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Chad Chronister wins Republican primary for Hillsborough Sheriff

Hillsborough County's Republican sheriff had a wide lead over challenger Charles Boswell.
Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister waves at motorists passing by with his wife Nikki DeBartolo while campaigning for re-election outside Jan Kaminis Platt Regional Library, a polling place, in Tampa on Election Day, Tuesday, August 18, 2020.
Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister waves at motorists passing by with his wife Nikki DeBartolo while campaigning for re-election outside Jan Kaminis Platt Regional Library, a polling place, in Tampa on Election Day, Tuesday, August 18, 2020. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Aug. 18, 2020
Updated Aug. 19, 2020

TAMPA — Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister sailed to victory Tuesday night in the Republican primary race, handily defeating challenger Charles Boswell.

With more than 90 percent of voting precincts reporting just after 7:30 p.m., Chronister had 62 percent of the vote to Boswell’s 37 percent.

Chronister will move on to the general election against Democrat Gary Pruitt, a former Tampa police corporal, and independent candidate Ron McMullen, a retired Tampa police commander.

Boswell created ads and memes describing himself as the “law and order” candidate aligned with President Donald Trump.

Boswell reserved some of his harshest criticism for a couple of Chronister’s actions during the coronavirus pandemic. He said it was reckless to release more than 160 inmates to reduce the threat of coronavirus spreading in the jail. And he said Chronister’s decision to arrest Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne for holding services at the River at Tampa Bay Church was an attack on religious freedom. Chronister has defended both decisions as necessary.

From beneath his trademark cowboy hat, Boswell trumpeted his support for Trump — one of Boswell’s campaign slogans was “Make the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Great Again” — while highlighting Chronister’s 2012 donations to Democratic President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign and $5,000 to the Democratic National Committee. At least one of Boswell’s campaign memes featured photos of Obama and “Liberal Chronister” side by side.

Chronister clearly saw his potential vulnerability to these attacks. He touted endorsements from Hillsborough Republicans and Attorney General Ashley Moody. He also recently released a letter of endorsement from the Republican predecessor who groomed him, Sheriff David Gee, and former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, one of Trump’s highest-profile supporters in Florida.

When Howard-Browne resumed in-person services at the River church, Chronister appeared twice during Sunday services. Chronister also counter-attacked Boswell, pointing to his checkered history with the Sheriff’s Office and calling him “uncredible and untrustworthy.”

Campaign finance records show Chronister has raised nearly $1.3 million between his campaign account and a political action committee called Friends of Chad Chronister, and has spent a total of $331,146.

Boswell raised $56,792 and spent $48,832 as of the most recent report.

Chronister was appointed in 2017 by then Gov. Rick Scott after Gee abruptly retired less than a year into his fourth term. Gee had groomed Chronister for the job and asked Scott to tap him. Chronister appeared on the ballot for the first time in the 2018 general election, beating Pruitt, a former Tampa police corporal, to serve the remainder of Gee’s term.

Since taking the job, Chronister has reshaped the office according to what he calls a progressive, proactive approach to law enforcement that is both smart and tough on crime. He touted efforts like expanding mental health and drug treatment services to jail inmates and pushing to create and expand civil citation programs for juveniles and adults. He is in the process of issuing body cameras to 1,000 deputies.

Times staff writer Tony Marrero contributed to this report.