Chad Chronister surprised to be tapped by Sheriff Gee but now aims to succeed him

David Gee once tapped Col. Chad Chronister as a successor. But will Scott appoint him?
Published June 16 2017
Updated June 17 2017

TAMPA — About a year and a half ago, Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee called in Col. Chad Chronister for what would be a career-changing talk.

Sitting with his Chief Deputy José Docobo in Docobo's office, Gee told Chronister he planned to run one more time, for a term ending in 2020. Then he invoked the Sheriff's Office tradition of anointing a successor.

"They said, 'We believe with your capabilities and what you stand for that you will be the right one to lead the office into the future,' " Chronister recalled in an interview last week. "It took my breath away."

But Gee surprised everyone last month when he announced he would retire less than one year into his new term, in September. Gov. Rick Scott will appoint an interim successor who will serve until the next election in November 2018. The winner will serve out the last two years of Gee's term.

Chronister, 49, says he will apply for the appointment and will run next year whether or not Scott taps him. Gee is expected to recommend Scott do so.

"Whoever gets that appointment will have a huge leg up in the election because they're going to be recognized and titled as 'sheriff,' " said Mark Proctor, a Republican political consultant in Brandon. "I certainly think the governor values Gee's opinion, but whether that's the only thing he will consider is another story."

• • •

When Gee was first elected in 2004, it had been more than three decades since Hillsborough County had anything approaching a competitive sheriff's race.

Just three men had been sheriff since 1965: Malcolm Beard, Walter Heinrich and Cal Henderson. Gee was Henderson's chief deputy when Henderson announced his retirement and his support for Gee, who handily won the 2004 Republican primary against a retired FBI agent and a general election featuring a write-in Democrat.

Backing from a well-respected outgoing sheriff typically translates to financial contributions, as it did for Gee, who set a record for a local sheriff's race by raising nearly $400,000. The job pays $170,198.

Gee declined an interview request, saying through a spokesman he has "full confidence" in Chronister but is holding off on any recommendations for now.

Sheriffs passing the baton to like-minded successors can lead to stagnation, said Mike Trentalange, a Tampa attorney who ran against Gee as a Democrat in 2004 but later dropped out, citing the sheriff's fundraising advantage.

"The things they do right are perpetuated, but so are the things they do wrong," Trentalange said. "I think this is a great opportunity for Gov. Scott to get some new blood in the agency."

Trentalange said Scott should consider someone who does not plan to run next year to make for a more level playing field.

• • •

Chronister said the idea of becoming sheriff hadn't crossed his mind before that meeting with Gee and Docobo. He said it humbled and honored him.

Chronister joined the agency in 1992 and has held patrol and street crimes assignments. He has supervised the narcotics, warrants and intelligence sections as well as the Community Outreach Division. He was promoted to colonel last year and oversees the Department of Operational Support.

Gee has four colonels in his command staff and 15 majors. Chronister said he's not aware of anyone else on the command staff who plans to apply or run.

"I feel pretty confident we're unified as an agency," Chronister said. "I think that's what makes us special."

Chronister said bringing someone from the outside would disrupt the stability of the agency and squander the experience of longtime employees who know the agency and the community.

"The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office has a tradition of excellence," he said, "and when someone from inside the office is chosen you continue that tradition of excellence."

• • •

Chronister will likely have another influential ally.

In an interview last week, Attorney General Pam Bondi brought up Chronister's name unprompted, saying he would be "a wonderful sheriff."

A Hillsborough native who is close to Gee, Bondi said she has known Chronister his entire career, working with him on cases when she was a local prosecutor, and considers him a friend. Gee and Chronister, she said, have the same demeanor, marked by "honesty, ethics but also humility,"

Bondi said Scott will likely ask her opinion about the appointment and she will share it when the time comes.

Deb Tamargo, chairwoman of the Hillsborough County Republican Party, said she has not yet met Chronister but that the party, as in the past, will put its faith in the recommendation of a sheriff who has done a good job running the agency.

"Everyone in our circle has such a high regard for Sheriff Gee and his entire Cabinet of commanders, so if the governor chooses any one of those I think people will be very comfortable," she said.

Local Democrats hope to have a strong candidate to run in next year's race and for Scott to consider, said Ione Townsend, chairwoman of the Hillsborough County Democratic Party.

In emailed responses to questions from the Tampa Bay Times, Scott's office said he will "look for a sheriff who is committed to keeping Hillsborough County safe and who will continue to keep Florida at a 45 year low crime rate." The email said Scott "takes recommendations from the community into consideration for all appointments."

There could be another variable in Scott's political calculus. The Republican governor is widely expected to run for the U.S. Senate next year, and he'd want to do well in Hillsborough.

"He is going to be looking to lock down loyalty and patronage from probably the most powerful public officer in Hillsborough County," said Todd Pressman, an Oldsmar political consultant. "There's a quid pro quo in making the appointment of a lifetime."

If Scott is looking for unwavering loyalty to him and his party, some of Chronister's past political campaign contributions might give him pause.

State records show Chronister has been a registered Republican since 1994. But in 2014, he contributed $3,000 to Charlie Crist's Democratic bid to deny Scott a second term, state records show. A year earlier, Chronister gave $1,000 to Democrat Bob Buckhorn's One Florida political action committee.

In 2012, Chronister gave a total of $15,000 to Democratic President Barack Obama's re-election campaign and $5,000 to the Democratic National Committee, federal campaign records show.

But Chronister has supported mostly Republicans over the years. A year after the donation to Crist's gubernatorial race, he contributed to then-U.S. Rep. David Jolly, a Pinellas Republican who tried unsuccessfully to fend off a challenge from Crist. Chronister attended a fundraiser Monday for Republican Adam Putnam's gubernatorial campaign.

Chronister said he made the 2014 contributions to Crist at the request of his wife, Nicole DeBartolo, and Steve Yerrid, a Tampa attorney and friend who has been supportive of the Sheriff's Office. The daughter of billionaire developer and former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr., Nicole DeBartolo is a Democrat and generous donor to the party and its candidates.

Describing his political beliefs as "middle of the road," Chronister said Gee has instilled in him the belief that a sheriff must rise above partisan politics and be a sheriff "for all the people." He said he understands past donations might give some people "heartache" — including, perhaps, Scott.

"But ultimately, I think he will make the decision based on who's best to lead this agency."

Times correspondent William March and senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

     
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