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The Henderson dynasty

[Times photo: Tony Lopez]
Hillsborough Sheriff Cal Henderson, left, thanks Courtney Demmi, 10, for helping raise money to buy bulletproof vests for dogs used by Hillsborough Sheriff's Office and Tampa police.

By KATHRYN WEXLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 23, 2000


TAMPA -- The job comes with a $131,207 salary and authority over 2,750 employees. It includes TV air time and plenty of party invitations. It is arguably the most powerful position in the county.

Yet, the incumbent has only one challenger, and he has an arrest record.

This marks Cal Henderson's eighth year as Hillsborough County sheriff and his third election. As in 1996, the 56-year-old sheriff faces no real opposition.

"Nobody who's smart in this business is going to run a race you're not going to win," said Wayne Garcia, a Tampa political consultant, "and that race is a suicide mission."

Henderson is something of a modern sovereign whose position can be traced back 1,000 years to Saxon England. In those days, sheriffs presided over counties, then called shires, hunting thieves and guarding the land of noblemen. Kings appointed them.

Today, of course, the sheriff is elected by popular vote. But in Hillsborough County, it is essentially the sheriff's office that determines its leader.

There have been only three Hillsborough sheriffs since 1965, and two of them sprung from the ranks. For years, the department has functioned as a cohesive political machine, one that produces a single internal candidate for sheriff whose leg up makes it easy to beat back external competitors.

The stability is unusual in a state where one-third of all Florida sheriffs turn over each election.

"Hillsborough County is apart from the rest when it comes to the history of sheriffs in the last 30 years," said Florida Sheriff's Association spokesman Tom Berlinger.

"It's very much been handed down, for lack of a better word, from one dynasty to the next, and it seems like the voters have been very well satisfied with the history as it is," Berlinger said. "Go to Pasco County, and every four years it's a free-for-all."

Under Henderson, the department has largely stayed clear of scandals. Except for last year's blip, with a slight increase, crime in the county has fallen. He has had no feuds with local politicians, and his colonels say they're happy because he lets them make decisions.

People just seem to like the lanky Tampa native, a Democrat whose stepfather was a refrigerator repairman. Contributors this year gave more than $270,000 to the sheriff, who commands the eighth-largest suburban enforcement agency in the country. Lawyers pitched in, as well as body shop owners and people of every political stripe.

"He's a nice guy, he seems to be doing a nice job and he's got a good reputation," said Al Austin, a Tampa developer and statewide Republican fundraiser who contributed to Henderson.

Back in 1964, Malcolm Beard was the county constable when he wrested the sheriff's office from incumbent Ed Blackburn. Beard set the precedent of grooming a subordinate and oiling his campaign run with the right introductions and praise. Electing an insider minimized disruptions within the agency, he said.

"If you have a good department and there haven't been any scandals attached to it, I think it's healthy," said Beard, who lives in Tampa.

But there's another incentive for sheriff's officials to do all they can to see that an insider wins. The sheriff appoints majors and colonels, a system that denies them civil service protection. An outsider will more likely want to clean house.

When Beard retired, then-colonels Walter Heinrich and John Kirk both had aspirations to succeed him. Beard said he told them he would endorse only one and gave them the weekend to think it over.

"There was a concern that if we split the office, someone from the outside might come in and win," Henderson said.

Kirk bowed out. "If you don't have the proper backing, you're foolish to jump in," he said from his Polk County home.

Henderson, a smooth, non-confrontational politician both inside his department and out, certainly knows how to maintain the continuum. He is far more likely to appear at a luncheon than muck around with jail house decisions or needle a major about his crime statistics.

His relations with the Hillsborough County Commission, which sets his budgets and gave him $194-million this year, are cordial, even though the commission has almost never given him all the money he requested. Last year, when Henderson appeared gaunt and rundown after treatment for prostate cancer, people whispered he was dying. So he spent 58 hours on a two-story scaffold, ostensibly for a charity stunt.

"That was the only way I was going to put that rumor to rest," he said. The cancer has not returned, he said.

Those in office curry favor with him, say political observers.

"Every politician wants the support of the sheriff," said Fred Karl, a Tampa attorney, former state senator and ex-Hillsborough County commissioner.

Homer Caddell Henderson was was born during World War II to parents who divorced soon after he arrived. He was raised in Tampa by his mother and stepfather and attended Chamberlain High School, where he was more clownish than disciplined.

"What saved me was the Army," he said. After three years of service, he returned to Tampa, passing the time as a bank teller downtown.

While observing the men in smart uniforms who drove up in patrol cars, Henderson started to think a career as a lawman might be as good as any for a 21-year-old with no college degree.

"I really didn't come back with being a police officer in mind," he said.

