Sunday, April 22, 2018
Politics

Rice campaign ad portrays a dangerous Pinellas if Gualtieri wins sheriff's race

Over the whine of police sirens, the television ad depicts a vision of Pinellas County that might have sprung from an avid cable news viewer's troubled dreams.

House windows are smashed in by faceless criminals. The doors of jail cells glide open, letting suspects go free. And reigning over this sepia-toned wasteland is Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.

"Pinellas just won't be safe with Gualtieri as sheriff," a gravelly voice warns. Beneath a frowning picture of the county's top law enforcement official, the disclaimer mandated by campaign finance regulations scrolls: Political advertisement paid for and approved by Everett Rice, Republican, for Pinellas County Sheriff.

Americans have become accustomed to blistering campaign ads in the current election season, most of them directed against President Barack Obama or his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney.

But as the two Republicans in the Pinellas sheriff's race enter the home stretch before the Aug. 14 primary, voters are being treated to high-decibel character attacks at the local level.

It's a two-way fight. But no broadside better illustrates the current tone of the sheriff's primary campaign than the latest TV commercial launched by Rice, a former Pinellas County sheriff trying to unseat Gualtieri and return to the helm of the agency.

"Gualtieri's mismanagement of the Sheriff's Office has put us all in danger," intones the disembodied voice that narrates the ad.

In case the point is missed, the words "Put Us All in Danger" are flashed across the screen. Superimposed over the mouth of a gun barrel. Twice.

"I almost thought it was like a Saturday Night Live skit," Gualtieri said, describing his dumbfounded reaction to the commercial's theatrics the first time he saw it.

"It's ridiculous, it's inaccurate, it's over-the-top. . . . I was just kind of flabbergasted."

The sole verifiable claim in the minute-long commercial is that "because of shoddy or illegal investigations, Gualtieri allowed criminals and drug dealers to go free on technicalities and be put back on our streets."

There's some truth to that assertion. Allegations earlier this year that narcotics investigators trespassed and lied to obtain search warrants for marijuana grow houses led prosecutors to drop at least 18 cases.

But those decisions were made by the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office, over concerns about the credibility of a small group of detectives. Three of them have since resigned and one was fired, and Gualtieri has begun a criminal investigation into their actions.

Gualtieri said the commercial's broader claims are demonstrably false, since arrests are up and the crime rate is down under his leadership.

Rice's response: "Crime would have been down more if I had been sheriff."

Rice said the television ad was a counterattack prompted by negative direct mailers a committee associated with Gualtieri put out about him.

Rice said the mailer, titled "The Files on Everett's Double Talk," wrongly stated he had broken a campaign promise in 1988 not to raise the Sheriff's Office budget and mischaracterized his position on DUI checkpoints, among other inaccuracies.

"This ad was in response to his negative ads about me," Rice said. "I have to respond in kind. I can't let him define me."

Rice, who is running in his fifth countywide election, bemoaned the nasty course the contest with Gualtieri has taken. "I have never been subjected to this kind of negative advertising," he said.

Darryl Paulson, a retired government professor from the University of South Florida, said appeals to fears about crime are common in sheriff races.

What's different this year in Pinellas, he said, is that those tactics are magnified because of the large sums of money in play. Between them, Rice and Gualtieri have amassed more than half a million dollars, eclipsing the funds of any other candidates for countywide office in Pinellas.

Tampa-based political consultant Travis Horn said scare-mongering ads such as the recent Rice spot can be effective but risk reflecting poorly on the campaign behind them.

If the ads aren't accompanied by strong evidence of their claims, they can raise questions about the attacking candidate's credibility.

"Here's the crux — you have to have a specific instance. You have to have a Willie Horton-type incident," Horn said, referring to the notorious 1988 campaign ad about a rapist and murderer that helped torpedo the presidential aspirations of former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.

"If Everett is pointing and saying, 'Bob isn't protecting people,' he damn sure better come up with specifics," Horn said.

Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.

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