TAMPA — It wasn't too long ago, in career terms, that Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee called Col. Chad Chronister into an office and asked if he'd try to succeed him.
Chronister said yes. On Friday, he took over sooner than anyone expected.
As Gee and a roomful of friends, family, dignitaries and Sheriff's Office staff watched, Chronister took the oath of office.
"It is truly an honor, and I know what a privilege it is to be the sheriff of Hillsborough County," Chronister, 49, told an audience of about 150 people after taking the oath in the cavernous Courtroom 1 of the Edgecomb Courthouse.
"I'm not a politician. I don't make a bunch of promises, but I promise you that we won't let you down. We will treat every day and every decision like the true privilege it is."
The ceremony marks the next chapter in a whirlwind year for the 49-year-old Tampa man, who has said he was as surprised as everyone else when Gee announced in May — barely a year into his fourth four-year term — that he would retire Sept. 30. Gee said his decision hinged largely on a desire to spend more time with family.
When Gee and Chief Deputy Jose Docobo met with Chronister in that office about two years ago, Chronister figured he was about five years away from taking the office if voters were to pick him in the 2020 election.
That left it up to Gov. Rick Scott to appoint an interim sheriff until voters could go to the polls in 2018 to select someone to serve out the last two years of Gee's term. , a registered Republican, was the only applicant for the interim post, according to Scott's office. He still plans to run for the post.
Chronister had the support of Gee and Attorney General Pam Bondi, a former Tampa prosecutor and good friend of Chronister who attended Friday's ceremony along with officials including Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren, Public Defender Julianne Holt and interim Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan.
Before administering the oath, Chief Circuit Judge Ronald Ficarrotta recalled his own experience with the Sheriff's Office, starting some 33 years ago as a state prosecutor. Ficarrotta said Chronister belongs in a long line of respected sheriffs who have helped burnish the agency's reputation.
"During my era, Malcolm Beard, Walter Heinrich, Cal Henderson, David Gee, and now Chad Chronister," the judge said. "I am confident that the governor has chosen wisely. I am confident that the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office remains in great hands and will do well under the leadership of Sheriff Chad Chronister."
Chronister raised his right hand and placed his left on a Bible held by his 14-year-old son Asher. His wife Nikki DeBartolo and mother Helena Bentivegna flanked him. Gee and his wife Rhonda stood just off to the side.
After the oath, DeBartolo pinned the gold star onto her husband's crisp white shirt.
After the ceremony, her father Eddie DeBartolo Jr. called his son-in-law smart and caring.
"He's going to make all the residents of Hillsborough County very proud because he's going to take good care of everybody," said DeBartolo, a businessman and developer best known as the former owner of the NFL's San Francisco 49ers. "He's a family man, yet he can be tough, which is necessary."
Gee did not speak at Friday's ceremony, but at Scott's appointment announcement last month said he decided to groom Chronister because he's a "community builder."
A Pennsylvania native, Chronister has earned a master's in criminology from Saint Leo University and certifications from the FBI National Academy. He joined the Sheriff's Office in 1992 and quickly worked his way up through assignments in street crimes and supervisory roles in narcotics, warrants, intelligence divisions and the Community Outreach Division. He was promoted to colonel last year and most recently oversaw the Department of Operational Support.
As sheriff, Chronister leads an office with more than 4,000 employees, the largest law enforcement agency in the state's fourth most populous county.
Talking to reporters afterward, Chronister said he woke up early Friday and reflected on what he called the surreal experience of taking over the reins of any agency where he "became a man." He thanked God, his wife and his son.
"It's a big ask," he said. "It's not just me who's going to go be the sheriff. It has to be my family who is willing to allow me to put the citizens of Hillsborough County before them in a lot of cases."
Asked about his priorities, Chronister cited crime reduction and outreach programs that are already in place. He cited the recently expanded juvenile diversion program as a sign of the progress that has helped build goodwill.
"We can't be a successful law enforcement agency without the trust and commitment and faith our community has in us."
TAMPA BAY TIMES COVERAGE: HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY SHERIFF
Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.