TAMPA — The retired Tampa police major who jumped in to the race for Hillsborough County sheriff this week announced his intention to run as a Democrat in his bid to unseat the incumbent Republic sheriff.
There’s a problem, though. The law says he can’t.
Ronald McMullen switched his party registration from Republican to Democrat on Jan. 22, according to the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections. The deadline was June 8, 2019.
State law says that candidates must sign an oath saying they have not been a registered member of any other political party for 365 days before the beginning of qualifying. Qualifying for the sheriff’s race begins on June 8.
If McMullent wants to stay in the race, his only option is to run as a no-party candidate.
That’s his plan, McMullen said in written responses Thursday when the Tampa Bay Times asked about the issue. He said he plans to remain a Democrat until he has to change to no-party status to qualify.
“Party affiliation is not the focal point in my campaign, and I know what I believe and stand on when it comes to the issues," McMullen said in the responses sent through his campaign consulting company Parsons Wilson. "Clearly, I chose the Democratic party for a reason, and this issue is not going to stop my run for office. I am still going to make my case to voters why I am the only option for Sheriff.”
He went on: “The partisan divide has become so toxic, most politicians including our current sheriff, tend forget that in reality its about serving the people’s best interest and keeping the community safe. That’s what I plan to do as the next sheriff in Hillsborough County.”
Chronister responded to that in a text message to the Times.
“As the sheriff, I am proud to work closely with and have the support from Republicans, Democrats, and independents,” Chronister said. “While this guy is still deciding how to run for elected office and needing people to explain the election laws to him, I am hard at work promoting public safety, not partisan politics.”
In a county turning bluer with each election cycle, McMullen’s apparent inability to run as a Democrat would take away one of his biggest potential advantages over Republican incumbent Sheriff Chad Chronister, who has money, name recognition and the expected support of well-known Democrats who endorsed him in 2018.
The county had 347,085 registered Democrats and 275,379 Republicans as of Thursday, according to the elections supervisor. Another 258,965 voters are registered with other parties or have no party affiliation.
Retired Tampa police Corporal Gary Pruitt challenged Chronister as a Democrat in 2018 and won 45 percent of the votes cast without raising much money or grassroots and party support. Pruitt has filed to run again in 2020, the only other candidate in the race so far.
McMullen, 55, retired from the Tampa Police Department in April 2018 after 29 years there. For the last two years, he was a major and commander of the Special Operations Division.
He wasn’t always a Republican before his switch this year. County records show he changed party affiliation from Democrat to Republican in 2002.
Responding Tuesday 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.”
Chronister said in a statement Tuesday that he’s proud to run on a record that includes a lower crime rate, safer schools and a more diverse agency. He has denied rumors he planned to switch his party affiliation to Democrat and said he views the office as non-partisan.
Ione Townsend, chairwoman of the Hillsborough Democratic Executive Committee, told the Times on Tuesday that McMullen did not reach out to local party officials before filing to run.
The primary for the race, if necessary, is set for Aug. 18.