BROOKSVILLE — Sen. Mike Fasano can guess what the purpose of the call is when the 352 area code lights up his cell phone these days.
Fasano answers and tries to beat the caller to the punch.
"I assume it's a person from Hernando County, a friend or a colleague, and the first thing I ask is, 'Who do you want for sheriff?' " said Fasano, R-New Port Richey.
The veteran lawmaker is a popular guy among constituents who want to weigh in as Gov. Charlie Crist considers an appointment to fill Hernando Sheriff Richard Nugent's post. Nugent was elected last month to the 5th District seat in Congress currently held by Ginny Brown-Waite. His term as sheriff was to end in 2012; his resignation is effective Dec. 31.
Not only is part of Hernando County in Fasano's district; he is considered one of Crist's most loyal friends. So the candidates themselves are also seeking an audience with him.
As of Friday, eight candidates had submitted applications to Crist's office. Of those, four sought meetings with Fasano and a fifth called him on the phone. Among them was Nugent's recommendation, operations Chief Mike Maurer.
"They want me to put in a good word for them," Fasano said.
By most accounts, all but one or two of the applicants could be considered qualified for the job, and at least two others along with Maurer are top contenders. The deep field sets up a potentially tough call for Crist — and the reasons why go beyond the resumes.
Does Crist, a lame-duck governor known for an unpredictable streak, go with Maurer, the in-house pick of a popular outgoing Republican sheriff who was just elected overwhelmingly to Congress? Or does he decide to bring fresh eyes to an agency that has been free of major scandal under Nugent's 10-year tenure?
Then there are the political implications. Does Crist consider a candidate's intentions to run for the seat in 2012? How much would Fasano's recommendation play a role? And is Crist, who abandoned the GOP for an unsuccessful independent bid for U.S. Senate, thinking back to how Nugent entered his congressional race? (Nugent filed quietly, at Brown-Waite's request, just before the deadline, preventing other potential candidates such as Fasano from running for an open seat.)
Crist did not respond to specific questions submitted by the Times to his spokesman last week.
In general, the governor works with his appointments office to choose the best candidate after a careful review and interviews, and considers several factors, spokesman Chris Cate said.
"Among these factors are a candidate's interest in serving, how effectively the candidate could serve, the candidate's integrity and work ethic, and their recommendations," Cate said.
Crist regularly solicits input from Fasano on appointments in his district, but as of Friday had not contacted him about the sheriff's post. Fasano said he expects that Crist will reach out, and when that happens he may or may not make an outright suggestion.
Asked by the Times to offer his impression, he said Maurer would be an "excellent choice." But so, too, he said, would Assistant State Attorney Don Barbee and Col. Al Nienhuis, a friend of Fasano's who has served as undersheriff in Pasco County for the past decade.
He called speculation that Crist would base his decision on politics "disappointing."
"I know the governor well enough to know he is going to do what's in the best interest of public safety," Fasano said.
That may be, said Hernando County Commissioner Dave Russell, who contends that Maurer is clearly the right pick based on his experience in the community. But is Russell confident Maurer will get Crist's nod?
"In terms of these types of appointments, I'm never confident," he said. "What should happen and what does happen could very well be two different things."
Insider vs. outsider
One day about halfway between the August primary and Nugent's victory in the general election, Maurer and his boss were on their way to the courthouse in Brooksville when Nugent spoke the words Maurer had hoped to hear: If my congressional bid is successful, can I recommend you to Crist to finish my term?
"It's kind of one of those things that takes your breath way," Maurer recalled recently. "When I first came here, I said I'd be happy to be a sergeant. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd have the opportunity to be sheriff."
Maurer, 47, joined the department in 1988 when Sheriff Tom Mylander was still in office, and rose through the ranks with Capt. Scott Bierwiler, who in recent years was considered a top contender for sheriff. When Bierwiler died in a car accident last year, Maurer became a clear in-house frontrunner.
When it comes to Crist's appointment, the stakes for Maurer's career are especially high for this reason: Florida law would require him to resign to run against an incumbent sheriff seeking re-election.
That wasn't an issue when Nugent planned to retire in 2012, leaving an open seat. But if Crist picks someone who then decides to run to keep the job, Maurer would have to leave the agency to challenge that person.
Several of the candidates have said they plan to make — or at least are considering — a bid in 2012.
Maurer said he doesn't fault other applicants for trying for the appointment. But he said no matter the breadth or depth of the field, appointing someone who knows the agency should be at the top of Crist's mind.
"We're talking carryover from the Sheriff Mylander years and the Sheriff Nugent years, and right now what's best for the employees and residents is a smooth transition of service," Maurer said.
Last week, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 164 hosted six of the eight candidates — including Maurer, Barbee and Nienhuis — and held a vote to decide whom to recommend to Crist. The results: 57 votes for Maurer, 10 for Barbee, and none for any other candidates.
All of those who voted are currently employees at the Sheriff's Office, said Stephen W. Klapka, the lodge president.
Maurer has worked hard and is well respected in the department, Klapka said. Another factor, he said, is that employees concerned about job security are nervous about the prospect of bringing in someone from the outside.
But Maurer would have to do the job well to keep that support in 2012, Klapka said.
"If Mike gets appointed to the position and he doesn't perform in 24 months, they'll look at another candidate," he said.
Not everyone agrees with the notion that Maurer is the best option.
