Chris Nocco hasn't even taken the oath as Pasco County's new sheriff, and he says it's too early to get into specifics about next year's budget negotiations or who will serve on his command staff.
But he knows it's not too early to begin the political spadework needed to win election to a full term. On Monday, the day after Nocco takes over as Pasco's top cop, he's scheduled to meet with the Spirit of '76 Republican Club in New Port Richey.
After Gov. Rick Scott this week appointed him to fill the remainder of Sheriff Bob White's third term, Nocco indicated he might not seek the job in next year's election. Republican state committeeman Bill Bunting on Tuesday scoffed at that.
"There's no question in my mind that he'll run for a full term," Bunting said. "And if he does a good job, then he should be re-elected. The weight's on his shoulders to prove himself."
He already has several opponents hoping to replace him — from both parties.
"I think it's great when people go out and say, 'I could do the job better,' " Nocco said Tuesday. "That's democracy, and that's capitalism. The only thing I ask, … if they have better ideas, share them. Don't just say I could do it better."
Nocco, 35, said he's "primarily concerned with leading our agency." First order of business: meeting with deputies across the county.
Scott selected Nocco over two other finalists, Maj. Brian Head, who runs the Pasco County jail, and Kerry O'Connor, a former sergeant who left the agency in 2003 to practice law. She has maintained ties to the Sheriff's Office by representing deputies in disciplinary cases.
Head said Tuesday that he won't run in 2012, and he predicted that Nocco will be Pasco's sheriff "for quite a long time." But O'Connor said she will continue campaigning for the post.
"What's distinguished me is I came out into the private sector," she said. "Running my own business for the last eight years really gave me an appreciation of budgeting and cutting expenses."
Other declared candidates for the GOP primary are Michael Foxx, 65, a retired sergeant from the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office, and Roger Joseph Fortney, 58, a Pasco sheriff's corporal from 1989 to 2009. Several others are expected to run for the office, which pays $145,856 a year.
One Democrat already in the race is Kim Bogart, a former sheriff's commander who lost to White in 2008 by just 4,000 votes. Bogart made it clear on Tuesday that the campaign has begun.
"I'm surprised the governor would select someone with such limited experience to run our Sheriff's Office," he said, noting that Nocco was promoted from captain to major in March.
Before joining the Pasco office in 2009, Nocco was chief of staff at the Florida Highway Patrol for two years.
As the election approaches, Nocco could face a drag from the relatively unpopular governor if Scott's poll numbers don't rise.
"If it were based on qualifications, he wouldn't have even gotten that interview," said former county Commissioner Michael Cox, who is helping Bogart's campaign. "It was based on political payback."
Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said Nocco has plenty of time to introduce himself to voters.
"He has just more than a year to prove that he has the ability and the work ethic to continue to be our sheriff," Fasano said. "And I think he will be successful."
Nocco is not new to politics. He spent four years as a top aide to then-House Speaker Marco Rubio, now a U.S. senator. He is friends with some powerful Tallahassee politicians, including House Speaker-designate Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity.
"I'm very blessed to have friends that are in high offices," he said. "I think it's a bonus for our agency. You know what? When Tallahassee has money again, … I think those types of friendships and those types of connections are able to make Pasco a better place."
Nocco's wife, Bridget Gregory Nocco, is a political fundraiser who also lobbies on behalf of major corporations such as U.S. Sugar and HCA Healthcare. For her fundraising work during last fall's election, she earned $160,000 from the Republican Party of Florida. She was initially on Bill McCollum's finance team for his gubernatorial bid before switching to the Scott campaign after he won the GOP primary.
Bridget Nocco also is a friend of and former adviser to U.S. Rep. David Rivera, a Republican from Miami. A political committee linked with Rivera paid her $65,000 over 2 1/2 years for her work as a fundraiser.
She commutes between the capital and the family's home in Odessa. The Noccos have three children.
Lee Logan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6236.