After former Pasco County Sheriff Bob White unexpectedly retired in April 2011, Gov. Rick Scott appointed the politically connected Chris Nocco to serve the remainder of White's term.
Now Pasco voters will get a chance to make their choice for sheriff.
Nocco, 36, has the inside track — as well as numerous endorsements from such political figures as U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, incoming state House Speaker Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi of Tampa.
Nocco is challenged by two other Republicans in the Aug. 14 primary: Roger Forney, 59, is a retired police officer, sheriff's corporal and detention deputy who has worked in Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties. Maurice Radford, 50, of Wesley Chapel, is a former Pasco County Sheriff's Office major.
The winner faces Democrat Kim Bogart in November. Bogart lost a close race to White four years ago in the general election.
Nocco's opponents describe him as woefully inexperienced and say the only reason he got the job was because of political connections. Nocco's wife is a lobbyist who also worked for Gov. Rick Scott's campaign, and Nocco served as deputy chief of staff to Rubio while Rubio was speaker of the Florida House.
While his opponents seek to make political hay out of his appointment, Nocco doesn't shy away from his connections. And he shouldn't. As he says, the connections could serve the county, especially considering the financial challenges faced by Florida counties. And critics are being disingenuous by suggesting that Scott only cared about politics when he appointed Nocco to be Pasco's top cop when the safety of more than 470,000 people are at stake.
The experience issue has some weight, but Nocco's overall work history is so varied that it gives him a greater perspective than the other two Republican candidates.
By his own account, Nocco puts his law experience at between nine and 10 years – with stints as a Philadelphia public schools police officer, a Fairfax County police officer outside Washington, D.C., a Broward County sheriff's deputy, chief of staff of the Florida Highway Patrol, and then as a captain and major in the Pasco sheriff's office.
Both Fortney and Radford have more than two decades' experience.
Of the two, Radford is more formidable. His lengthy resume includes work as a Florida Marine Patrol deputy regional commander, and he was tabbed to start a new state environmental crimes bureau, among other achievements.
White named Radford his major in charge of Patrol Operations – the office's third in command – after his election in 2000. In that capacity, Radford was responsible for managing about $30 million of the office's total $80 million budget, giving him the necessary budgetary experience needed by a sheriff. He also oversaw the Division of Special Operations, communications, property and evidence, and training.
Radford, a straightforward, no-nonsense lawman, says the office implemented many of his ideas — including the intelligence-led policing crime-fighting model — now being touted by Nocco as successes.
Without question, Radford is qualified to be sheriff. But Nocco, who has a bachelor's degree in criminal justice and a master's in public administration, has done a good job since replacing White. He has impressed many people in the community with his energy, dedication and eagerness to listen, and he stresses the importance of all law enforcement agencies in the county working together.
Illegal drugs and drug-related crime are Pasco's biggest law enforcement issues, he says, and they are major priorities. Bondi says Nocco has been one of her "most important partners" in fighting prescription drug abuse and the increasing use of synthetic drugs.
Nocco's strategy to combat these issues is simple but smart: Work with churches, schools, athletic leagues and other organizations to persuade children not to make bad choices. "Either go to jail or the cemetery," he says, an offer that should get many young people's attention.
Nocco's goal is lofty: "I want to stop that culture of addiction." While that may be impossible, Pasco residents should know that Nocco is attacking the drug scourge from many different angles.
In the Republican primary for Pasco County sheriff, the Tribune endorses Chris Nocco.