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Sheriff's battle plan: Rally the troops early

By GREG HAMILTON

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 3, 2001


I must remember never to play chess with our sheriff.

Jeff Dawsy is a lot of things -- law officer, politician, family man -- but more than that, he is a strategist. He's a big fan of the big plan, and that philosophy has served him well.

His rise through the ranks of the Sheriff's Office was not by happenstance. And Dawsy's strategy in his first campaign, a 1996 run for sheriff, was so effective that he easily mowed down a host of pretenders to the throne.

Even when an anonymous coward sent an 11th-hour stink bomb attacking Dawsy, his friends and even his wife, to dozens of fax machines around Citrus County, Dawsy couldn't be knocked off stride. That '96 win, and his strategy to keep on campaigning long after the votes have been counted, ensured that in 2000 he would face no opposition for a second term.

The sheriff now faces a campaign of a different sort, and it's no surprise that he has a careful, multilayered battle plan drawn up.

Dawsy is pressing the County Commission for more than $14-million worth of upgrades for the department. They range from the vitally important -- improving a radio system that has emergency workers dangerously out of touch with dispatch in much of the county -- to a somewhat less critical need for more office space. Does he have a battle plan to overcome the commissioners' reluctance to raise taxes? Do fish swim?

The sheriff prudently started laying the groundwork for the requests years ago. Unlike other officials, he does his lobbying behind the scenes, as opposed to public confrontations that tend to generate ugly headlines and bruised egos. He has met with commissioners to push his requests, but he hasn't stopped there.

He and his staff have crafted a two-hour presentation on the department's needs and they have invited everyone from commissioners and other officials all the way down to lowly newspaper types to see the show and tour the Inverness office. Dawsy himself leads the presentation, and key members of his command staff are there to answer questions.

But that's just a piece of the plan.

Dawsy is well aware that his political capital is running high these days, as his uncontested re-election last year bears out. The commissioners, political animals themselves, know the kind of support the sheriff has in the community as well as the machine that he has crafted. They also know that he has a "can't-lose" issue of public safety, and they tangle with him publicly at their own peril.

There's also Dawsy's penchant for public speaking. He'll go anywhere at any time to address a community group. And you can be certain he'll work the room, going from table to table, shaking hands and slapping backs.

But his biggest asset may be something he created when he took office. With much fanfare, Dawsy launched the Citizens' Academy, a way for ordinary residents to get a close, inside look at how the Sheriff's Office operates. It's a brilliant idea that gets better with each graduating class.

So far, several hundred Citrus County residents have been through the program, each coming away with a greater understanding of how their department works. But, more importantly, they now feel a certain kinship with the men and women in green -- especially the boss.

That means Dawsy has a sizable, and growing, fan club out there. It's safe to assume that anyone who is interested enough in his or her community to spend all those hours at the Citizens' Academy can be counted on to vote come election time.

Dawsy doesn't have to wait for an election to flex this particular muscle. The academy graduates are poised to weigh in as needed in the current battle for bucks.

In a two-page letter sent in April, Dawsy put the alumni on alert. "I find myself calling on you to be my ambassadors in the community regarding matters of public interest," the letter's opening paragraph states. "Your help is needed now."

Later, after spelling out the department's needs, he asks them to spread the word "to counter any misinformation you may hear."

"If necessary, I may call on you again . . . to take part in a letter-writing or telephone campaign or to make personal contact with your commissioners," the letter advises.

Dawsy said last week that this was not a call to arms -- yet. He is confident that the commissioners will see the obvious need to overhaul a radio system that now is just a notch or so above tin cans and string.

But he is taking no chances. He, and more importantly, the commissioners, know he has the calvary waiting in the tall grass, ready to charge.

Dawsy has quietly positioned his pieces across the board. The commissioners shouldn't be surprised to look up one day and find themselves boxed in. Checkmate.

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