TAMPA — A retired Tampa police major is gunning for Hillsborough County’s top law enforcement job.
Ronald W. McMullen, 55, filed paperwork Monday to run as a Democrat in a bid to unseat Republican incumbent Sheriff Chad Chronister in November.
McMullen, who retired from the Tampa Police Department after 29 years, joins fellow Democrat Gary Pruitt, a former Tampa police corporal who unsuccessfully challenged Chronister in 2018. No other Republicans have filed. The primary is set for Aug. 18.
Reached by phone Tuesday, McMullen declined to comment, saying his campaign would issue a news release and statement later in the day.
“During my thirty years at the Tampa Police Department, I learned that a leader must lead from the front, that everyone deserves respect and that success isn’t about me, but every member of this community,” McMullen said in the statement. “As Sheriff, not only can I be counted on to make Hillsborough County safe, but to make it a place where justice and opportunity aren’t determined by your ZIP code or the color of your skin.”
Responding to a question from the Times about why he wants to challenge Chronister, McMullen said in a statement that one of his top priorities is “to restore the manpower to patrol," which he called “the key to a successful crimefighting initiative.”
“Through attrition (retirement) and vacant slots, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office is down several hundred deputies,” McMullen said. “It does not matter how talented the the deputies are, when they don’t have the numbers, they become crime reporters and not crime fighters. This leads to a situation of deputies being overworked and underpaid, and it doesn’t serve our officers or our community well.”
McMullen joined the Tampa Police Department as an interim officer in 1989, according to his resume. Over the next two and a half decades, he worked his way through the ranks as a narcotics detective, corporal in the firehouse unit and a sergeant in three patrol districts.
In 2014, he was promoted to the rank of captain to oversee District III, which includes downtown, the port, East Tampa and Ybor City.
In mid-2016, then-Chief Eric Ward promoted McMullen to major, tapping him to serve as commander of the Special Operations Division. In that role, he oversaw various units and groups including the Tactical Response and SWAT teams; the bomb, canine, motorcycle, traffic homicide and DUI squads; and the marine and mounted patrol, among others.
McMullen has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from St. Leo University and a master’s degree in criminal justice from Florida State University. He has been a board member for the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 27 and currently serves as the organization’s president.
In a text message to the Times, Chronister said he’s proud of the record he’s built since taking the job in late 2017.
“As our sheriff, I am singularly focused on the public safety of this community,” Chronister said. “Over the past two years, we’ve had double digit reductions in our crime rate. Our schools are safer. Our agency is more diverse and stronger. We deliver integrity, leadership, and safety to this community every day. That’s a record I’m proud to stand on.”
Chronister, 52, was appointed by then-Gov. Rick Scott in 2017 after Sheriff David Gee abruptly retired shortly after starting his fourth four-year term. Chronister first appeared on the 2018 ballot to finish Gee’s term and continued the Sheriff’s Office’s long-held tradition of passing the seat to a groomed successor.
Along with Gee’s endorsement, Chronister had time, money and the title of sheriff on his side. He didn’t draw a primary opponent, and by the time voters started casting ballots in the general election, the 26-year veteran of the agency had been wearing the sheriff’s badge for more than a year. He spent nearly all of the $1.3 million he raised on his campaign, a record in a Hillsborough County race, and won endorsements from big local names from across the political spectrum, including then-Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt, both Democrats. Former Tampa police Chief Jane Castor, who was about to launch her successful bid for mayor, also supported Chronister.
Pruitt failed to marshal enough financial resources and grassroots support to pose a serious challenge. Most of the $13,700 he raised was a loan to his own campaign. But as a Democrat in a county where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans, Pruitt still won 45 percent of the more then 500,000 votes cast in the race.
“It’s a D-plus-12 county,” meaning a 12-point Democratic voting advantage, “so I start out 12 points behind,” Chronister told the Times after filing for re-election last month. He said he has no plans to switch parties and views his job as non-partisan.
For the 2020 campaign, Chronister has already raised more than $764,000 for his Friends of Chad Chronister political action committee, records show.
As they did in his first race, Chronister’s wealthy in-laws have loaded his coffers. His wife Nikki DeBartolo’s parents, Eddie. Jr. and Cynthia, contributed $125,000 to the political committee in October and the family has contributed at least $177,000 so far, records show. In November, the hit musical group Boyz II Men, friends of the family, headlined a fundraiser for Chronister in Tampa. Records show the committee raked in more than $75,000 in monetary donations that day alone.
Ione Townsend, chairwoman of the Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee, said McMullen did not reach out to party officials about his decision to run.
Townsend noted that the party does not get involved in contested primaries, but she said Chronister will likely retain support of some Democrats who appreciate the progress he has made with Holt and Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren, also a Democrat.
“They’ve been able to work on reducing the school to prison pipeline, they’ve developed drug diversion court, they’ve developed a mental health court,” Townsend said. “The working relationship between the three of them has been pretty remarkable. I suspect the high-profile Democrats are pretty well locked in behind (Chronister).”
The qualifying deadline for the race is June 12.