NEW PORT RICHEY — In a move that surprised few, Gov. Rick Scott on Monday appointed Maj. Chris Nocco as Pasco County sheriff.
Nocco, 35, will serve the remainder of Sheriff Bob White's term until the 2012 election. White, first elected in 2000, announced in March that he's retiring to spend more time with his granddaughter.
Nocco, a tall, broad-shouldered former college football player, has had a meteoric rise within the agency. He was hired in 2009 as a captain and in March promoted to major — the highest rank below sheriff. Before that, he served two years as chief of staff at the Florida Highway Patrol and several years as a top aide to then-House Speaker Marco Rubio.
"I always look at my experiences as very fortunate to have them," Nocco said. "The Lord's opened up different doors for me. If there's an opportunity, I will take full advantage of it.
"But as I said before, I believe in servant leadership. The position's never about me, it's about our people."
White's former second-in-command, Al Nienhuis, left the agency in January to become Hernando County sheriff. Nienhuis was appointed to the position by former Gov. Charlie Crist.
White's last day is Saturday. In an interview Monday morning, he said he was happy that Scott picked a member of his "solid gold" command staff.
"The best thing I can do is leave this office in good hands,'' White said, "and I think we're doing that."
Nocco will be the incumbent for next fall's election. White urged residents to "look at the product and see if it's worth keeping."
"I'm confident the office will be behind him," White said. "I'm confident the citizens will be behind him. But ultimately it's their choice."
Nocco said he hasn't decided whether he will run for a full term. Deciding now, he said, would be "unfair to the people that I work with and to the citizens. I must lead first."
He will have only a few months before submitting a budget request to the County Commission, a contentious process during White's administration. Commissioner Ted Schrader said Nocco will have a "short learning curve," but predicted a smooth transition because Scott selected someone from within the agency.
"I think it'll be wise of him to try to work within the resources the county has provided in the past and see if he can make it work," Schrader said.
Nocco carpooled to his interview with Scott on Thursday with Maj. Brian Head, 46, a member of White's command staff who also was a front-runner for the appointment, which attracted nine candidates.
Nocco was quick to name several Florida officials who rose to power at a young age, including Rubio, who served as House speaker at 35 and is now a U.S. senator; incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford (now 31) and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam (elected to Congress at 26).
Weatherford said Nocco "has the right temperament, skills and commitment to our community."
Nocco comes from a law enforcement family. His father is a retired Philadelphia police captain. Many of Nocco's uncles and cousins were officers.
"It was always a boyhood dream to be a police officer," Nocco said.
Nocco attended the University of Delaware on a football scholarship. He was an offensive lineman named to the Atlantic 10 Football All-Academic Team in 1997 and was a National Scholar-Athlete nominee in 1998. Nocco received his bachelor's degree in criminal justice and his master's in public administration in 1999.
After graduation, Nocco got a job as a police officer with Philadelphia Public Schools, which has its own police agency. He left there and accepted a job with the Fairfax County Police Department just outside Washington, D.C.
It was there that he fell in love with Bridget Gregory, a lobbyist and Florida native who wanted to come home. They married and, in 2003, Nocco accepted a job as a deputy with the Broward County Sheriff's Office. A year later he worked with the Republican Party of Florida as the Broward County field director during the presidential campaign. Later he became a staff director for the Florida House of Representatives with the office of procedures and policy. In 2006, he became deputy chief of staff for Rubio. After Rubio's term ended in 2008, Nocco took the job with the Highway Patrol.
Nocco's wife is a Republican consultant and fundraiser in Tallahassee and commutes between the capital and their home in Odessa. They have three children: Alex, 4, Xavier, 3, and Gabriella, nearly 2.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6229.