Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats won't run for re-election in 2012 - an announcement that will pit his predecessor against his chosen successor.
Coats, who has been sheriff since 2004, said Tuesday that he will support a campaign by his chief deputy, Bob Gualtieri, who filed paperwork to run for sheriff the same day.
The news comes on the heels of an announcement last week by former longtime Sheriff Everett Rice that he plans to run for the job again. Rice is a fellow Republican who preceded Coats and made Coats his heir apparent.
It creates an early lineup for the 2012 sheriff's race, surprising fellow politicians and friends of Coats and Rice.
"It's strange," said Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe, a friend of both. "I wouldn't have expected the situation to develop quite like this."
Coats, 67, said Tuesday that Rice's move didn't affect his decision not to run. He gave a variety of reasons for the decision, including that he'll be 69 when he finishes his current term. He's been in law enforcement for 40 years, and the sheriff's job is a demanding one. "Seven days a week, sometimes," he said.
Coats said he's "been to a lot of funerals lately, it seems," and those losses have made him realize that "maybe there's another side to life I need to be exploring."
In recent years, Coats has been grooming Gualtieri to succeed him.
Coats said he's considering how else to serve the community once his term ends, including potentially seeking another public office, perhaps with the county or with the city of Clearwater, where he lives.
The combination of Rice's re-emergence and Coats' backing of Gualtieri, 49, will create a high-profile contest.
"This will be quite a race," said Clearwater attorney Ed Armstrong, who has previously made campaign contributions to Rice and Coats.
Rice, an attorney and Treasure Island resident, served 16 years as sheriff before leaving office for the Florida House in 2004. He quit a 2006 bid for attorney general, but remains a recognizable name. His appearance at Republican meetings this spring triggered speculation about his plans, including talk of running for Florida Senate. Rice, 66, said he's better suited for being sheriff than a legislator.
He said he and Coats haven't discussed their political futures.
"There's no falling out between Jim Coats and I. He's done a good job," Rice said.
Rice said he had a successful four terms as sheriff. "The office of sheriff is already going to be open. I'm the best qualified - I've run it," he said.
Though lesser known, Gualtieri has been preparing to run for more than a year. He landed County Commissioner Neil Brickfield's support a year ago, said Brickfield, lauding his work on budget issues.
The son of a New York district attorney, Gualtieri worked in the 1980s and '90s as a patrol deputy and a detective, though he left the Sheriff's Office between 1998 and 2006 to be a lawyer. He returned as the agency's general counsel in 2006 and became Coats' chief deputy in 2008.
Since then, Gualtieri has developed a more visible public profile, going to community meetings and leading budget talks with the County Commission. He also directed the creation of Pinellas Safe Harbor, a large homeless shelter near the county jail that opened in January.
A resident of East Lake, Gualtieri, is married to lawyer Lauralee Westine, frequently a GOP donor. He has three daughters, ages 5, 20 and 22.
On Tuesday, Gualtieri welcomed the support of Coats, who has easily won two terms. "He's done a great job as sheriff and I look forward to being able to follow through with all the things he's done, we've been able to do, the past few years."
This spring, Coats had floated plans to turn over the sheriff's job to Gualtieri, raising eyebrows among Republicans. Then Rice jumped into the race.
"It's going to put a lot of people in a difficult position," said state Sen. Jack Latvala, a longtime Pinellas Republican power broker.
Latvala questioned Rice's ultimate intentions, saying the former sheriff had recently asked him about running for state Senate, not sheriff. But Rice, who hasn't filed paperwork to run for sheriff yet, said he's serious.
Latvala wouldn't divulge who he would endorse, but he effusively praised Gualtieri as leaving him "very impressed." Calling Rice "a dear friend," Latvala said he wanted to have a conversation with Rice before announcing any endorsement.
Paul Bedinghaus, a former county Republican Party chairman, said Coats' support is valuable to Gualtieri. But Rice remains the more recognizable name in Pinellas.
"Everett, when he was sheriff, was one of the most powerful people in the county," Bedinghaus said, "and he had the best operation and fundraising ability."