PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — The two Democrats running next month to take on GOP incumbent Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri have contrasting styles as candidates, but both are running on platforms calling for more accountability in the department ranks.

Eliseo Santana is squaring off against James McLynas.

What You Need To Know

A key component of McLynas’ platform is that he won’t enforce cannabis laws. He says doing so is “an absolute waste of the taxpayers’ money.”

“Once you have that arrest, it makes it harder for you get a job, support yourself, get into an apartment and these things are harming the community here in Pinellas,” he says.

The 61-year-old “semi-retired” Madeira Beach resident has lived in the community for about a decade, and has tangled with Sheriff Gualtieri throughout the years. He ran against him and lost in 2016 as a non-party-affiliated candidate in 2016, but he is now hoping to win the Democratic nomination to face the GOP incumbent in November.

His opponent is Santana, 62, who worked as worked for decades as a communications maintenance supervisor at the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office before stepping down in 2012.

Since that time, he’s served as a community activist, heading up the local chapters of both LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens) and Puerto Rico Connect, as well as running unsuccessfully for the Pinellas County School Board in 2016 and the Clearwater City Council earlier this year.

One of his major themes of his campaign is to get rid of what he describes as the “militarization” of the PCSO. Santana believes that the majority of times a Pinellas Sheriff Deputy is called to act, he or she ends up confronting someone who has a mental health, homelessness or drug use issue – and he doesn’t believe arresting those individuals is the right course.  

Santana also says the top brass with the PCSO isn’t an accurate reflection of the diversity of the county, claiming that of the 32 people who make up the command staff, only one identifies himself as a person of color. 

Under Sheriff Gualtieri’s leadership, the department does not mandate body cameras for its officers. Not surprisingly in the current climate, both Democrats say that’s the wrong path to take.

“Foolish,” is McLynas’ take.

Santana says that at his job in the sheriff’s department, he evaluated such technology back in the 1990s, and says he felt it would give the department the transparency and accountability needed.

“The sheriff then said no,” he says. “And here we are in 2020, and our sheriff still says no.”

Both candidates also are calling on the creation of citizen’s review board for the department, a stance that the Clearwater branch of the NAACP recently spoke out in support of in the wake of the death of George Floyd.

McLynas plan is more ambitious. He calls it a “Tribunal of the People” and says it will investigate complaints from citizens on “any” police officer misconduct, independently investigate all police-involved deaths and use of force complaints, as well as assist on the reopening and reinvestigation of previously closed cases of police misconduct within the county.

The plan also calls on having the sheriff deputize citizens and grant them limited power for investigation purposes.

When asked if his lack of law enforcement experience could make voters pause before considering him for the office, McLynas responds that it’s his status as an outsider that gives him the authenticity to make the changes he believes are needed inside the PCSO.

Noting how former Sheriff Jim Coats stepped down and selected Gualtieri to succeed him in 2011 (Gualtieri then defeated former sheriff Everett Rice in 2012), McLynas says, “here we finally have a candidate like myself from outside that has not been indoctrinated into one hundred years of police culture. And that’s why I can come in and make the reforms that I’m going to make.”

Based on experience and fundraising ability (Gualtieri has raised $45,000 more than either candidate), the Democratic nominee will be considered an underdog in the general election this fall. But with so much discussion about policing reforms and accountability, there will likely be more public interest in this race than in Gualtieri’s previous campaigns.

The Democratic sheriff primary in Pinellas takes place on August 18, though voters who requested vote-by-mail ballots will have the ability to weigh in as early as this week, as the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections have begun sending out those ballots.