ST. PETERSBURG — A former St. Petersburg police officer who once was passed over as the city's police chief is now President Obama's choice to be leader of the nation's drug policy.
Gil Kerlikowske's name made it onto the national stage this month when Obama administration officials leaked his name as the president's choice as the so-called drug czar.
The 59-year-old head of the Seattle Police Department began his police career in St. Petersburg in 1972. He worked as a city officer for 15 years, including stints as a patrol officer, an undercover narcotics detective and the lieutenant of criminal investigations.
An advocate for less-lethal methods of force and community policing, Kerlikowske was on the short list for police chief in St. Petersburg in 1992. The city instead chose Darrel Stephens, who served as chief until he moved to a city administrator position in 1997. He left the city two years later to become chief in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.
Local people who know Kerlikowske described him as an excellent choice for drug czar.
"President Obama has made one terrific pick," said Bob Kersteen, a former St. Petersburg City Council member and friend of Kerlikowske's.
"I think we missed out in not promoting him in accordance with the dedication that he gave the department," Kersteen said.
The Obama administration has not officially named Kerlikowske to the post, and his office in Seattle would not comment. But the Associated Press and the New York Times have quoted anonymous sources in the administration saying he's the nominee.
Pinellas-Pasco Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett called Kerlikowske a "great guy, hell of a good cop." Bartlett and others described him as intellectual and a fast learner.
"He was a very quick study, he could pick up and learn something and just excelled at everything he did," Bartlett said.
Those who worked with him said he had a nickname for everyone. His own was Kerli. His personality made him a good manager and co-worker, said police spokesman Bill Proffitt.
"Everyone enjoyed working for him," Proffitt said. "I only have good things to say about him. I'm sure he'll do well up there in that position."
Kerlikowske's career started with the smallest of assignments.
His first job, at age 16, was fingerprinting people for the sheriff's department in Fort Myers. His stepfather, a circuit judge, helped get him the job. In high school, he photographed crime scenes.
He studied at St. Petersburg Junior College as a police cadet, then earned bachelor's and master's degrees in criminal justice at the University of South Florida while working as a cop.
He left St. Petersburg after he became restless. In a performance review, a commanding officer noted he was frustrated by a lack of promotion opportunities. In 1987, Kerlikowske became Port St. Lucie's police chief. He also served as the head of Fort Pierce's department.
He later became Buffalo's police chief, then went to Seattle in 2000.
Drug reform activists have responded with tempered enthusiasm to news of his appointment, which would require Senate confirmation.
While investigating drugs in St. Petersburg, Kerlikowske didn't just focus on small-time dealers, but looked up the chain to the suppliers, Bartlett recalled.
"He's the kind of guy who can focus on the whole picture," he said.