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Sheriff's race could be closer than usual

Sheriff Tom Mylander usually has an easy path to re-election. Three new opponents could present a tougher challenge.

In the 1996 election, Sheriff Tom Mylander garnered three times as many votes as his only competitor, improving on the size of his impressive victories in 1988 and 1992.

The eclectic cast of vanquished opponents from those three elections lacked much law enforcement or political experience. One was a hairdresser. Several had never been law officers.

This time around, the results could be the same, but a lack of experience won't be the reason. The three candidates vying against Mylander combine for more than 50 years in law enforcement.

Democrat Thomas Langone can boast of almost 14 years with the New York City Police Department. Non-partisan candidate Michael Robinson, a former police lieutenant in Philadelphia, said he gained valuable insight from his failed campaign for sheriff in 1988. And for the first time since Mylander's initial win in 1984, one of his opponents is a current badge-wearing member of his own office, 21-year veteran Sgt. James "Eddie" McConnell.

They all can speak in the acronyms of police talk. They all know what it's like to patrol a beat. And each one says he wants to run on issues and ideas, not innuendo and mud slinging.

That hasn't stopped the controversies from starting.

"I'm sure we all want to keep things clean _ out of the gutter," Langone said. "But we all have questions we want answered. We all have our own motives. . . . With this many candidates, it could turn nasty."

In 1984, Mylander was one of eight who vied for the sheriff's job when Melvin Kelly retired. The candidates included high ranking officers from Kelly's administration. Mylander had a falling out with Kelly in the late 1970s and left the department before returning to run for sheriff.

The primaries pared the field to three including an independent. Mylander, a Republican, won the tight race, ending a long reign of Democratic sheriffs in Hernando County.

Since that close race, Mylander has won in a succession of Election Day blowouts. His opponents included: a part-time cabinetmaker, fired after six months from his only job as a law officer; Mylander's own administrative assistant; and a retired technician who said he was against nepotism _ the practice of favoring relatives for employment _ but would, if elected, hire his own son.

Through those elections Mylander has developed a political machine that is as good at raising money as it is at winning votes. He raised more than $20,000 in the last election season, much of it from Sheriff's Office employees and their families.

Mylander said he has no plans to make major changes in the way he runs the Sheriff's Office. As sheriff for 16 years, he touts his experience in dealing with the constantly evolving demands placed on law enforcement, especially in a county with an increasing population.

Mylander, 57, supports the opening of a runaway shelter and a proposed high school with a vocational and technical emphasis to help reduce the dropout rate and cut down on crime. He dismisses suggestions that his administration has become stale.

"We will keep changing as the county grows," he said. "I'm still excited about the job."

Still more than a year from the first primary, the other candidates, like Mylander, have released only snippets from their platforms.

Robinson, the 57-year-old non-partisan candidate, vows to take the politics out of the Sheriff's Office. If elected, he said, he would not fire Mylander's upper management, as often happens if an incumbent loses. He said when the sheriff is affiliated with a political party it implies that, to get hired, potential employees need to share the same views.

"That's not right in the policing world," said Robinson, who is married to County Commissioner Nancy Robinson, a Democrat. Robinson ran for sheriff as a Democrat in 1988 but lost in the primary to former deputy Tom Owens.

If elected, Robinson, who works as an investigator for the Florida Department of Veteran Affairs, would like to form a police athletic league to push children at an early age into constructive activities and away from crime.

Langone, 49, describes himself as a straight-talking candidate who says it's time for a "clean sweep" at the Sheriff's Office. Langone wants to make the Sheriff'sOffice more open to Hernando residents by creating a service-oriented and less adversarial police force.

Langone said he retired from the New York Police Department after he was hit in the face with bullet fragments and nearly went blind in one eye. He moved to Spring Hill in 1994. He promised more details about his platform in the months to come.

"It's time for a change," he said. "Sixteen years is long enough."

McConnell, 46, raised some eyebrows when he announced his candidacy last month. He has yet to say much about what changes he wants to make. So far, his main explanation for running is that becoming sheriff has been a long-time career goal.

Despite the low-key start, it's McConnell's entry that has sparked the most controversy.

In November, Mylander transferred McConnell from a high-profile job in community services to his current job helping to oversee purchasing, supplies and fleet and building maintenance. In the previous job, McConnell met with hundreds of residents, and potential voters, involved in Crime Watch and other programs.

Mylander denied knowing that McConnell was going to run for sheriff at the time of the transfer. He said it was part of a routine shuffle that occurs from time to time to put the best people in each position.

Mylander said that McConnell was considered a technical sergeant when promoted into the community services position about five years ago. Mylander said that technical sergeants who move to other positions can revert back to deputy status.

"It's like a pilot who cannot fly any more. If they were a sergeant, they would go back to being a deputy," he said. "I think I was overly fair by letting McConnell keep the sergeants status."

McConnell said that Mylander might not have known in November that he was going to run for sheriff. They had never discussed it themselves, he said. The transfer, however, forced McConnell's hand.

"I had to run now before everyone who knew me from my days in community services forgot who I was," he said.

For his part, Mylander questioned why McConnell has not resigned now that he has thrown his hat into the political ring. Mylander has run against Sheriff's Office employees before, but they all resigned years before the race or immediately after announcing their candidacy. He had never heard of someone announcing his or her intention to run against a boss and then not resigning.

Mylander interpreted Florida statutes to say that an internal candidate does not have to resign until the final qualifying date in July. McConnell's presence in the Sheriff's Office each day, however, could be somewhat awkward, Mylander said.

"He has announced that he wants to take this job but at the same time he is going to stick around and collect a paycheck," Mylander said. "I think that says something about a person's character."

McConnell said that his new position keeps him isolated from the office's mainstream activities. He has not sensed any awkwardness.

"The minute I think my running starts to affect my job or the office in a bad way, I will remove myself," he said. "I don't think that is the case right now."

Langone also has some questions for McConnell. He wants McConnell to tell Hernando residents what prompted him to run for sheriff, beyond the "career goal" explanation.

Langone suspects McConnell might know of "problematic behavior" at the Sheriff's Office and is sitting on it until the election draws closer. Langone said residents deserve to know now if something "untoward" is happening at a government agency.

If McConnell doesn't speak up now, he is violating "his oath of office by not coming forward and reporting these instances to the public," Langone wrote in a letter to the St. Petersburg Times.

"If he has something to say, he should say it. He should have blown the whistle a long time ago," Langone said. "It might raise some questions about his role at the Sheriff's Office."

McConnell said if he knew of any corrupt behavior at the Sheriff's Office he would have quit a long time ago.

"I am not sitting back with some agenda to spring a bunch of corruption charges on someone a few weeks before the election," he said. "I am running because I think I can do a very good job as sheriff."