Incumbent Bob Gualtieri wins third term as Pinellas sheriff

Gualtieri, a Republican, defeated Democratic opponent and former sheriff’s employee Eliseo Santana, according to unofficial results.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri smiles during an election night watch party hosted by the Pinellas Republican Party at the Hilton Carillon Tuesday in St. Petersburg.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri smiles during an election night watch party hosted by the Pinellas Republican Party at the Hilton Carillon Tuesday in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Nov. 4, 2020|Updated Nov. 4, 2020

Republican incumbent Bob Gualtieri won a third term in Tuesday night’s race for Pinellas County sheriff, according to unofficial results.

Gualtieri had 63 percent of the vote. His opponent, former sheriff’s employee Eliseo Santana, had 37 percent.

“It says a lot about the what the community thinks that we’ve done and accomplished," Gualtieri said in an interview Tuesday night.

Gualtieri’s decisive lead comes after weeks of intense campaigning, with attack ads flying back and forth between the candidates.

Gualtieri, 59, zeroed in on Santana’s lack of law enforcement experience — Santana, 62, worked for the agency for 30 years as a civilian, not as a sworn deputy — and his personal finance history, which included several foreclosures and a bankruptcy. Santana, in ads paid for by the Florida Democratic Party, attacked his former boss for his record on rape investigations and immigration policy, and his support of Trump.

Related: Who is Eliseo Santana, the Democrat taking on Pinellas’ powerful sheriff?
Related: How the Pinellas Sheriff’s Office boosts its rape stats without solving cases

“While the results aren’t what I hoped, I’m not going to stop advocating for change and progress," Santana said in an interview Tuesday night. "Our community needs an advocate that sees what is wrong and speaks out about it and keeps the sheriff accountable. So the fight continues.”

At first, it appeared the sheriff’s race wouldn’t be competitive. Gualtieri has held the office since then-Gov. Rick Scott appointed him in 2011, after former Sheriff Jim Coats stepped down to care for his ailing wife. He easily won reelections in 2012 and 2016 and has grown into one of Florida’s most powerful cops, influencing state policy on immigration, school safety and criminal justice.

Until June, Gualtieri’s lone opponent was James McLynas, a longtime Sheriff’s Office critic whom Gualtieri defeated in a landslide in 2016. Santana, inspired by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis Police custody, filed to run a week before the qualifying deadline, setting up a Democratic primary against McLynas.

Santana entered the race with little name recognition, and he was coming off failed runs for Clearwater City Council this year and, in 2016, Pinellas County School Board.

But his campaign was quickly bolstered by thousands of dollars in donations from prominent, mostly out-of-state Democrats and a savvy campaign manager in Tom Alte of Blue Ticket Consulting, who has represented Democrats including Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman.

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

His platform seized on ongoing protests against police in the wake of Floyd’s death, calling for more diversity in the agency’s top ranks and for reform measures such as body-worn cameras and a citizen review board.

Gualtieri carried out a wave of reforms in his agency, including an expansion of a deputy-social worker unit tasked with responding to mental health-related calls and the beginnings of a body camera program, which he had previously resisted.

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The competition picked up in early October, when the Florida Democratic Party sent out mailers and aired TV ads attacking Gualtieri based on a Tampa Bay Times investigation that found his agency improperly categorized and investigated rape cases. Santana also picked up endorsements from prominent Democrats including Sen. Bernie Sanders and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman.

Gualtieri answered with his own series of mailers, scrutinizing Santana’s qualifications, history with money and endorsements "by Socialist politicians” like Sanders, one of the mailers said, and “organizations that advocate defunding the police.”

Gualtieri said his lead Tuesday was “a rejection of nasty gutter politics.”

"They went low, and it was uncalled for, and I think the voters rejected it.”

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