GOP selects Marion County sheriff candidate
Published: Wednesday, October 10, 2012 at 11:11 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, October 10, 2012 at 11:11 p.m.
Chris Blair gets a second shot to be Marion County's top lawman.
The Marion County Republican Executive Committee Wednesday night selected Blair, the runner-up in the GOP's August primary for sheriff, as its replacement nominee for Dan Kuhn, who was driven from the November election last week by a sex scandal.
Blair got 34 votes — five more than he needed — from the 56 REC members who were present for the process, which was a first for local Republicans.
The 35-year veteran of the Sheriff's Office and the former head of its major crimes unit overcame some fairly stiff competition from the other nine candidates to win over the committee.
He will face Constitution Party candidate Bernie DeCastro in next month's election.
Surrounded by television cameras and well-wishers, Blair said after the vote that it was time to unite and said the department will emerge from the dark clouds hanging over it.
"There will be sunshine again. Let bygones be bygones. It's going to take some time to heal," he said.
Wednesday's REC vote was necessary after Kuhn's professional career and political candidacy imploded under the weight of a sex scandal.
Kuhn, formerly the Sheriff's Office's second-in-command, had defeated Blair in the Aug. 14 Republican primary, taking 53 percent of the vote.
Last week, however, Kuhn admitted that he had an extramarital affair, and then his former mistress, Melissa Cook, the head of Hale Academy, a private school in Ocala, revealed details of their liaisons during an 18-month relationship.
Cook also accused Kuhn of professional malfeasance, claiming that the pair had sex while Kuhn was on duty and at times inside the Sheriff's Office headquarters, the adjacent Emergency Operations Center and the home of another deputy. She also asserted that Kuhn had used county vehicles to meet with or transport her to their trysts.
Kuhn subsequently resigned from his post and quit the race for sheriff. On Tuesday, Hale Academy's board fired Cook, who also is married.
The scandal prompted Sheriff Ed Dean to launch parallel investigations by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and by his Internal Affairs unit.
On Wednesday night, REC leaders allowed each candidate five minutes to make a pitch and then provided two additional minutes to answer random questions from the REC members.
In his remarks, Blair didn't talk about his plans for the agency, but instead discussed his "journey" as a candidate.
He also spent some of his time answering rumors that picked up steam after Kuhn's fall, including distancing himself from involvement in Kuhn's scandal and dismissing whispers that he would fire all of Kuhn's supporters within the Sheriff's Office.
He described that as "backdoor, good ol' boy politics at its best" and predicted that "a new page in Marion County politics will unfold tonight."
Blair, who first announced his candidacy in early 2011 and raised roughly $200,000 along the way, argued that none of the others seeking the nod on Wednesday had endured the same process he had.
And he pledged to make the Sheriff's Office and the community whole again after the tough primary and Kuhn's departure.
Many of his top competitors acknowledged that they had not been tested in the same political crucible as Blair.
Yet they tried to turn that to their advantage, pointing out that Blair's presence in the Sheriff's Office would only aggravate the existing rift among the staff and the community at large.
Kerry Crawford, a retired sheriff's major who was urged by many local GOP leaders to enter the REC contest as the alternative to Blair, told the crowd he came to represent the "truth."
Crawford, who was Kuhn's campaign manager, emphasized that he did not know about Kuhn's affair. He then went on to express disappointment that Kuhn had not fought back during the primary campaign against exaggerated claims Blair made about his accomplishments.
"There are good men back there. Pick one," said Crawford, urging the REC to choose someone besides Blair. Under the REC's rules, Blair was not allowed to rebut Crawford's assertions.
Don Moreland, who spent 20 years as Marion County's sheriff until leaving office in 1993, offered himself as the alternative to both the Blair and Kuhn camps.
Moreland, who had hired Blair, Crawford and three other hopefuls, said he was most concerned for the employees who are exhibiting a "general feeling of unrest" about the future.
After the vote, Crawford didn't back down from his earlier comments but added that the REC had spoken and he wished Blair luck.
"I knew what I had to say was going to be controversial with the crowd here, but I felt the responsibility to reveal what I thought the committee needed to know to make an informed decision," he said. "The process worked, and I wish Blair the best in his campaign against DeCastro."
Moreland also said the party should be united after Wednesday's outcome.
"It's time to get behind Chris and help him," Moreland said.
The atmosphere surrounding the REC session resembled a Blair campaign event.
His backers packed one half of the 205-seat Republican Party headquarters on East Silver Springs Boulevard, while outside the building screams and honking car horns from Blair's faithful provided the soundtrack for candidates' speeches.
Pat Sasso, an REC member and Blair supporter from Ocala, said the committee heard from many solid candidates, but Blair stood out.
Blair won, she said, because many REC members knew who Blair was from the long primary campaign.
"They knew him, and they know how he lives," said Sasso, who referred to Blair as honest and a "good family man." "What he says is God's truth."
Marion state committeeman Lewis Dinkins said, "I think the REC did as well as we could do and things went the way the people wanted."
GOP Chairman Roy Abshier noted that many REC members voted for Blair because he had been the runner-up.
"A lot of people felt he deserved another chance," Abshier said.
Blair must now file paperwork as a new candidate and pay an $8,400 filing fee, although under state law Kuhn's name must remain on the ballot as the Republican nominee.
Any votes cast for Kuhn, however, will count for Blair.