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How Republican is Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister, really?

Yes, that’s an "R" next to his name on the ballot. But if you dig deeper, Sue Carlton asks, does the sheriff bleed blue? And a follow-up: Does it matter?
Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published Oct. 19, 2019

It probably would not surprise you that across Florida’s 67 counties, most of its sheriffs are Republican — as in, members of the political party most likely to be associated with law and order, gun rights, conservative values, not mollycoddling bad guys, that sort of thing.

And like the sheriff who policed Hillsborough County before him, Chad Chronister is one of those Republicans. Though some days you wouldn’t know it.

Because Chronister, a sheriff’s office veteran tapped for the top job when David Gee retired in 2017, has taken positions you might not align with the image of a textbook GOP lawman.

For instance: Just after a bloody August weekend that included mass shootings in Dayton and at a Walmart in El Paso. a Hillsborough man was charged with phoning in a threat to shoot up a Walmart in Gibsonton. With images from Texas still playing out in the news, hundreds of people had to be evacuated.

At a news conference, a reporter asked Chronister his thoughts on the gun violence of the previous days.

The sheriff said there should be enhanced mental health screening for anyone who wants to own a gun. Which was probably not a National Rifle Association-approved position.

“We all as a society need to do more about gun safety and those who possess firearms,” he said

This was not a blip: Chronister strongly supports Florida’s red flag law enacted last year to take guns from people deemed a danger to themselves or others for up to a year. He doesn’t see how anyone can argue against universal background checks.

Just this week, he called a plan supported by the Department of Children and Families to put problem foster teens in a secure juvenile justice facility “ludicrous” and no different than arresting them.

“The child welfare system has failed these children,” the sheriff told the Times’ Christopher O’Donnell. “I would never believe the fix would be to arrest these victims and send them to a secure detention facility.”

Under Chronister the department has its first female chief deputy and first black colonel. He talks up vocational programs — welding, car repair, forklift operating in an Amazon-mad world — instead of warehousing jail inmates.

Okay, yes, it would be ridiculous to assume any elected official is incapable of independent thought or nuance — that politicians will never color outside party lines. Though, for the record, there are such politicians.

When I ask him about all this , Chronister says he is “the most Democratic of Republicans,” a “hybrid of both parties,” fiscally conservative, socially Democrat. Actually, he was a Democrat until people convinced him you should have the same party affiliation as the sheriff for whom you work. He doesn’t think of the office as partisan anyway.

“The right’s gone way too far right for me,” he says. “So where does that leave a lot of Republicans — a lot of people?”

Right now is a notable moment in politics. And talk around town has been whether, given the current state of the world, the local electorate might vote a straight "D" ticket without considering the particulars of people they are voting for or against. Chronister will be on the 2020 ballot against challenger Gary Pruitt, a former Tampa Police corporal and Democrat that Chronister beat in the last election.

But maybe neither side could argue with this: When it comes to what we call ourselves and what we actually are, well, we live in interesting times.