Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Politics

Sheriff Nienhuis' decisions serve to hurt him

For understated ruthlessness, it's hard to beat the phrase, "we're going in a different direction."

He packed a lot of meaning into these words, Al Nienhuis did, after a closer-than-expected 2008 election prompted his then-boss, Pasco County Sheriff Bob White, to cull veteran lawyers and high-ranking sworn officers.

When Nienhuis, then a colonel, met with five of these employees, he reportedly didn't tell them much more than those few words.

But what he meant was: You guys are out on your butts no matter how long and well you've served. He meant, at least partly, that the Sheriff's Office had to make room for a younger, better connected crew — among them future Sheriff Chris Nocco — who worked as House of Representatives staffers of former Speaker and current U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.

He meant that qualifications didn't mean as much as tapping into the political power supply of Tallahassee.

It was brutal. It was cold-hearted. And it was totally at odds with the image of the genial, duty-bound public servant that Nienhuis has worked so hard to cultivate in his nearly year and a half as Hernando sheriff.

To the extent that this wasn't just image, but his actual approach to the job, it served him well. He came here as an outsider, remember, viewed as claiming a reward for his good (and, it turns out, down-and-dirty) political work in Pasco. He won over the top brass here. He established credibility with the community and, as far as I know, with most of the deputies.

Then election year rolls around and Nienhuis rolls out this other side of his personality, one that has little to do with his duty and seems anything but genial.

I'm talking, for starters, about Nienhuis' decision a month ago to force former spokeswoman Wendy McGinnis out of her position and maybe into early retirement. And then, last week, he participated in Gov. Rick Scott's signing of the "John C. Mecklenburg Act" outside of the presence of the person who had the most right to be there, Mecklenburg's widow, Penny.

True, there's a lot we don't know about both these incidents. Penny Mecklenburg and Nienhuis have a history of hard feelings that led to her choice not to attend. And an ongoing internal investigation will reveal more about the financial services company Wendy McGinnis helped found with her husband, Sgt. Brian McGinnis, and Fraternal Order of Police representative Stephen Klapka. If the intent was to exploit their work connections for personal gain, Nienhuis is right not to like it.

But what we do know is that, of the three deputies, Wendy McGinnis was the least involved with this company; yet she is the one who's out. We also know that she was better positioned to help Niehnuis' campaign both off the job and on, by which I mean turning every decent-sized drug bust into a public relations extravaganza.

So what it looks like is this: Nienhuis expected a higher degree of loyalty from Wendy McGinnis and punished her at the first sign he wasn't getting it.

It's even more clear there was no excuse for Scott and Nienhuis to get together and raid the supply of good will Penny Mecklenburg had built up not only because of her position but because of her work pushing for a bill that imposes harsher penalties for harm caused by fleeing and eluding law enforcement officers.

Sure, it's got to be hard for any local Republican politician to resist face time with a Republican governor. But there are echoes here of Pasco in the excessive obedience to Tallahassee and the slighting of the contributions — in Mecklenburg's case, the ultimate contribution — of his own deputies.

By the time Nienhuis was left as the bit player sputtering to explain why the star didn't show, it was clear the whole thing had blown up in his face. And that's the strange thing about both these moves: Calculated to advance Nienhuis' campaign, they did nothing but set it back.

I'm sure he realizes this by now. Maybe he will also realize he was on the right track to begin with — that in his job, to be a good politician, you need to concentrate on being a good sheriff.

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