Among those with a different opinion is Hernando County Commissioner Jeff Stabins, who wrote a letter to Crist weeks ago recommending Barbee.
Barbee has an impressive resume in his own right, Stabins said in an interview last week. Barbee, a former police officer and FBI agent, has led the State Attorney's Office in Brooksville since 2008.
Stabins, who has had public spats with Nugent over the size of the department's budget, said he has the utmost respect for Nugent and Maurer and the current quality of the agency. But it's time for fresh eyes, Stabins said.
"Sheriff Nugent was a very progressive sheriff and did an excellent job when resources were plentiful, but they no longer are, and I'm looking for someone who can go in there to make budgetary decisions to streamline the agency without affecting rank-and-file officers on the street," he said. "It's hard to make cuts when you work with people for 20 years."
"I understand the agency, I work with them every single day, but I've not been part of it and been ingrained with the philosophies and the relationships that are built," he said. "I think it'd be easier for me to make the necessary changes coming from the outside."
Those changes include increasing efficiency and boosting the quality of investigations, Barbee said.
"Their quality of investigation is very good, but I get to see the finished product every single time, and I think I can make changes that would make them even better," he said.
Barbee, who has indicated he likely will run for sheriff in 2012, says he and Maurer get along well and could overcome any tension that might surface if Barbee is picked. And he says he could be an effective leader based on the rapport he already has within the ranks of the Sheriff's Office.
Another candidate with ties to the Sheriff's Office is James "Eddie" McConnell, who worked at the department for more than two decades and made unsuccessful bids for sheriff in 2000 and 2004.
McConnell, 57, is a lieutenant for the Groveland Police Department. A native of Brooksville, he said people in the community asked him to submit his name for appointment after Nugent chose to run for Congress.
Before the 2000 election, Mylander moved McConnell from a high-profile job as head of community services to the task of overseeing purchasing, supplies and fleet management. McConnell accused the sheriff of trying to hinder his election bid against Nugent, Mylander's protege.
The next January, after losing to Nugent by 3 percentage points, McConnell left, saying he did not want to hinder Nugent's administration and split loyalties.
McConnell pointed out that he is the only candidate who has been vetted by voters.
"My commitment to the office is very clear through that," he told the Times recently.
The other candidates with long law enforcement resumes who say they could lend a fresh perspective are Michael "Rick" Singer, a 51-year-old resident agent in charge of the Brooksville field office of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and Peter Federico, a detective with the Pasco County Sheriff's Office.
Fasano says many of the callers lobbying for candidates support either Maurer or Barbee.
Their second choice, according to Fasano, is often Nienhuis.
The Pasco connection
One recent day, Nienhuis met with his boss, Sheriff Bob White, to seek his blessing to go for the Hernando appointment. Nienhuis (pronounced NEEN-hice) had already had the same talk with his wife.
"It would be exciting to take over an agency that has such a great reputation," he said. "Taking the successes that Sheriff Mylander and now Sheriff Nugent have had and building on them would be great, but the bottom line is it always goes back to serving the citizens."
White said he plans to run for re-election in Pasco in 2012. Nienhuis said he would not challenge him, so the earliest Nienhuis could make a bid for the top spot would be 2016. Nienhuis also said he has not ruled out running for Hernando County sheriff in 2012.
White said he has not contacted Crist's office about the appointment and probably would not.
"I think the fact that Al Nienhuis has been my undersheriff for 10 years says everything I could say about his qualifications," White said. "I'm sure Gov. Crist doesn't need me to call him up and tell him that."
Nienhuis considers Crist and Fasano friends, and he visited Fasano to talk about his application.
"But I think no one can dispute Sen. Fasano is about serving the people, and if he puts in a good word (to Crist), it's for the right reasons," Nienhuis said.
Nienhuis has been meeting with people in Hernando County, including county commissioners. One of his first meetings was lunch with Maurer.
"I told him it definitely was not a reflection on him or Sheriff Nugent," Nienhuis said. "As I tell people, I don't like to fix things that aren't broken. The focus is finding things that need to be tweaked and those that don't, and being able to distinguish between the two."
Another candidate with Pasco ties, Bobby Sullivan, calls himself the apolitical choice.
Sullivan, who retired from the Pasco Sheriff's Office as a captain in 2007, is now executive director of public safety for Saint Leo University. He told the Times this month that he will not run for Hernando sheriff in 2012 and could be a "neutral caretaker" until the election.
At that point, Maurer and the other candidates can duke it out from equal footing, Sullivan said.
Though Maurer would benefit from an appointee who would not run in 2012, he called Sullivan's suggestion "a lousy idea." He acknowledged that a troubled agency might need a caretaker and fresh perspective, but that doesn't describe Hernando's department, he said.
"Not that we're not going to look at changing things, but we want to change for the better and capitalize on the successes of the agency," he said. "I think the person appointed by the governor needs to be committed to the Sheriff's Office and the long-term goals. (Otherwise), you might as well put the agency in a holding pattern and have it do circles for two years, and that's not what we need."
Nugent said he stands by his recommendation. The fact that other members of his command staff haven't thrown their hats into the ring "speaks volumes" about the support for Maurer, he said.
"I'm sure a lot of (the other candidates) think they have the answers to everything and could do as good a job," Nugent said, "but (Maurer) knows what it takes to have a great agency, he's been with the agency, and the other guys don't have that depth of experience."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]