The race for Hernando sheriff has a Pasco County feel to it. • Sheriff Al Nienhuis, 48, spent 10 years as second in command at the Pasco Sheriff's Office before his appointment by Gov. Charlie Crist as Hernando sheriff. Nienhuis filled the vacancy left by Rich Nugent's November 2010 election to Congress. • Brooksville native Bobby Sullivan, who turns 51 next month, retired in 2007 after a 25-year career at the Pasco Sheriff's Office, leaving as commander of the vice and narcotics unit. He is now director of the public safety department at Saint Leo University where he also serves as adjunct professor of criminal justice.
Sullivan, who ran unsuccessfully for Pasco sheriff four years ago, is trying to tie Nienhuis to their former boss, ex-Pasco Sheriff Bob White. The Pasco sheriff dismissed several high-level staffers after his initial election in 2000 and again after White's closer-than-expected 2008 re-election. The 2008 terminations of six employees resulted in a $2 million insurance settlement of age-discrimination claims.
You can't blame Nienhuis for White's poor political skills, nor the ex-sheriff's botched attempt to bully Pasco commissioners into an exorbitant spending increase at the same time other county departments were cutting their budgets. That arrogant pomposity has not been repeated in Hernando where Nienhuis has shown himself as a team player agreeing to absorb other county services as the commission tries to massage its budget while limiting tax increases. His leadership will be tested, however, in the next several weeks as commissioners seek additional cuts from his department.
Sullivan is critical of a handful of Nienhuis' personnel decisions and said, if elected, he planned a reorganization to put 10 additional deputies on the road. Mostly, though, Sullivan is gearing his campaign toward sheriff's employees, not toward the public at large which is not absorbed in the minutia of the department's internal workings. Sullivan is a strong candidate who offers substantial experience and appropriate education, but what he fails to offer the public is a legitimate reason to replace the incumbent.
Nienhuis started off on the right foot by tapping the highly regarded Mike Maurer as his second in command then adopted some of the successful strategies from Pasco including an emphasis on community volunteers. So far, the Nienhuis tenure has been marked by two positive attributes — steady leadership and fiscal prudence — that are necessary for a successful law enforcement agency.
While the candidates now bicker over crime index (total crimes committed) versus crime rates (crimes per population) one statistic is clear: the Hernando Sheriff's Office has a crime rate nearly one-third lower than the Florida average and solves cases at a rate 50 percent higher than the statewide average. It is a performance of which Nienhuis and the entire department can be proud.
The winner of this race faces Democrat Eddie McConnell in November. Republicans seeking to nominate their strongest candidate, should choose Sheriff Al Nienhuis in the Aug. 14 primary.