After two years at the Tampa Police Department, he left for the U.S. Border Patrol, which was offering a better salary. His job was to nab illegal immigrants running across the California border.

He didn't last more than a year.

"I found myself not really into catching the guys. They were just people wanting to come here and make a living," he said.

So he signed up with the CIA in 1968 and went to Vietnam for a year as an adviser on reconnaissance missions. When he got home, he joined the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office, where he's been ever since. He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in criminal justice from the University of South Florida in the 1970s while working.

Today, he lives in Lithia with his second wife Jeanne. They have a simple, ranch-style house with pictures of angels and lacy pink wallpaper.

"This is her house, so whatever she likes is fine with me," said Henderson, who said he does put his foot down when it came to his small office: "No doilies."

A concrete patio in back looks out over a pasture. "It's nice just sitting out there, watching the cows," he said.

When they were first introduced in the early 1980s at a dance, Jeanne was a secretary at the Sheriff's Office. Now married 17 years, Mrs. Henderson doesn't work and accompanies the sheriff on evening social functions most weeknights.

In honor of her husband, she never takes off a gold necklace with a sheriff's star.

"He's very affectionate. He's always pleasant, no matter what kind of day he's had," she said. "He's a wonderful man -- don't get me started, please."

Henderson inherited a pretty healthy department back in 1993. The push to purge Florida law enforcement agencies of illegal activity and civil rights violations had begun in the 1960s when then-Gov. Claude Kirk went after corrupt sheriffs.

In the 1970s, Hillsborough County got swept up in a national movement to better the enforcement industry all around. Beard classified lower-ranking deputies as civil servants. Heinrich then required top officials to earn college degrees. The department in 1986 became the first county agency in Florida to pass an optional, national test based on professional standards.

Since Henderson assumed the helm, his staff has grown by 16 percent, and a new jail was opened on Falkenburg Road. While the agency finds jail deputies hard to hang on to, patrol deputy attrition is relatively low. Salaries of top officials don't cut too deeply into the pie. And the jail system led by Col. David Parrish has a national reputation for innovative construction.

But by other measures, the department is strained.

According to the county's latest study two years ago, unincorporated Hillsborough's per capita public safety budget ranked fifth-lowest of seven urban counties in Florida in 1996.

The highest-ranking officials are almost entirely white males. Deputies grumble that their pay starts out comparable to Tampa police officers but that by the end of their careers police salaries outstrip theirs by $10,000.

After a recent court ruling allowing deputies to organize, unions are making strong in-roads into the department by capitalizing on that discontent over money.

Henderson has constantly nudged the County Commission to consider that the ratio of deputies per 1,000 residents hovers at 1.6. But he has stopped short of pushing the commission to bring that number up to the national average of 2.5. Instead, they've all agreed on a plan to hire enough new deputies so the ratio increases to 1.7 by the year 2004.

More deputies patroling the county's nearly 1,000 square miles, the largest unincorporated area in the state, would also drive down the department's response time. The average is now 8.2 minutes for emergency calls, a lag time Henderson says is too long.

But conciliation, rather than insistance, has always been his style.

"I used to have a friend advise me I was too docile with the commission," but arguing for more money won't work, he said. "I've seen sheriffs do it that way and they don't win because the commission controls your money."

Even within his department, Henderson said, he can't recall ever butting heads with his subordinates.

"I pretty much go along with my colonels," he said. "They're professional and have 25 to 30 years experience."

In fact, Henderson has handed more responsibility to his subordinates than his predecessors ever did.

"We always had morning briefings under Heinrich," said Parrish, "but Sheriff Henderson has gone beyond that and doesn't come to those meetings, whereas Heinrich ran them himself. Sheriff Henderson said, "you keep me posted.' He gave us, the group, responsibility for running the operations."

His hands-off approach has freed him to spend time on public appearances and fundraising. Last year, he raised nearly $30,000 for charity.

Henderson is credited with expanding the number of substations and regulating discipline. Still, even he admits the changes he's made are "subtle."

In November, his name will appear on the ballot above a blank space for a write-in candidate, William Godwin. Godwin, 46, has an arrest record for refusing to pay child support and was arrested Saturday for allegedly driving without a valid license. Henderson is expected to win four more years in a landslide and hasn't ruled out another run after that.

So far, it seems his legacy will be that he stayed the course set before him. That, and the person he chooses to follow in his footsteps once he retires. The name on insiders' lips for the last few years has been Col. David Gee, whom Henderson quickly promoted through the ranks.

"To say I'm grooming him would probably be a little premature," Henderson said. But he added: "Dave's a very capable person, and I certainly think he would be a great sheriff."

- Kathryn Wexler can be reached at (813) 226-3386 or wexler@sptimes.com.

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