Sheriff Lee Cannon's greatest political strength has always been that he was better than the last guy.
It wasn't his official campaign slogan the past two elections, but it could have been: "Vote for me. I'm not Jim Gillum."
As the 2000 election season heats up remarkably early, here is the slogan you can expect to hear from the sheriff's challengers: "Vote for me. I'm not Lee Cannon."
For people who follow Pasco politics, last week was breathtaking. First, the Pasco Times published a special report outlining how the sheriff used false information when trying to persuade voters in 1998 to approve a plan to raise $80-million over 10 years for more deputies. Then, predictably, Cannon's old nemesis, former county Commissioner Ed Collins, called for a criminal investigation while Republican candidate Gil Thivener's supporters whooped it up at intersections and various political machines cranked up letter-writing campaigns to either condemn or commend the embattled sheriff.
Meanwhile, Cannon insisted he never purposely misled anyone, and on Tuesday rushed to enlist the commission's support in hiring a consultant who would study the department and the public's expectations for service. He insisted that there is still a critical manpower shortage, despite the newspaper's analysis _ and that of a nationally respected law enforcement consultant the newspaper hired _ which concluded otherwise.
The sheriff was desperately trying to get out in front of a parade that seemed to be leading him out of town. And as you might expect, there were jokes about closing the barn door a bit late.
Still, plenty of folks were sticking by Cannon, arguing that he was courageous for leading the effort for the taxing district and noting that he stood to gain nothing personally. One of those supporters, incredibly, wrote a letter to the editor insisting that common sense is the only measure needed to judge staffing levels at the department and that "statistics are not necessary."
The sheriff sure used a lot of statistics when he reduced his tax campaign to a single argument: response times. In fact, the only way you're going to get voters to approve any tax increase these days is to give them something tangible to measure. The sheriff's campaign turned out to be badly flawed, and now his political enemies detect his vulnerability.
Our report was greeted with a "Bravo!" by Ed Collins, who wore an ear-to-ear smile at the commission meeting on Tuesday, along with his longtime political partner, state Rep. Mike Fasano. They have long coveted a crack in Cannon's armor that would allow the Republicans to gain control of the sheriff's office. Now they have one. The campaign has been defined, and it's only January.
Funny thing, politics. Four years ago, Collins angrily tried to discredit our report that his choice to unseat Cannon, Ken Tallier, had years earlier acknowledged taking bribes and stealing money and jewelry off a body while a cop in New York. And Collins hated the stories we wrote last year about how he used his elected position to enhance his personal business. He lost his seat to Steve Simon.
But he loves us again. Our credibility has been restored! Glory!
Adding to Collins' delight is the expected entry into the sheriff's race of a man whose name was on the lips of every politician in Pasco last week: Bob White. That name came up so often it was like standing in a baited field during quail-hunting season.
Some Republican leaders had been trying to unify the party around one candidate, Thivener, so he wouldn't have to spend any of his war chest in the primary. But given Thivener's dismal showing in the primary four years ago (he was fifth of five), and his background as a major in former sheriff John Short's administration, defeating Cannon would be a long shot even with the embarrassing tax debacle.
But now there's this new guy. His supporters will portray him as the hero on the white horse, riding in to rescue the sheriff's office from mismanagement.
Although he has never run for office, he is actually not so new. White, who will likely announce today, is a 49-year-old sergeant with the state Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco in Clearwater. He has worked 22 years in law enforcement, including with the Florida Highway Patrol. He's married, has a grown daughter attending the Pinellas County Police Academy, and has lived in the Seven Springs area of west Pasco for seven years.
"I'm not linked to anyone," he said last week. "I don't want to be king; I just want to serve the community. I want to take the politics out of the department."
We'll be telling you more about Mr. White and everyone else running for office. There is plenty of time. The flurry last week just made it feel like election week.