Four years ago Richard Nugent and James E. "Eddie" McConnell waged intense campaigns to earn voters' consent to take over the county's top law enforcement job. As longtime employees of the Hernando County Sheriff's Office, each candidate offered voters solid experience, dynamic personalities and believable promises to do a good job and help make the county a safer place to live.
Nugent, who was endorsed by retiring Sheriff Tom Mylander, won the 2000 election. But the outcome was not exactly a mandate. Nugent garnered 49 percent of the votes cast, and McConnell accumulated 46 percent. A third nonparty candidate, Michael Robinson, squeezed out about 5 percent of the vote, and many people speculated that if it had been a head-to-head race between McConnell and Nugent, McConnell would have won.
McConnell is convinced that is the case and he intends to find out. This year's sheriff's race is a one-on-one showdown between him and Nugent and all signs point to another close finish.
In 2000, the St. Petersburg Times recommended Nugent to our readers, citing the experience he had gained in personnel and financial management while a top officer in the agency, as well as his advanced academic accomplishments, which include a master's degree in public administration.
The recommendation commended Nugent's platform, in which he promised to update the Sheriff's Office's computer system to make it easier to track trends in crime and for the public to access that information, to implement a program that assures accountability from deputies assigned to investigate reports of crimes, to establish a victim's advocacy program and to expand efforts to educate young people about the pitfalls of illegal behavior.
Our praise for Nugent was not misplaced. In the past four years he has done all he promised and more. He has proved to be a fair and well-tempered public servant who works well with other government agencies and elected officials, and whose priorities are in synch with the residents his agency is sworn to protect.
Nugent's tenure has come at a time of rapid growth in the county and his staff has kept pace while also posting the first decrease in the overall crime rate in five years.
In addition, Nugent, 53, has overseen a smooth transition of his office's rank-and-file employees to form a collective bargaining unit.
McConnell suggests that the deputies' decision to start a union reflects employee dissatisfaction. However, union representatives have clearly stated that their decision was an inevitable progression and that it would have occurred no matter who was elected sheriff.
Although we are sure some employees would rather have McConnell, 51, at the helm, there is no outward evidence of widespread unrest in the Sheriff's Office. That goes for deputies as well as the many administrative workers who do not carry a badge.
McConnell, who resigned from the Sheriff's Office after losing to Nugent in 2000, has had two law enforcement jobs since then. He now is a detective with the Brooksville Police Department.
McConnell, a Brooksville native, is sincere, likable and enthusiastic. He takes pride in his experience as a crime prevention officer and his kinship with the department's lower-ranking employees. He has worked very hard on this campaign and it is clear he has a certain Everyman appeal to many voters.
But that cannot overcome the depth of Nugent's experience. Nugent is the more well-rounded candidate and his demonstrated abilities in managing a $23-million operating budget and overseeing 350 full-time employees are indisputably superior.
Nugent has done a fine job as sheriff for the past four years. With complete confidence that he will build on that record of accomplishment, we recommend voters re-elect him on Nov. 2.