TAMPA — Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister sealed a lead Tuesday night in his bid to keep his job. With all precincts reporting votes, as well as early votes and some mail-in ballots accounted for, unofficial results showed Chronister ahead with nearly 55 percent of the vote.
Chronister’s opponents were two retired lawmen: Gary Pruitt and Ron McMullen. Pruitt had 36 percent of the vote in those results, and McMullen had 9 percent.
“I’m feeling very good,” Chronister said by phone from a watch party at the Tampa Museum of Art just before 8 p.m. “I feel confident and very grateful and humbled.”
Chronister, a 52-year-old Republican, has been Hillsborough County sheriff since 2017, when David Gee retired from the job and recommended that then-Gov. Rick Scott appoint Chronister. In 2018, voters got a chance to decide who would serve the remainder of Gee’s term. They stuck with Chronister.
This year marked the sheriff’s first run at a full term. He’s described his three years at the helm as “progressive," pointing to his push for probation-style options that allow certain offenders to avoid arrest records, as well as his expansion of mental health care and vocational education in county jails. He also touts two years of declining crime rates on top of 28 years of agency experience. In August, the agency started rolling out a body-camera program, which Chronister said will be a top priority if reelected.
Chronister vastly outperformed his opponents in fundraising. Between direct contributions and the Friends of Chad Chronister political action committee, he pulled in more than $1.5 million. Much of that money came from family members of his wife, Nikki Debartolo, whose father is real estate magnate Edward Debartolo Jr.
By late October, public records show, McMullen had raised about $64,000 and Pruitt about $15,000.
Pruitt, a 52-year-old Democrat, ran against Chronister in 2018, in an election Chronister won with 55 percent of the vote. Pruitt, too, has a long history in local law enforcement: He worked for the Tampa Police Department for 25 years as a patrol officer, detective and corporal before retiring in 2015. He then took a job with a large security contractor, which he left last year.
Pruitt ran on an agenda of transparency, pitching a citizens advisory committee that would help develop the agency’s policies. He would also advocate for deputies to unionize, he said. A proponent of body cameras, he criticized Chronister for flip-flopping on the issue.
Pruitt didn’t seek the endorsement of prominent local Democrats. The chair of the Hillsborough County Executive Committee said last month that Pruitt’s “history does not live up to the Democratic platform or our ideals and values.”
She didn’t elaborate. But in 2018, the Tampa Bay Times reported that Pruitt fathered a child with a subordinate at the police department, was sued over paternity and fell behind on child support payments. He’s also had a slew of financial problems.
“We are extremely disappointed in the results, but we did not spend $1.3 million to keep a job we already had,” Pruitt said, taking a knock at Chronister in a statement Tuesday night. “Our grassroots campaign spent just over $14,000 and received no backing from the local Democratic Party. The public wants change, the fight continues, and justice will continue to be pursued for those who have been wronged.”
McMullen, who’s 56 and ran as a no-party candidate, is a former supporter of Chronister — he backed the sheriff in 2018. McMullen retired that year from the Tampa Police Department, where he’d worked for nearly three decades, most recently as a major.
Since then, McMullen has accused the sheriff of leading a low-morale office where “the freedom to express objection or to suggest new ideas is non-existent.” Chronister’s coronavirus response drew his ire, and he said the sheriff should have used more force during civil unrest in late May. His top priorities, he said, would be increasing staffing and community engagement.
He said Tuesday night he was disappointed with his showing, but he wasn’t surprised, given his independent bid and late entry. He said he expects to run again in 2024 with a few tweaks: He’ll align himself with a party, get to work sooner.
“I learned so much and I met some good people,” he said of his campaign.
Chronister’s apparent victory speaks to the foundation he’s built in his three years as sheriff, he said, and he looks forward to growing what he sees as key elements of his tenure — implicit bias training and a more diverse workforce, as well as the mental health, vocational education and diversion programs.
Those latter programs, he believes, “will truly break the cycle of recidivism.”
With about 4,000 employees, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office is the 12th-largest county law enforcement agency in the United States. It provides law enforcement, runs the county jail and provides security for the local courts. The sheriff is elected to a four-year term and is paid $179,408 per year.
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