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Incumbent Hillsborough sheriff in a three-way race to keep his job

Sheriff Chad Chronister says his approach to law enforcement has helped bring down the crime rate. Democrat Gary Pruitt and No party candidate Ron McMullen say they can do better.

TAMPA — Three years ago, then-Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee shocked the county by announcing his retirement barely a year into his fourth term.

Had Gee completed his term, the 2020 election would have decided who succeeded him. Instead, his chosen successor, Chad Chronister, is on the Nov. 3 general election ballot as the Republican incumbent sheriff with a three-year record that he can tout — and his critics can attack.

Challenging Chronister are Democrat Gary Pruitt, a retired Tampa police corporal and former mall security director who ran against him in 2018, and Ron McMullen, a retired Tampa police commander and first-time candidate running without party affiliation.

The question heading into Election Day: Will Chronister’s record, bipartisan support and the advantage of incumbency help him win his first four-year term in an increasingly Democratic county?

Related: Tampa Bay Times 2020 Voter Guide: 111 Local candidates on the issues

• • •

After he retired, Gee asked then-Gov. Rick Scott to appoint Chronister, a colonel at the time, to serve until the 2018 election, when voters would decide who would serve out the remainder of Gee’s term. Scott obliged.

Though the support from Gee, a conservative East County Republican, helped him land the job, Chronister uses the word “progressive” to describe his approach to running the office.

He has emphasized his efforts to reform the county’s criminal justice system, pushing for probation-style programs that allow adult and juvenile offenders to avoid an arrest record if they don’t re-offend and complete court mandates. He points to moves like expanding the office’s partnership with the Boys & Girls Club to build relationships with kids and put them on the right path.

In the county jails, Chronister has expanded mental health and addiction treatment care for inmates, created a “veterans resurgence” program to help U.S military veterans and built a vocational training center to give inmates marketable skills.

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 Primary Day, Aug. 18.
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 Primary Day, Aug. 18. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

He cites lower crime rates in 2018 and 2019 as a proof that his approach is getting results.

“I think what that shows me is all the preventative programs and the progressive programs I put in place, they’re working,” he told the Times ahead of the primary.

By the 2018 general election, the first time Chronister appeared on a ballot, he had endorsements from prominent Republicans and Democrats alike, such as Tampa’s then-Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt. Pruitt was the only candidate who challenged Chronister that cycle and the sitting sheriff won nearly 55 percent of the vote.

Related: How Republican is Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister, really?

Chronister has broken local fundraising records with the help of his wealthy in-laws — he is married to Nikki DeBartolo, daughter of the billionaire businessman Eddie DeBartolo, Jr. — raking in more than $1.2 million for the 2018 race and about $1.5 million so far this cycle, records show.

His lone Republican primary opponent this time around, a former Sheriff’s Office detective named Charles Boswell, called Chronister a “Republican in Name Only" and tried to paint him as soft on crime. Chronister, in turn, touted endorsements from establishment Hillsborough Republicans such as state representatives Jamie Grant and Lawrence McClure and Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody. He won about 62 percent of the vote.

In a year marked by protests against police brutality and calls for reform, Chronister was among Hillsborough law enforcement leaders who recently agreed to reform measures such as turning over investigations into shootings by deputies and in-custody deaths to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

During a recent candidate forum hosted by the NAACP’s Hillsborough branch, Chronister said 60 percent of his new hires since he became sheriff have been minorities and women and that he requires yearly implicit bias training for deputies.

“The most important thing you can do is listen,” Chronister said, “and I think this community understands that we’re going to listen.”

• • •

Pruitt spent 25 years with the Tampa police department, retiring as a corporal in 2015. He then worked as director of security at Westfield Citrus Park mall, a job he left last year, according to Pruitt’s campaign representative, Kirby Lavallee.

Lavallee told the Times he would ask Pruitt about an interview for this story but did not respond to two text messages after that. Pruitt also did not respond to two messages from the Times.

In 2018, Pruitt raised about $14,000, mostly from his own pocket, and didn’t engage with the Hillsborough Democratic Party to tap into its grassroots machine. Yet he still garnered 45 percent of 512,000 votes cast, an indicator of the advantage Democratic candidates have in countywide races.

“My goals haven’t changed and neither has the Sheriff’s Office, so here’s your second chance to have an actual, real sheriff that wants you to be a part of it,” Pruitt said during a recent campaign forum hosted by the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay. “I want to give the Sheriff’s Office back to the people.”

Pruitt vows to create a citizens advisory committee that would, according to his website, “help me review and develop policies for the office that affect the citizens of this county.” He also wants to unionize deputies.

Chronister has neutralized another plank in Pruitt’s platform: bodyworn cameras for deputies. Chronister said in 2018 that he didn’t support the cameras because of concerns about cost and privacy issues, but he later changed his mind in large part because the cost of the technology has dropped. The office recently issued about 1,000 cameras to deputies.

Pruitt has raised about $15,000 this time around. He didn’t seek out Democratic officials this year, either, said Ione Townsend, chair of the Hillsborough Democratic Executive Committee. Townsend said party officials decided not to include Pruitt on its list of recommended candidates because "his history does not live up to the Democratic platform or our ideals and values.” She declined to elaborate.

The Times reported during the 2018 campaign that in 2011, supervisors learned Pruitt was in a personal relationship with a female subordinate, a violation of department and city policies, according to a warning letter in his file. Records show he fathered a child with the woman, was sued over paternity and then fell behind on child support payments. Pruitt said the affair led to a separation from his wife, with whom he has two daughters. The couple later reconciled.

County records show Pruitt also has a history of financial problems, including bankruptcy, foreclosure and wage garnishment. He said in 2018 that most of the financial troubles stemmed from expenses associated with the paternity suit, child support payments and the separation from his wife.

• • •

McMullen, 56, started at the Tampa Police Department as a patrol officer in 1989, working his way through the ranks until he was promoted to major in 2016. He retired in 2018.

As a major, he commanded the Special Operations Division, overseeing a wide range of units such as the SWAT team and the motorcycle, marine and traffic homicide squads.

“That was exciting, sitting at the table and having input on running the department,” he said.

Related: Retired Tampa police major gunning to unseat Hillsborough sheriff

A registered Republican in Hillsborough since 2002, McMullen intended to run as a Democrat but switched his party affiliation about seven months after the deadline set in state law.

McMullen has accused Chronister of failing to vet the 164 inmates he released from the jail in March to reduce the risk of coronavirus spreading in the jail. He also contends Chronister could have done more to avoid arresting Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne of the River at Tampa Bay on charges of violating county orders to limit the spread of the virus. Chronister has stood by the decisions, saying they were necessary to limit the virus’ reach.

Ron McMullen, a former Tampa police major who is running for Hillsborough County sheriff speaks to a group of residents on October 8, 2020 in Apollo Beach.
Ron McMullen, a former Tampa police major who is running for Hillsborough County sheriff speaks to a group of residents on October 8, 2020 in Apollo Beach. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

McMullen said the office can do more to create community partnerships and prevent would-be juvenile offenders from getting into trouble. He vowed to be more aggressive to fill the Sheriff’s Office deputy shortage.

Chronister has said the office has made “great strides” in reducing the shortage to about 70 vacant positions, and the added manpower has allowed him to create a mid-day patrol shift to ease workloads on deputies and reduce response times.

McMullen has raised nearly $62,000, a fraction of Chronister’s war chest.

“I’ve always been Goliath but clearly he has a machine and he has unlimited funds,” McMullen said. “I feel like David for the first time in my life.”

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