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Eliseo Santana wins Democratic Primary for Pinellas Sheriff

With all precincts reporting Tuesday night, Santana earned about 60 percent of the vote to opponent James McLynas’ 40 percent.

Eliseo Santana defeated opponent James McLynas in the Democratic Primary for Pinellas County Sheriff, setting the stage for who will face off against powerful Republican incumbent Bob Gualtieri.

With all precincts reporting Tuesday night, Santana earned about 60 percent of the vote to McLynas’ 40 percent, according to unofficial election results.

Santana, 62, worked in communications and technology for 30 years at the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. While he has no law enforcement experience, Santana campaigned on the premise that his career at the Sheriff’s Office, particularly as a Puerto Rican employee, gives him a unique perspective on how the agency works and how to make it better.

“Tomorrow I’m going to wake up and I’m going to be smiling,” Santana said Tuesday from his home in Clearwater, where he watched the results with his wife, four children and 13 grandchildren. “I’m going to be happy because I’ll be able to focus my attention on truly bringing change to Pinellas County.”

Related: Why are out-of-state donors fueling the Democratic race for Pinellas sheriff?

Opponent McLynas, 61, also has no law enforcement experience but campaigned on a platform to root out what he sees as corruption within the agency.

The Madeira Beach resident has long been a vocal critic of incumbent Gualtieri, stemming from personal run-ins with the agency involving his ex-wife and a former deputy. McLynas ran unsuccessfully against Gualtieri in 2016 under no party affiliation.

McLynas could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.

If elected, Santana’s goals include reducing uses of force, creating a more inclusive and diverse agency, and reallocating budget money toward community and social services. He also wants to outfit deputies with body cameras — a measure he said his technology job at the Sheriff’s Office prepared him for, and that Gualtieri has resisted until recently.

But Santana will face a steep challenge to defeat Gualtieri in the Nov. 3 general election. Gualtieri has been sheriff since Gov. Rick Scott appointed him in 2011 and has easily won elections in 2012 and 2016.

In his most recent term, the sheriff emerged as a national voice on law enforcement issues including immigration, police use of force and school safety.

Related: Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri is now the star cop in Florida politics. Who is he, and how did he get there?