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    Voters return Rice, rebuff challengers

    By JANE MEINHARDT

    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 6, 2000


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    Voters overwhelmingly decided Everett Rice deserves a fourth term as Pinellas County sheriff Tuesday, again rebuffing challengers to the veteran Republican.

    Rice stomped Tom McKeon, a retired Philadelphia police officer, and Jack Soule, a St. Petersburg police officer and union leader.

    Since he was elected 12 years ago, it was the first time Rice faced two Republican opponents, but voters were clear about their choice. With the first absentee ballot count Tuesday night, the veteran lawman was way ahead. His lead never faltered. "I really didn't know what to expect," Rice said. "My opponents put up a good challenge, but I think the voters respect the work I've done and recognized that we have a good agency. I'm proud of it."

    The sheriff serves a four-year term, oversees 2,600 employees with an annual budget of $160-million and earns about $128,000 a year.

    Rice, 55, ran a well-financed, low-key campaign that focused on his achievements and qualifications and on what he thought his opponents lacked. He had some high-profile endorsements, including ones by Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe, district Fraternal Order of Police lodges and the Pinellas County Council of Firefighters.

    At candidate forums that sometimes turned into raucous shouting matches, Soule and McKeon raised few substantive issues when they tried to attack Rice's record. Both promised to treat deputies better.

    "I'm a little surprised (at the results,)" said Soule, 46, who was trying to reach Rice to congratulate him. "If I had started campaigning a little earlier, I probably would have done better. I thought voters wanted a change, and I thought I was the candidate to do that. We ran a clean, positive campaign. I told my supporters we have nothing to be ashamed of."

    Soule portrayed Rice as a wasteful, poor leader who had a top-heavy administration of overpaid employees. McKeon harped on his Vietnam War service in an apparent attempt to get veterans' votes while contending Pinellas residents do not feel safe under Rice's protection.

    McKeon, 55, also accused Rice of engineering Soule's candidacy just days before the qualifying deadline to keep McKeon from getting the Police Benevolent Association endorsement and the union's campaign contributions.

    Soule is the local union president, and most of his campaign contributions came from unions. McKeon had a low-budget campaign, with $17,000 of his own money used to help finance it. "I anticipated I would have a better showing," McKeon said. "I've campaigned for 1 1/2 years. It's a disappointment, but life goes on."

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