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Cannon has only himself to blame for his downfall

By C.T. BOWEN

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 9, 2000


Soon-to-be-ex-Sheriff Lee Cannon blames his stunning election loss to a political neophyte on a familiar pair of Republican foes: Rep. Mike Fasano and former County Commissioner Ed Collins.

Certainly, the pair recruited, coached, raised campaign cash and provided other assistance for Sheriff-elect Bob White. But to give sole credit to the duo for Cannon's upset loss is too simplistic. Here are a few other people who contributed to the sheriff's political downfall:

John Short and Jim Gillum, two-term Pasco sheriffs done in after mixing private affairs with the public's business.

Gov. Bob Graham removed Short from office in 1984 after his penchant for private deals with a millionaire part-time deputy became public knowledge. Gillum, a former bomb squad commander in the Tampa Police Department, won the electoral free-for-all that followed, but lost in a 1992 Republican primary after a messy divorce in which the public learned he hired a woman he dated for an unadvertised position in the legal department.

Cannon compared his record to his predecessors' and legitimately claimed to be the best sheriff in the past quarter century by keeping the agency free from scandal.

Frankly, he should have aimed higher. Short and Gillum set the performance bar so low, Cannon couldn't help but look good by comparison. But when notoriously short-memoried voters tired of Cannon's leadership, they overlooked his accomplishments and turned to White who is likeable but has limited administrative experience.

County Commission Chairman Pat Mulieri. Though she is a Republican, she is typically non-partisan on many issues, and certainly was no fan of Collins during his commission tenure.

Yet, Cannon accused her of playing political games when she questioned his information on staff raises and vacant positions. The ugly confrontation during a September commission meeting became the campaign's turning point.

Gone was the image of the warm and fuzzy sheriff working closely with commissioners. In its place was the finger-pointing bully attacking a commissioner the public holds in high regard. It's one thing to insult Collins publicly -- Cannon did that frequently. It's another to take verbal swipes at Mulieri for doing nothing more than asking for information.

Mulieri later appeared in newspaper advertisements for Cannon's opponent with the portrait of her and White accompanying his campaign pledge to work hand in hand with the Commission.

Cannon's campaign staff. Its performance let him down. The decision to spend exorbitantly on radio and cable television commercials, instead of on demographically targeted direct-mail literature, was a mistake. It would have been prudent to do more than a single mail piece considering the number of senior citizens in Pasco County. Retirees are eager readers and loyal voters.

Likewise, the preponderance of road signs is questionable for a two-term incumbent. Cannon did not need to build name recognition; he needed to soften the razor-sharp edges of his own personality.

Lee Cannon. In the end, the sheriff will have to accept personal responsibility for his election defeat. It is inaccurate to lay the blame on journalists (he received the editorial backing of both the Times and the Tampa Tribune); heavy Republican turnout, (Vice President Al Gore carried Pasco County); or soft money tied to Fasano and Collins (Cannon raised and spent $133,000).

Cannon provided the ammunition for an effective PBA mailer by calling a judge a liar, chastising a grieving teenager after the shooting at Ridgewood High School and bellowing at a Pine Hill resident during a neighborhood meeting. It didn't matter that the sheriff apologized to the judge, believed teens failed to protect their classmate by neglecting to report a gun on campus, and correctly suspected the Pine Hill woman was part of the problem there.

It left the public with the image of an angry, confrontational, unsympathetic person heading its lead law enforcement agency.

A majority of Pasco County voters opted for style over substance in the sheriff's race because they don't like Cannon's style. In that regard, it mirrored the presidential campaign pitting the experience of a sitting vice president against the pleasant personality of a Texas governor criticized as being ill-prepared for the presidency.

The public (at last count) would rather go with someone they like over someone they believe is better suited to do the job.

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