1. Opinion

Bob Gualtieri or Everett Rice for Pinellas sheriff? A matter of faith

Published Apr. 24, 2012

The crowd arrived with its mind made up. You could tell from the various campaign buttons and T-shirts touting one candidate or another.

In that respect, last week's forum for the Pinellas County sheriff's race was decided before it began. It seemed very few in the audience at a cramped Dunedin VFW post were eager to embrace the words of anyone but their favored candidate.

Fair enough. For family, friends and followers, loyalty may very well trump anything the candidates had to say that night or in the coming months.

You, on the other hand, should pay close attention.

This is a race with fascinating options and huge implications. A short-term incumbent versus a long-time predecessor. A younger man talking of the future versus an older man invoking the past. A candidate making an appeal with numbers and plans versus a candidate offering reputation and performance.

The race began with six candidates, but only two have ever seemed to matter. And, as if on cue, one of the six decided to bail before the Dunedin forum had even ended.

So the challenge now — before the Aug. 14 Republican primary — is to figure out if you are ready to trust Sheriff Bob Gualtieri or if you long for former Sheriff Everett Rice.

There are those who would have you believe the choice is simple, but I don't see how that is possible since neither candidate is without flaw.

If you listened to the way the other candidates attacked him, you know Gualtieri, 50, has an image problem. A rash of ugly headlines and internal affairs investigations of the narcotics division showed up soon after he was appointed sheriff by the governor last fall.

That the investigations all predated his tenure as sheriff has hardly mattered since he had been second-in-command through all of the shenanigans.

And if you listened to the way Rice, 67, responded to moderator's questions, you know he has some gaping holes in his campaign. He offers few details and little vision beyond the idea that he is trustworthy and has done the job before.

Rice blew off questions of how he would handle a department in the midst of massive budget cuts, particularly when compared to his final five years as sheriff when the budget mushroomed from about $150 million to $225 million.

The challenge, in the coming months, is for one of these candidates to convince us that his shortcomings are more perception than reality.

Gualtieri has to stop defending the blanket surveillance of a hydroponics store and acknowledge the narcotics division had some misplaced priorities and lax supervision.

Rice has to stop talking about how grand things were when he was sheriff and actually explain how he would meet the challenges of a new era in law enforcement.

This will not be a political race based on partisanship or ideology. The two leading candidates are both Republicans. This will not be decided on background or experience. Both men worked their way up from the bottom, and both went on to get law degrees.

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This race is entirely about faith. About comfort. About which man you believe is most capable of handling what may be the most critical job in the county.

John Romano can be reached at