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Opening the door when politics comes knocking

By C.T. Bowen
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 1, 2002

Sheriff Bob White reneged on his promise to take the politics out of the Pasco Sheriff's Office.

Big surprise.

Being chief executive of a 1,000-employee, $60-million agency who must answer to the voters every four years is, by its very nature, a political job.

It's why White, the candidate, announced his bid to be sheriff the same week his predecessor took a pounding in the press. It's why White sat directly behind the podium at George W. Bush's 2000 campaign appearance at Pasco-Hernando Community College and why he accompanied Gov. Jeb Bush on a door-to-door campaign in the Heritage Lakes Estates neighborhood a few weeks later.

White may have been a political novice, but his handlers sure weren't.

"I don't like it, but I'm a political person," White said Friday. "But politics doesn't get involved when we serve people."

Translation: His pledge was aimed at internal office politics, not external Republican politics.

Oh.

We have been dubious of his apolitical pledge from the outset. He is friends with and owes his election to Rep. Mike Fasano and commissioner-turned lobbyist Ed Collins. And one of his first hires was Human Resources Director Brian Corley, a former West Pasco Republican Club protege of Fasano. White, to his credit, has minimized politicking elsewhere. Unlike former Sheriff Lee Cannon, White hasn't become involved in the commissioners' re-election races. White hasn't attempted to load the Republican Party Executive Committee with his employees as Sheriff Jim Gillum did. Most notably, his budget negotiations with commissioners are cordial. No pickets or temper tantrums.

Initial accounts had the troops happy, relieved of the oppressive, walking-on-eggshells atmosphere that permeated the agency in the past. The grumblings are starting now over pocketbook issues. Overtime and holiday pay are curtailed in lieu of compensatory time because of an unexpected budget crunch the sheriff is attributing to health care costs.

The full ramifications remain to be determined, but consider the initial backlash as equivalent to the midterm elections of a presidential administration. People are bound to be dissatisfied after the honeymoon ends.

White, though, has goofed in another way. For a guy who wanted to remove politics from the Sheriff's Office, it sure is curious to see his charges in a television commercial for Republican attorney general candidate Charlie Crist.

With White's blessing, the Sheriff's Office recruited four deputies to appear with Crist in an ad touting his "Chain gang Charlie" image. The deputies, in uniform, but off-duty, walk with Crist in a scene filmed in July near State Road 52 and Little Road.

White dispels the notion that it breaks a campaign promise.

"Tell me, what message have I sent? Other sheriffs do it."

Sure, but did other sheriffs make the same politics-is-out-the-door pledge?

Of course, there is a delicious irony here. Just down the road from the Land O'Lakes jail operated by White is a message that Crist shouldn't be considered for attorney general. On the east side of U.S. 41 is a billboard advertisement stating, "Sorry, Charlie, these grades aren't good enough to be attorney general."

It's from the campaign of fellow Republican attorney general candidate Tom Warner and is critical of the intelligence and experience of Crist. It's the same billboard Lamar Advertising removed in Pinellas County after deciding it sent a negative message.

Negative messages must be the norm in Pasco. Otherwise, White would be more attuned to political appearances.

He would have politely declined Crist's request. He wouldn't have waived long-established bid procedures for purchases up to $50,000. A politician would have foreseen these contradictions with good-government practices and the ensuing public fallout.

White has said it is a good idea for an incumbent sheriff not to take donations from his own employees. But let's restate another challenge to White. He should not accept contributions from people and companies that do business with the agency.

Friday afternoon, White agreed. He will seek re-election, he said, and he won't take campaign money from Sheriff's Office vendors. He should be commended for that stance.

Election Day for White is 26 months away, though if previous sheriff campaigns are any indication, Gillum will announce his candidacy any day now.

But White is thinking about this November. Call his agent. There's more opportunities for political advertising.

"I'd do a commercial for Jeb Bush if they asked me."

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