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Pinellas sheriff candidates face Hispanic voters at forum

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and challenger Eliseo Santana sparred over diversity, experience and immigration.

CLEARWATER — The candidates for Pinellas County Sheriff made their case to Hispanic voters Saturday night and talked about immigration, fear in the undocumented community and diversity at the agency.

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the Republican incumbent, emphasized his nine years spent leading the county’s largest law enforcement agency.

Democratic challenger Eliseo Santana, who is bilingual, leaned on the relationships he built in the Hispanic community as an advocate and his message that the culture of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office needs to be changed. He runs a chapter of League of United Latin American Citizens and a nonprofit that helps Hurricane Maria evacuees from Puerto Rico.

Related: Who is Eliseo Santana, the Democrat taking on Pinellas’ powerful sheriff?

Both appeared at the in-person candidate forum at Centro Cristiano El Shaddai, conducted in English and translated to Spanish. There were few in attendance at the socially-distanced forum, which was broadcast on Facebook Live and organized by Unimex, a faith-based community group.

One of Santana’s main attacks on the sheriff is over immigration policy. Gualtieri helped author a controversial sanctuary cities ban and together with Immigration and Customs Enforcement created a program that allows local jails to hold undocumented immigrants accused of crimes. If elected, Santana said he’ll end the program in Pinellas County.

Gualtieri said his agency does not set or enforce immigration law, it just cooperates with those enforcing the federal government’s immigration laws. That misunderstanding, he said, creates fear in the county’s Hispanic and migrant communities.

“The problem is, we have bad laws,” he said. “And until it’s fixed we are going to continue to have this problem. It’s not the Sheriff’s Office. It’s Congress.”

Santana said more work is needed to reassure frightened immigrants so that they’ll better cooperate with deputies.

“We need to make sure our community knows we are not going to be acting as ICE agents,” he said. “When we do not feel safe and feel partners in this relationship and we do not report crime, and then crimes do not go down — reporting of crimes go down.”

Related: Tensions rise at Pinellas sheriff’s candidate forum
The two candidates for Pinellas County Sheriff appeared at the in-person candidate forum Saturday night at Centro Cristiano El Shaddai in Clearwater. Democratic challenger Eliseo Santana is on the left and Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the Republican incumbent, is on the right. The forum was conducted in English and translated to Spanish. There were few in attendance at the socially-distanced forum broadcast on Facebook Live and organized by Unimex, a faith-based community group.
The two candidates for Pinellas County Sheriff appeared at the in-person candidate forum Saturday night at Centro Cristiano El Shaddai in Clearwater. Democratic challenger Eliseo Santana is on the left and Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the Republican incumbent, is on the right. The forum was conducted in English and translated to Spanish. There were few in attendance at the socially-distanced forum broadcast on Facebook Live and organized by Unimex, a faith-based community group. [ KAVITHA SURANA | Times ]

Santana was endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders. Gualtieri supports President Donald Trump and has visited the White House. Yet both found common ground on supporting a policy that allows undocumented immigrants to obtain drivers licenses, to ensure they can access reliable transportation and proper insurance. Twelve states currently have similar policies.

“I have no problem with them having driver’s licenses," Gualtieri said, "as long as they do the same thing everybody else does.”

Gualtieri defended his record as sheriff and pointed to the inexperience of his opponent, who has no law enforcement background and has never run a government agency or held elected office.

“If you’re going to be the sheriff, you better be a cop, you better be a law enforcement officer,” Gualtieri said.

He reminded the audience that the agency employs about 3,000 people and has a 400 million dollar budget. The agency already has a robust community policing program, he said, including liaisons to the Hispanic community and a program that teaches deputies Spanish.

Related: Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri is now the star cop in Florida politics. Who is he, and how did he get there?

Santana said as sheriff he would consult experts and that he offers a fresh perspective that could make the agency more inclusive, starting at the top. He worked at the Sheriff’s Office in a civilian capacity for 30 years and says he experienced firsthand the systemic bias at the agency.

“You do not need a law enforcement officer," he said. “You need a person that leads that agency — that has the heart, has the mind, has the ability of making decisions for the betterment of the community.”

Santana said he’d add more candidates of color to the agency’s 32 command positions, where only two people of color currently serve.

Gualtieri bristled at that, saying that a five-year hiring freeze during the Great Recession hampered his agency’s ability to recruit and promote diverse job candidates. He said it takes a decade of experience to rise up the ranks and be eligible for a command-level position.

But the sheriff also insinuated that Santana would hire unqualified candidates to lead the agency:

“Unless what Mr. Santana is saying is he’s going to put people who are unqualified — I guess like him — into positions of authority and command level positions just because of the color of their skin.”

Santana pushed back: “Are you telling me we do not have people in the agency that are people of color that are capable of that position?"

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