LARGO — The No. 2 at the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office will soon be the No. 1: Chief Deputy Bob Gualtieri will be the county's next sheriff, Gov. Rick Scott announced Friday.
Gualtieri, an attorney who began his career as a detention deputy in 1982, will replace Sheriff Jim Coats when he resigns Nov. 7. As interim sheriff, Gualtieri will serve out the rest of Coats' term, which ends in January 2013.
"I'm excited and eager for the opportunity and humbled by the confidence the governor has in appointing me to this position," said Gualtieri, 50, who is married with three daughters, one in college and one recently graduated.
"I look forward to continuing the great work Sheriff Coats and I have done these past years and dealing with the challenges we still have."
But the governor's decision does more than smooth the transition at the top of the Sheriff's Office — it also impacts the 2012 election to succeed Coats.
That's because Gualtieri is running for the permanent job against a field of seven candidates, including former Sheriff Everett Rice. Like Scott, Rice and Gualtieri are both Republicans.
Rice, 67, left in 2004 and was replaced by his then-chief deputy, Coats, who was already running for sheriff and won the office himself just weeks later.
But this go-around is different. Rice is not only running for the job he once held, but he also applied to be interim sheriff after Coats announced his departure.
Rice said he wasn't surprised by the choice. He complained that the governor and his staff never even contacted him to interview for the interim job, despite his resume as a former sheriff and state House member.
"It's kind of insulting the governor didn't sit down and talk with me about it," Rice said. "I'm saddened by the fact the governor didn't recognize my reputation and my record and all the support I have in the community."
But Coats praised the governor's decision and said he personally recommended Gualtieri. Coats decided to resign after 40 years with the agency to spend more time with his wife, Cat, while she battles breast cancer.
"I think this affords the Sheriff's Office an opportunity for a seamless transition," Coats said, "and affords us the ability to stay focused in tough economic times as we prepare for the next budget cycle."
As second-in-command, Gualtieri has built his reputation by helping the Sheriff's Office grapple with four years of grueling budget cuts: the agency has lost $108 million from its general fund and more than 600 positions.
He was also the point man in developing Pinellas Safe Harbor, the former jail facility-turned-homeless shelter.
Gualtieri worked his way up through the ranks, then left to get his law degree from Stetson University College of Law. He graduated in 2002 and went into private practice.
Coats asked Gualtieri to return to the agency as general counsel in 2006, then named him chief deputy in 2008. Gualtieri has been running the agency's day-to-day operations ever since. The agency has a $220 million budget, employs 1,500 patrol and detention deputies and 2,700 people total.
"This is a totally different agency than when Everett Rice was here," Gualtieri said. "The structure is different. The daily operations are different. The budget is totally different.
"The way things were done four or eight years ago don't work anymore."
Scott's decision gives Gualtieri a public pulpit to campaign for the 2012 race, which many Republicans expect to be expensive and tough.
"This gives the voters of Pinellas County an opportunity to see me and to get to know me and what I bring to the table," Gualtieri said, "and that is providing cost-effective public safety."
But Rice downplayed that advantage in next year's Republican primary in August. Rice unseated an incumbent when he won office in 1988, then earned a reputation for cleaning up the Sheriff's Office.
"I've beaten an eight-year incumbent one time, I'm sure I can beat a nine-month incumbent," Rice said. "The choice of who is going to be the sheriff belongs to the voters."