In a time of especially divisive political discourse, a series of attack ads against Pinellas sheriff incumbent Bob Gualtieri managed to unite Republicans and Democrats in anger.
The Florida Democratic Party paid for mailers and a TV ad calling for voters to support its candidate for sheriff, Eliseo Santana. They delivered an ominous message about the Republican Gualtieri, drawing on reporting by the Tampa Bay Times regarding how his agency handled rape cases.
“How many more rape victims will Bob Gualtieri call a waste of time?” one of the mailers reads, with a darkened photo of a woman crying with her hand over her mouth.
Gualtieri was upset by the ads, which he called “ethically bankrupt" for using rape victims as “political pawns." He said they showed how desperate his opponent is to win an office he has “absolutely no qualifications to hold.”
“I was appalled by the use of sexual assault victims for political gain,” he said in a statement posted to his campaign Facebook page.
But the campaign also angered two Democratic candidates. Although the ads only cover the Pinellas sheriff’s race, they also recommend voting for State Rep. Jennifer Webb, running for reelection in House District 69, and House District 64 candidate Jessica Harrington, a teacher making her second run for the seat. Both said their names were used in the commercial and mailers without their permission, and Webb went so far as to renounce her endorsement of Santana, who she supported in the Democratic Primary.
“I strongly denounce the use of my name in association with the attack ad against Sheriff Gualtieri,” Webb said in a statement. “As a survivor of rape myself and knowing what it is like to be attacked with baseless political accusations, I am outraged at having my name used with such horrible attack ads without my knowledge or consent.”
However, Webb and Harrington did not address the substance of the Times report. From 2014 to 2018, Pinellas made arrests in only 15 percent of its rape cases, less than all but two other large departments in Florida, a Times investigation found earlier this year. Yet, because of how the agency classified its cases, Pinellas reported clearing more than half of its rape cases.
The Times examined files detailing more than 80 rape cases that were supposed to be closed only in instances where deputies don’t have enough evidence to arrest someone, but can’t for reasons out of their control.
It found that in these cases, deputies closed some cases where they hadn’t identified a suspect, assigned a detective or even confirmed that a crime had occurred.
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The Sheriff’s Office justified closing most of these cases after concluding the victims didn’t want to come forward. But experts who reviewed the files for the Times said deputies used techniques that discourage victims.
After being asked by the Times, Gualtieri conceded his agency improperly categorized some rape cases. He downplayed it, however, by saying that those cases weren’t moving forward anyway, regardless of their categorization.
He told the Times then that he was satisfied with the quality of his department’s rape investigations and called working on cases where victims don’t cooperate “a waste of time.”
Gualtieri added then that some people who report being raped may not cooperate because they are lying.
In an interview, Santana said that the content of the ads was accurate but refused to say whether he had a role in creating the ads or had seen them before they went out to voters. His campaign manager, Tom Alte of Blue Ticket Consulting, did not respond to a call and email seeking comment.
Santana said he feels bad that Webb and Harrington were caught off guard, but was also “surprised” they didn’t know they’d be named in the ads. He said the Democratic Party would have to answer for that.
To Gualtieri’s outrage, Santana said it was the sheriff’s words and actions, not the Democratic Party’s ads, that are the real problem.
“He should have done his job from the beginning in protecting our community," Santana said. "His lack of caring and his additional traumatizing of the people coming forth and complaining — that is the source of trauma that we as a community need to stop.”
Florida Democratic Party officials declined to comment for this story, including about the cost of the ads or concerns expressed by Webb, Harrington and Gualtieri.
Gualtieri shared with the Times a spreadsheet that appears to be from the media tracker CableTracks that shows the party spent $144,000 on 7,505 30-second ad spots that ran from Oct. 2-8. That is more than three times the $43,429 that Santana has raised on his own so far. Gualtieri has raised $128,095.
The Democratic Party also declined to answer questions about why it has thrown resources into the Pinellas sheriff’s race. Incumbent sheriffs are notoriously hard to beat, and Gualtieri is arguably one of the most powerful sheriffs in the state.
The last time a Democratic candidate was on the ticket was during Gualtieri’s first election in 2012, after he was appointed to the job a year prior. He got about 59 percent of the vote and won easily against a No Party Affiliation candidate four years later.
Santana’s platform includes many of the pillars of a progressive sheriff that are particularly relevant after a summer of protests against racism in policing: reducing uses of force, reallocating resources to social services, diversifying the Sheriff’s Office’s mostly-white command staff, and requiring deputies to wear body cameras. (Gualtieri long resisted the technology but recently announced he is moving forward with a body camera program.)
Santana’s campaign has gotten traction among progressive groups, and he scored an endorsement from St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman. But Santana has no law enforcement experience. He worked for the Sheriff’s Office for 30 years as a civilian communications maintenance worker and supervisor, not a sworn deputy. He was unsuccessful in his previous runs for office, in 2016 for School Board and this year for Clearwater City Council.
When the Times investigation was published in January, while Gualtieri conceded some cases were classified incorrectly he stood by his agency’s investigations. In an interview this week, he said the attack ads took his words out of context.
“It’s taking words and spinning them," he said, "and making it sound like I don’t care about women, I don’t care about rape victims, that I’m just cavalier and don’t do proper investigations.”
The mailer quote, about victims being a “waste of time,” appears to come from this part of the story: “He (Gualtieri) said he is satisfied with the quality of his department’s rape investigations and called working on cases where victims don’t cooperate ‘a waste of time.’”
Among other quotes and excerpts was one prominently featured in the TV ad and attributed to Gualtieri as “Every victim is not a true victim." That appears this way in the story:
“Gualtieri added that some people who report being raped may not cooperate because they are lying. He described sex workers shaking down clients for money and spouses trying to cover up consensual affairs. ‘Some of these victims … they’re doing it for their own vindictive reasons,’ Gualtieri said. ‘We get those. Every victim is not a true victim.’”
The situation is reminiscent of the 2016 election for Hillsborough State Attorney. In that race, the state Democratic Party sent mailers accusing the popular longtime Republican incumbent, Mark Ober, of letting rapists go free, based on how he’d handled two cases and on comments he’d made during a luncheon. Alte, Santana’s campaign manager, also ran the campaign for Ober’s opponent, Andrew Warren.
Warren defeated Ober that November in a stunning upset.
Editor’s note: This story was updated with more information from the Tampa Bay Times investigation.
Resources related to sexual assault
Reach the National Sexual Assault Hotline 24/7 at 800-656-HOPE or go to rainn.org for live chat.
In Pinellas, the Sexual Assault Services Helpline at 727-530-7273 will connect you with the Suncoast Center.
In Hillsborough, the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay’s hotline can be reached by dialing 211.
Tampa Bay Times elections coverage
Voter guide is coming soon: The Tampa Bay Times will publish a special election section Sunday, Oct. 18 with information on local races. You can also access our Know Your Candidates guide at tampabay.com/voterguide beginning Sunday, Oct. 11.
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