The three losers in last month's primary for Monroe County sheriff are backing Democrat Tom Peteck, creating an alliance that doesn't surprise Republican and current Undersheriff Rick Ramsay, the longtime face of the agency who crushed his challenger in the same election.
The race for sheriff is being branded by the recently retired 24-year Sheriff's Office veteran, Peteck, as a contest between the establishment elite in Ramsay versus the hard-scrabble road patrol deputies whom Peteck says he best represents.
Peteck views Ramsay "as the incumbent" in the race, citing Ramsay's ties to Sheriff Bob Peryam, who announced he would not run for re-election in November. Ramsay declared his intention to fill the void the same day in a move that raised few eyebrows.
Nonetheless, Peteck optimistically points out that if all the voters who cast ballots for Republican Jake Brady of Marathon, Democrat Deputy Matt Koval and State Attorney's Office investigator Edwin "Bill" Grove vote for him, he would receive 3,000 more votes than Ramsay received in the primary.
However, historically more voters turn out in the general election than in the partisan primary. Ramsay won the Republican primary with 72 percent of the vote, and Peteck won the Democratic primary race by 62 percent.
With those numbers behind him, Peteck said he is undeterred. He said he wants to "cut fat at the top" of the agency and put sworn deputies who now sit behind desks on the street.
"Throughout the years they've taken deputies off the street for budgetary reasons and added administrative staff," Peteck said. "We need to give taxpayers the biggest bang for their buck."
Peteck said there are about 35 sworn deputies that could be on the street and that their experience is needed on the street to help guide a younger staff.
But such a view only highlights Peteck's inexperience, said Ramsay, who noted that the public hears the same song during every sheriff's race.
"Every political season we hear this," he said. "It doesn't matter who the boss is, he's wrong. How can [Peteck] make that determination? I mean no disrespect, but he's never been a sergeant. He has no experience running the agency. What is that based on? The reality is when the budget crashed, we made cuts across the board at all levels. We cut the deputy director of [human resources], we got rid of a lieutenant position at the jail. We got rid of a captain position in special operations. Our budget is nearly back to 2005 levels."
Removing administrative staff and putting them on the street is not realistic, Ramsay said. Detectives, he noted, cannot work road patrol and investigate crimes at the same time.
"I know of zero other agencies that work that way," Ramsay said. "You can't just demote people. There are job protections. If you took all the command staff and detectives and demoted them down and put them on the road, what career opportunities would exist for rank-and-file deputies? Are you really creating advancement opportunities with a system like that? There has to be upward mobility in the agency. If we want to discuss morale issues, what do you think that would do to morale?"
Ramsay said the Sheriff's Office has researched other similarly sized agencies and found its organizational numbers fall in line with other law enforcement agencies.
Much of Peteck's pre-primary platform focused on the importance of community policing, the philosophy that the community should work closely with law enforcement in preventing and solving crime. That position hasn't changed, he said.
"I think we need more community input," Peteck said. "We're made up of many pocket communities and what works best in Key Largo may not be the best solution for Stock Island."
Peteck's statements prompted Ramsay to wonder where his opponent has worked for the last 24 years.
"Every third patrol car has a bike rack, and we have active bike patrols as well as a Sheriff's Office representative at nearly every board up and down the Keys," Ramsay said. "We're at every chamber, Rotary and Guidance Center meeting, just to name a few. There are officers at every level of community involvement in this county. The Sheriff's Office is a good partner in this community."
Peteck, however, says he is committed to increasing that partnership, and doesn't view the status quo as sufficient.
Ramsay's war chest -- $140,896, according to campaign finance records -- towers over Peteck's $20,486 campaign fund. But Peteck sees his opponent's fat campaign wallet as a metaphor for what's wrong with Sheriff's Office brass.
"Money and signs are part of it, but not all of [a successful campaign]," Peteck said. "He spent twice as much as I did and when you look at the Sheriff's Office budget, do you continue to throw money at it or take a different approach? I'm asking voters if they want to accept the way things are, or take a look a things under a new light?"
Ramsay was unmoved.
"Our budget is $900,000 below what it was in 2006, and our retention figures are the best they have been in decades," Ramsay said. "Crime is down. I'm still charging toward the general election in the same direction. We're asking voters to look for the candidate who is the most qualified, has the most training, who brings the most experience to the table and has the most community support."
The general election is Nov. 6.