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  1. Florida Politics

Sheriff finds himself at center of political stand your ground storm

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri at an earlier news conference about the stand your ground case in Clearwater. DIRK SHADD | Times
Published Aug. 10, 2018

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has never been one to shy away from tough decisions.

He's also not known to back off from explaining them publicly.

So his 30-minute and 55-minute news conferences to talk about why he didn't arrest Michael Drejka in the shooting of Markeis McGlockton during an argument over a parking space have given the public — and the political types — much fodder for discussion. It has since morphed into a polarizing debate with reaction ranging from a President Donald Trump-backed gubernatorial candidate to The Rev. Al Sharpton.

And those two ends of the spectrum have managed to stumble on a shred of common ground: Gualtieri made the wrong call when he didn't arrest Drejka because of Florida's stand your ground law.

READ MORE: No arrest in fatal shooting during argument over handicap parking space.

Less expected than Democrats criticizing the Republican sheriff's decision are questions coming from members of his own party.

There was National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer appearing to challenge the sheriff's interpretation of the law in a far-reaching Politico story.

There was the hinted criticism in the story from state Sens. Dennis Baxley and Rob Bradley, two framers of the law, and direct criticism from a third, Rep. Bobby Payne, calling the sheriff's assertion of it "weak" in this case.

There was the statement from gubernatorial candidate Congressman Ron DeSantis: "I don't think the Pinellas County sheriff analyzed the law properly."

And then there were the murmurs, after Gualtieri said his hands were tied by a law he said could maybe use some tweaks: Did he use this as a political opportunity to cast doubt on a law he doesn't like?

"It's somewhat offensive," he said of the implication, reminding you that he supports stand your ground as a concept.

He also made the right call not to arrest Drejka, he'll tell you — has anyone else seen all the evidence? And the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office will make the final charging decision, which he said seems to have been lost in the conversation.

DOUBLING DOWN: Sheriff Gualtieri defends 'stand your ground' decision in convenience store shooting.

Gualtieri is a politician, as all elected officials are, and you'll see him at the endorsements and fundraisers and meetings. But this kind of backlash? He's not concerned. Why would he be?

"You've seen response from elected officials who maybe believe he should have handled it differently but still generally support the sheriff," said former Republican congressman David Jolly.

"He has broad support across Pinellas County and across very diverse constituencies,'' Jolly said. "This will be one of the chapters, but I don't think it will be the defining moment."

•••

News conference No. 2 was supposed to be a show of unity, but instead, Gualtieri stood before reporters alone.

Local branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Ministerial Alliance — key organizing groups for McGlockton supporters — had canceled on him that morning. Their reasons revolved around a Politico story quoting Hammer; Baxley, R-Ocala; Bradley, R-Fleming Island; and Payne, R-Palatka; among others.

POLITICO STORY: NRA, Republicans refute GOP sheriff's stand-your-ground claims.

Their input appeared to criticize the sheriff's interpretation of the law as explained at news conference No. 1, the day after the July 19 shooting.

When asked about the story, Hammer and both Baxley, who helped craft the original law, and Bradley, who sponsored a bill last year to shift the burden of proof from the defense to the prosecution, said they were answering general questions about the law and weren't criticizing the sheriff directly.

Even if his description of the law appears to conflict with the way they were describing it?

"If someone else says something inconsistent with what I said, people can draw whatever conclusions they want," Bradley said, adding he respects Gualtieri and his "impeccable" track record.

"I understand this is a highly emotional issue and a highly charged political issue," said Bradley, a former prosecutor. "That is why I've chosen to speak very definitively and specifically about what the law does do and doesn't do, but I'm not going to take that next step and comment on individual cases."

It's fair to question the application of the law, Jolly said, but also fair to question the motives of those asking the questions. He pointed out Gualtieri and Hammer have butted heads before over Second Amendment issues like open carry. And for some lawmakers with a stake in stand your ground, "it's very simple to say the law is right and the law enforcer is wrong," he said.

A broader look at the party will show another argument to let the process take its course.

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam, running against DeSantis in the Republican primary for governor (and whom Gualtieri endorsed), defended the sheriff in a statement, saying Gualtieri has more information than anyone else.

"I trust our law enforcement will make the right decision," he said.

READ MORE: Republican candidates for governor get in dust-up over Clearwater 'stand your ground' shooting.

•••

Ask him to reflect over the last few weeks, and Gualtieri will acknowledge that maybe the way he's gone about this has contributed to some of the confusion and political firestorm.

"I'm a believer in taking things head-on, and maybe this case to a fault of trying to be transparent, trying to be straightforward, trying to explain and not hide behind the 'no comment,'" he said. "Maybe in this case, it did add to it perhaps."

He has his reasons for doing it that way. The morning after the shooting, surveillance video that has now been seen around the world appeared on a TV station showing McGlockton shove Drejka to the ground, then Drejka pulling a gun and shooting him.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Records show road rage, gun threats in stand your ground shooter's past.

His plan was to pass it to the State Attorney's Office and likely not even hold a news conference or release the video, a common, more subtle path when there are questions of how the law applies in a case.

But, echoing the sentiment of much of the public, the video, absent other evidence, is "obviously concerning," he said.

"I went through this mental analysis," he said. "I didn't think it was appropriate to have the video out there and saying I wasn't making this arrest without the public having an explanation from me as to why, and I don't think the public would have tolerated that."

The public hasn't exactly tolerated this outcome, either. But some would argue the frustration is bigger than Gualtieri and this case.

Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, a Democrat, yes, but who also takes the sheriff at his word, pointed out it's impossible to separate politics from stand your ground cases.

"By not arresting this person, it certainly elevated the issue," he said, "but the issue has been boiling beneath the surface for a long time."

Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or kvarn@tampabay.com. Follow @kathrynvarn.

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