ST. PETERSBURG — A group of Florida sheriffs gathered Monday to endorse Gov. Rick Scott in the race for U.S. Senate, praising his strong partnership with law enforcement and touting a 47-year crime low.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri kicked off the endorsement at Federal Eastern International, a law enforcement supply store. Gualtieri pointed to what he said was a swift and effective response to the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School as an example of Scott's leadership.
"He leads from the front … and that's what we need in our next United States senator," said Gualtieri, whom Scott appointed to lead a public safety commission tasked with reviewing all aspects of the shooting. "(We need) somebody that's going to go to Washington, that's going to break the mold, that's not going to maintain the status quo."
About a half dozen other sheriffs joined the event, including Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister and Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis. Scott put the total endorsement at 55 sheriffs across the state. Both Gualtieri and Chronister are Scott appointees, Gualtieri in 2011 and Chronister in August after their predecessors retired.
"He's always given law enforcement the tools, the resources and the legislation we need to keep our community safe," said Chronister, who will face voters for the first time in November.
Scott addressed his supporters with a sobering reminder to pray for the recovery of an Orlando police officer who was shot overnight during a standoff at an apartment complex. He went on to praise law enforcement for keeping crime rates low and responding to tragedies all over the state, including the shootings at Pulse nightclub, Stoneman Douglas and Fort Lauderdale airport.
"Thank God there are individuals willing to do this," he said. "It's a real honor that I've got these 55 sheriffs that are endorsing me."
The sitting senator, Bill Nelson, did not come up during the public announcement. But speaking to reporters afterward, Gualtieri came out strong against Nelson's approach.
"I've never met the man. I've never received a phone call from the man. I don't know him," the sheriff said. "People need to remember where their bread is buttered. It's buttered at home, not Washington, D.C."
And Scott had his own harsh words for the federal government, saying the FBI could have prevented the three mass shootings.
“They had a lot of prior knowledge, and they didn’t act on it,” he said. “We need accountability in Washington just like what we have in Florida.”
Soon after Monday’s event, the Florida Democratic Party issued a news release blasting Scott’s track record with law enforcement and public safety. It included news reports that under Scott’s administration, tight funding led to high turnover, slow processing of crime scenes and thousands of untested rape kits.
The release also resurfaced a 2014 calamity in which Scott forced a former Florida Department of Law Enforcement commissioner to quit and promoted his bodyguard to the post. It went on to mention a recent Tampa Bay Times report that the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services issued concealed weapons permits to people who were not eligible, findings Scott said were “disturbing and concerning.”
“The personal favors Rick Scott called in from Sheriffs don’t make up for the fact that he has a long record of withholding funding from key law enforcement agencies, while neglecting crucial programs that keep Floridians safe,” Florida Democratic Party spokesman Nate Evans said in a statement.
Locally, the endorsement will likely come as unwelcome news to at least some Democrats who are supporting Chronister in his race for Hillsborough sheriff.
Former state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, who narrowly lost to Scott in the 2010 gubernatorial race and has endorsed Chronister, told the Times in April that she would be “highly disappointed” if he chose to endorse Scott, especially in Hillsborough, where Democrats outnumber Republicans.
“He needs to just stay out of it,” Sink said. “The Democrats in the county would be really upset with him. Why make enemies?”
She added: “If he gets right out there and starts campaigning for Rick Scott, he’ll have hell to pay from me.”
Sink couldn’t immediately be reached on Monday after Chronister announced his endorsement.
In a previous interview, when the Times asked about Sink’s concerns, Chronister said he doesn’t think endorsing Scott should or would change the minds of his Democratic supporters.
“I’ve caught heat in the past for supporting some Republicans and some Democrats,” he said. “For me, it’s always been about who’s the best person for the position. I don’t think it would lessen their opinion of me and the faith they have in me to accomplish what I’m going to accomplish as sheriff.”
Staff writer Tony Marrero contributed to this report.