When Gov. Ron DeSantis set up his photo op to sign an “anti-rioting” bill in Polk County this week, he had a phalanx of Florida sheriffs behind him.
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, who hosted the event at his Winter Haven office, stood just behind DeSantis’ right shoulder, next to Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey. In the second row, standing on a riser, were Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and counterparts from Gilchrist and Marion counties.
Noticeably absent from the event in Winter Haven: Chad Chronister, the Republican sheriff from the county right next door.
Back in May, Hillsborough County saw one night of arson and looting, the kind of violent civil unrest that DeSantis claims the bill is meant to prevent. But Chronister wasn’t at the event with DeSantis on Monday. Why not?
He wasn’t invited.
“HCSO was one of many local and statewide law enforcement agencies that were not included in the press conference today,” Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Amanda Granit said in an email. “You can reach out to the Governor’s office regarding how invitations were decided.”
The Tampa Bay Times asked the governor’s office why Chronister wasn’t selected from among Florida’s 66 sheriffs to attend.
“Sheriff Chronister is a valued partner and is held in the highest regard by our office,” DeSantis spokeswoman Meredith Beatrice said in an email Tuesday. “Yesterday’s event included law enforcement officials and representatives from across the state, as well as legislative leadership.”
DeSantis held a similar news conference in September, also in Polk County, to announce his plans to push the measure. Sheriffs from Pasco and Hernando counties, Chris Nocco and Al Nienhuis, were there, but Chronister wasn’t invited to that one, either.
Does Chronister even support the bill? The Times asked and he replied with a five-sentence statement.
“I fully support the efforts to enhance penalties for those who turn to actions that damage neighborhoods and businesses and acts of violence towards those who serve our community,” Chronister said.
He didn’t address the many other parts of the bill, HB 1, that met with opposition from Democratic lawmakers and others. Instead, Chronister’s statement focused on actions his office has taken since the country was gripped by protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police.
“I fully support a person’s right to peacefully protest,” Chronister said. “During the past year, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office has been out with the protesters, keeping them safe and listening to their pleas. I have taken steps to increase trust through transparency by implementing body-worn cameras and remaining committed to de-escalation training. I do believe that it takes away from the message of the protesters when people turn to destructive behavior.”
Chronister’s statement is not the kind of spirited endorsement given by seven other sheriffs and included in a news release from DeSantis’ office after Monday’s event.
Gualtieri, for example, said, “HB1 is important to the rule of law and effective public safety across Florida. Thanks to Governor DeSantis and the Florida Legislature, law enforcement will now have effective tools to hold people accountable who are not peacefully protesting, but rather are engaging in lawless behavior that threatens the safety of others.”
Chronister’s seems to be less enthusiastic about the bill, which might have factored into DeSantis decision not to invite him, said Aubrey Jewett, an associate professor of political science at the University of Central Florida who specializes in Florida and local politics.
“I suspect the governor and his team were trying to have people appear who fully embrace the bill and were going to talk it up,” Jewett said. “It sounds as if Sheriff Chronister is not vocally opposing the bill nor is he giving it a full embrace.”
It’s also possible DeSantis considered the political reality that Chronister faces in his county and opted not to put him in an awkward situation.
“Given that Hillsborough has become more Democratic and Chronister is a Republican sheriff, appearing on a stage with a Republican for a bill that is considered very partisan might do more harm than good for his re-election chances,” Jewett said.
The new law, a top DeSantis priority, enhances criminal penalties for crimes committed during protests that turn violent. A “mob intimidation” provision makes it a first-degree misdemeanor for a group of three or more to try and change someone’s viewpoints by using violence or the threat of violence. Anyone convicted of battery on a police officer “during or in furtherance of a riot” would face a six-month mandatory-minimum sentence.
The law also prevents Floridians from posting bail before a first appearance in court if they’re arrested on charges such as theft and burglary during a state of emergency. And the law says anyone who tears down any type of memorial “dedicated to a historical person, an entity, an event or a series of events” would face a second-degree felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
Democrats contend the law violates Floridians’ First Amendment rights, will disproportionately impact Black and brown people and will have a chilling effect on peaceful protesters. They see the bill as an effort by DeSantis to inspire his Republican base ahead of his 2022 re-election campaign and, perhaps, a bid for president two years later.
Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren has called the bill a misguided “solution in search of a problem” that “retreats to the outdated ‘throw-everyone-in-jail’ philosophy that has been revealed as a giant failure.”
Warren said the bill doesn’t help police and prosecutors deal with their single biggest challenge related to unlawful unrest — “being able to identify the small number of bad actors in a larger law-abiding group and determine who did what.”
Chronister has called himself “the most Democratic of Republicans,” a “hybrid of both parties,” fiscally conservative, socially Democrat. He has said the politcial right has moved too far right for him and he doesn’t view the office he holds as partisan.
In his bid for re-election last year, Chronister had to fend off a Republican primary challenger who called him soft on crime and accused him of being slow to react to the civil unrest May 30. That night, hundreds of people descended on the University area. Some looted businesses and tossed bottles, bricks and other objects at police officers and deputies. One man, who was later arrested and has since pleaded guilty in federal court, set fire to a Champs sporting goods store.
Chronister has said he ramped up his office’s response accordingly as the violence that night escalated. Warren’s office filed felony charges against dozens of people arrested in connection to the unrest.