In Flagler Sheriff’s Race, It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again As Fleming and Pollinger Join Forces Against Manfre
FlaglerLive | July 27, 2015
There’s been a Bush or a Clinton in the White House for about 20 of the last 26 years, and there may yet be one or the other for the next four come 2016.
Flagler County’s equivalent is the sheriff’s office. There’s been a Manfre or a Fleming in that office for the last 15 years, and there may yet be one or the other for at least another four come 2016.
Don Fleming, who first won the office in 2004 and held it for eight years, is running again, reviving what has been the county’s longest and bitterest rivalry in politics and setting up what could potentially be the third electoral confrontation with Manfre. That’s assuming either Manfre or Fleming make it out of their respective primaries. Fleming is a Republican. Manfre is a Democrat. Both will be bringing considerable baggage to the race, along with a likely dose of voter fatigue with their two names.
Manfre portrayed himself as an agent of change during his 2012 run, hammering Fleming over Fleming’s ethical breach—the sheriff was fined $500 by the Florida Ethics Commission—and promising a more upstanding agency, only to be hammered in turn by the ethics commission in a series of more serious breaches that Manfre disputes and continues to fight.
To Fleming, the decision to run came down to an unapologetic promise of restoration. He wants to bring back the agency to what it was when he ran it, by which he means stability in the command structure and job satisfaction among the ranks, two elements that have demonstrably suffered under Manfre.
“I may be making seven people unhappy, but I’ll be making 250 employees happy,” Manfre said the week he took office, when he immediately demoted, fired and shifted a slew of personnel, including key members of Manfre’s command structure such as Steve Clair, John Plummer and Lynn Catoggio (individuals Fleming says he would bring back). But 80 of those employees have since left the agency, a huge turn-over rate.
Manfre’s entire command staff has changed in two years. Fleming says his command staff remained stable, with one exception (Bill Karback, his undersheriff, with whom he had a falling out. Karback then ran against Fleming and lost), though that’s also Manfre’s criticism of Fleming: that Fleming’s command structure was clickish, or that there was no effective leadership.
“I think they liked their job. I don’t think they like their job anymore,” Fleming says of the ranks today, criticizing Manfre for replacing staff he had in place with “knuckleheads.” Asked to specify whom he meant, Fleming demurred, saying, “I don’t believe in being a dictator.” But he specified whom he meant when he was in charge: “I remember the Catoggios, the Clairs, the Plummers, all very good command staff” who made their way through the ranks in the agency. (Fleming said Catoggio is involved in his campaign, as is Ann Maretone, who was once active in the local tea party. Fleming also mentioned Debbie Johnson, the public information officer Manfre hired in his first term in 2000, then pushed out in the more recent term before Johnson’s two replacements cycled in and out of the PIO office. But Johnson said she’s not been involved.)
Just as Manfre when he took over in 2012 talked about needing more than four years to clean up what he perceived as the mess Fleming had created, Fleming now says it’ll take more than four years to clean up Manfre’s mess, a task he describes as restructuring. “The face of the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office will be the face of something other agencies look at and are proud of, not laughed at,” Fleming says.
Manfre and Fleming are men of surprises: Manfre managed to turn his one-time rival Ray Stevens, who ran as an independent against Manfre in 2008, into an ally in 2012, at least briefly enough to help him in the electiuon (a decision Stevens would later regret). And Manfre pulled in Rick Staly, a staunch conservative Republican, as his undersheriff in 2012.
Fleming is looking for a restoration of the sheriff’s office as he knew it.
Fleming has pulled his own surprise already. His campaign’s right-hand man is none other than John Pollinger, the retired police chief who challenged Fleming in the 2012 primary, and whom Fleming described as “another Jersey guy.” Both men spent their police careers in New Jersey, each rising to chief until retirement.
“Don called me twice asking me if I was going to run. I said no,” Pollinger said during an extensive interview Saturday, with Fleming at his side. “He called me again and asked me if I was going to run. I gave him an emphatic no.” Then Fleming told him he was going to run, and would Pollinger support him. “I gave him an emphatic yes.” He described Fleming as the best-qualified candidate for the job because of his years in the military and a 40-year career in law enforcement, much of it as chief and eight years of it as sheriff in Flagler.
Pollinger says he’s not been promised a job, nor heard any promises from Fleming: that would be illegal, he says. But Fleming describes him as “a strong contender” for the undersheriff job, a choice that may also blunt a question Fleming hears about his own fitness for the job: his age. He’d be 71 should he win office again in 2016. Fleming says he has a clean bill of health and feels fine and eager to return to the job (he’s been running his own private investigative agency since leaving office). “I feel I have an obligation to fix what’s wrong there,” he says.
Fleming may face opposition from Staly, among others. He calls Staly an “architect” of the Manfre administration for two years. “I don’t want to have issues to run against him, but if he brings up issues, I will, too,” Fleming said, suggesting he’s ready to go negative if that’s where the race will go. “If everybody ran their campaigns on just the issues, it’d be easier to run. But I’m prepared. I’m prepared this time. I still have the stab wounds in my back.”
Staly resigned in March amid what at the time looked like a carefully choreographed lovefest between him and Manfre. The love is gone, replaced by outright attacks stemming from the investigative report of Manfre’s ethical issues, which prompted Manfre to shift blame to Staly, and Staly to criticize the sheriff for not taking responsibility—and last week going as far as likening the sheriff’s behavior to that of a criminal.
Fleming on Saturday talked about his own ethical lapse. It was the result of a gift card he accepted that gave him access to Hammock beach Resort, the sort of access denied members of the public. The ethics commission fined him $500. Fleming says he made a mistake, owned up to it and got past it.
The primary is still a year away, but the shape of the race so far is making the last four elections for sheriff look like preludes again.
Manfre beat Arthur Dyer by 623 votes in 2000. Thomas Hutson knocked out Manfre in the Democratic primary four years later, beating him by 300 votes. Fleming easily beat Hutson with 56 percent of the vote in the general election.
In 2008 Fleming faced Karback in the primary, along with a third, lesser-known candidate (Jim Delaney) and beat them both with 54 percent of the vote, setting up his first head-to-head confrontation with Manfre, who’d won a four-way primary with 38 percent of the vote. Fleming won with 41 percent of the vote to Manfre’s 39, as Ray Stevens, a retired Ossining, N.Y., cop running as an independent, took 20 percent.
Four years later Fleming faced stiff opposition in the primary from Stevens and Pollinger. Pollinger had been weakened by a relentless assault from the Ronald Reagan Republican Assemblies, the radical-right pressure group that had fielded Stevens and, through Stevens and his campaign manager, had challenged Pollinger’s Republican credentials in court, a challenge that garnered more press than the judge’s patience: the challenge was dismissed. But Pollinger came in third. Fleming cleared the primary with 39 percent of the vote to Stevens’s 33 percent, setting up his second confrontation with Manfre.
(In a subsequent interview in early August, Stevens aid: “At this point we’re still a year out. I don’t really know what I’m going to do I’ve been studying the political landscape. I’m weighting my options as to whether I’m going to run or not, and if I don’t run, who I’m going to support.”)
Fleming and Manfre have this in common: unvarnished contempt for the Reagan group, though expediency at times has gotten ahead of the contempt: Manfre’s drafting of Stevens into his campaign in 2012 may have been enough to give Manfre the extra handful of votes he needed to beat Fleming. That was all it was: Manfre won by 332 votes out of almost 49,000 votes cast, with a write-in—one of those Reagan group agitations designed to jigger the race rather than offer a serious contender—taking 286 votes.
Clearly, Fleming is not the only one who now wants revenge.