of the officers.

Perhaps his biggest fumble came this year. He publicly floated the idea of winning re-election and then resigning so the governor could appoint Gualtieri to fill his term. He killed the idea after withering criticism, saying it had been misconstrued.

But it had consequences: In May, Rice, his mentor, seized on the gaffe in announcing he would run again.

Ultimately, however, Coats said his re-election decision was personal. He would be near 73 if he finished a third term. How long would he have left?

"I can't say I'm surprised," said Gee, who talked to Coats before the decision. "It's a job that can sap the energy out of you. It's a job not only with all the internal things, but there's politics and all the things you have to be mindful of."

Still, the person closest to him was skeptical that he would give up his career.

"I thought he was definitely going to run again," Cat Coats said. "He told me over the years he's never had a bad day since he's been going to the office."

• • •

That bad day came when his wife found something that would rearrange their lives.

A lump in her breast.

She was diagnosed June 28. Knowing that family members fell to the disease, she underwent a mastectomy. Then she got an infection that landed her in the hospital for days. Then she needed a complicated biopsy near an artery.

"I think for a lot of women to go through this alone, that's a very scary thought," said Mrs. Coats, 56. "You lose your breast. You lose your hair. You lose your femininity with breast cancer."

A month ago, Sheriff Coats also had a cancerous chunk removed from under his cheek. The surgery was successful, Coats said, but it was his second bout with skin cancer.

Doctors now put his wife's chance of survival at 96 percent, though that has meant six months of chemotherapy that brings days of flulike malaise, she said.

The couple have become cancer activists, raising more than $15,000 for breast cancer awareness.

Coats claims no regrets about leaving office early, though he'll miss parts of it.

He will turn in the agency's 2004 SUV with 111,000 miles. He bought a shiny new one recently, the first vehicle he purchased for himself since 1968.

And he plans to spend more time on that boat, a 1974 Hatteras he named partly for his wife: The Cat & the Hatt.

It has a living room, bedrooms and a kitchen. And enough diesel power to get to the Bahamas.

Now, he will finally have more time to get there.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/decamptimes.

Pinellas sheriff leaving office a year early and with new priorities 11/04/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 5, 2011 11:48pm]
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