Wednesday, July 18, 2018
Public safety

Carlton: Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee says retirement spurred by "a little bit of everything.''

Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee sits across the table at La Tropicana, a coffee-and-Cuban toast spot in Ybor City favored by politicians and police. He's in crisp dress uniform, chest and arms covered with impressive stars and badges for a speech he will give later at MacDill Air Force Base. It will be one of his last as sheriff.

The waitress moves in, balancing steaming cafe con leche on a tray, stops, gives him the once-over. "You're even better looking in person," she says. And it is interesting to see a man who has run law enforcement in the county for the past 13 years — with a $405 million budget and more than 4,000 employees — blush.

Some sheriffs are showboats — Polk County's eyebrow-raising Grady Judd, Arizona's outrageous Joe Arpaio. Then there's Gee.

Easily re-elected three times in the county where he was born and raised, Gee is more soft-spoken cowboy than preening politician, more likely to be liked than criticized, steady and not showy. With the surprise announcement last month that he will retire Sept. 30, rumors flew.

His health? Or perhaps a savvy maneuver to help his Republican Party get an interim sheriff appointed by a Republican governor — making it easier to install an heir apparent, as is Sheriff's Office tradition?

Gee laughs. He thanks anyone who thinks he is any kind of political mastermind. And no, not his health.

"Honestly, it's no one thing," he says. "It's a little bit of everything."

Family, he says. We talk about his age — 58 — about his parents getting older, about his wife, Rhonda, and his grandkids — three under 5 years old and two more due by year's end. He pulls out his cellphone to show a knee-high granddaughter learning to rope in a pink cowboy hat. She's getting good, he says.

We talk about wide-open places like Wyoming and Montana where he plans to spend more time, how he follows the rodeo, how he loves books like A Land Remembered and also his cows.

Out comes the phone again and I see two handsome longhorns, one black, one speckled, staring curiously over a fence under a stormy Florida sky. Their names are Thunder and Bodacious.

Even if he had wanted to leave last year, he says, he couldn't, given the unrest over law enforcement across the country, with riots over controversial police shootings and officers being shot. "I didn't want to be one of those people who leave when the chips are down," he says.

Until our sit-down, Gee has politely avoided the inevitable look-back interviews, what he calls "the long goodbye." Legacy seems a word that would make him uncomfortable, but there are things of which he clearly is proud.

In 2004-2005, the county jail population was about 4,000 inmates daily and projected to go as high as 7,000 by 2016. Gee wanted ways to stop simply building new jails — like working with the state attorney and public defender on court diversion programs and having his deputies write summons instead of booking people who did not need to be booked. Today's jail has an average daily population of 2,800.

The Sheriff's Office also focused on complaints from citizens. HCSO received more than 600 of them in 2004. Last year it was down to 99. Gee credits better training and communication.

His tenure has been remarkably light on controversy. And this is Hillsborough County, remember.

It was fun back in 2012 when the sheriff — notably a well-armed, card-carrying Republican — declined to fill out an absurd questionnaire sent to sheriff candidates from the politically powerful National Rifle Association. (Sample questions: Regarding the Stand Your Ground law under attack by "anti-gun agitators," do you agree that citizens should not have to surrender their lives to criminals? And is it proper for sheriffs to lobby in Tallahassee against the Second Amendment rights of the citizens "they are sworn to serve?")

Instead, Gee wrote a letter back explaining his position as related to court rulings, the Constitution and what will soon be more than 40 years in law enforcement. "Politics and special interests aside, our elected representatives and the people of this state are entitled to the truth," he wrote.

Post-retirement, he could tutor — a math major in college, he likes helping kids who think they have a math block. If he does work, "it will not be in politics, I assure you that," he says.

At La Tropicana he shakes the umpteenth hand of someone stopping by our table to wish him well, sips the strong cafe con leche and surprises me by saying this is only the second week he's been drinking coffee. "I've never sat that long in the morning," he explains.

He will leave as the most senior member of the Sheriff's Office and the last employee of Sheriff Malcolm Beard, who served from 1964 to 1978.

"An old wise sheriff once told me, 'Every sheriff should leave four years before the voters think he should,' " Gee says. "And my grandmother's great saying was, 'An elegant guest knows when to leave the party.' "

"I will miss it," he says. "It's been my whole life."

Contact Sue Carlton at [email protected]

   
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