NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco County Sheriff Bob White announced Wednesday that he plans to retire to spend more time with his 18-month-old granddaughter.
"My heart had been pulled away," White wrote in a letter to employees. "I care deeply for all of you, but there is a little girl who needs her Papa right now."
He will leave office April 30.
Speculation had been swirling for more than a week that White, 60, might be leaving office for a post in Tallahassee under Gov. Rick Scott. His announcement Wednesday did little to quiet the rumors.
"I don't think Sheriff White is the kind of guy who can sit and watch the grass grow," said County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand. "If I were betting, that's what I would bet on, that he has another future somewhere else."
White also left the door open for a return to public life.
"Service has always been a big part of my life, and I would certainly help the governor any way I could down the road," he said at a news conference.
White was re-elected to a third term in 2008 and said he had planned to run for a fourth. But he said his priorities changed when his granddaughter was born.
Scott will appoint a new sheriff to serve the remainder of White's term, and White said that he has encouraged members of his command staff to apply.
"Every man among them can withstand the rigors of sheriff, and any one of them can do the job," he said.
White's retirement follows some top-level staff changes last week. White promoted two men who now split the duties formerly held by Al Nienhuis, White's second-in-command who recently was appointed Hernando County sheriff. Jeremiah Hawkes, White's former general counsel, now leads several administrative bureaus. Maj. Chris Nocco was tapped to lead the new joint operations bureau, which oversees various law enforcement divisions.
White hired both men in 2009. Hawkes, 34, is the son of Tallahassee appellate judge Paul Hawkes and previously served as general counsel for then-Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio. Nocco, 35, was also a Rubio aide and is a former chief of staff at the Florida Highway Patrol.
White said Wednesday that he knew he would be stepping down when he made those changes. More reorganization could be ahead if one of his commanders is chosen for the post, White said. But he doesn't expect a big shakeup. "There is no one in our command staff that I can see being changed out," he said.
White burst into local politics in 2000, a political neophyte challenging a two-term sheriff. With the backing of powerful local Republicans, White unseated Lee Cannon by more than 4,000 votes.
"He, in my opinion, has made the Pasco County Sheriff's Office one of the most respected law enforcement agencies in the state," Fasano said of his protege. "Crime is down, and I think it's because of the good work that he and his department has done."
White came from the Florida Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco in Clearwater. He started his law enforcement career in 1972 with the Brooksville Police Department and also worked as a trooper for the Florida Highway Patrol.
He easily won re-election in 2004, then squeaked out another win in 2008 in a political climate bent on change, becoming the first Pasco sheriff in the modern era to win three terms. He is stepping down just as he would have had to begin raising money to campaign for a fourth term.
White would have to spend at least six months in retirement before he could accept another state job. In the meantime, the Department of Management Services said he will collect more than $10,000 per month in retirement benefits, according to a 2008 estimate.
He earned $147,364 as sheriff.
His announcement of retirement also follows a bitter budget battle with the Pasco County Commission. After requesting an additional $4 million for 28 new deputies and nearly taking the dispute before Scott and the Cabinet, White accepted a settlement in which the county would pay about $1 million in retirement costs.
Commissioner Ted Schrader said he spoke with White about the budget dispute and both men agreed it was not personal.
"I suspect he has had some reflections on life and what's really important to him," said Schrader, who was first elected alongside White in 2000. "I certainly understand his desire to spend more time with his grandbaby and just enjoy life."
But White said among the many things he enjoyed about the job was fighting for what he thought was best for the citizens. "It's the fight that I might miss," he said.