ORLANDO, Fla. – Days away from the primary election in Florida, many candidates are turning to members of law enforcement to help turn out the vote.
Televised campaign ads currently run by Sen. Marco Rubio and Wilton Simpson feature several sheriffs from Central Florida, including Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd and Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods.
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Several News 6 viewers wrote to ask: Are the sheriffs allowed to do this?
“It is something that comes up on a fairly regular basis,” Sheriff Al Nienhuis said.
Nienhuis is the president of the Florida Sheriffs Association, which represents the sheriffs in all of Florida’s 67 counties.
He said questions over whether sheriffs should personally appear in political ads come up each campaign season.
“People do look to you to not just uphold the law, but to provide them with information that’s important – particularly as it relates to law enforcement,” he said. “Each sheriff has to make that call himself or herself.”
News 6 investigated, and according to the federal Hatch Act, written in 1939, federal state and local employees are prohibited from using their authority or influence to interfere or affect the result of an election.
Florida has a similar law with almost the exact same language.
“I think that people say, ‘Wait a minute. Why is a state employee doing this?’” said News 6 legal analyst and UCF history professor Dr. Jim Clark
Clark is quick to point out that sheriffs are not just employees – they are elected officials.
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel issued an opinion clarifying the Hatch Act for elected officers four years ago, explaining the office that governs the Hatch Act does not extend the campaigning prohibitions to employees holding elective office.
“Thus, we have advised that a sheriff may attend campaign events while wearing his uniform and identifying himself as the sheriff or use photographs of himself in uniform for campaign purposes,” the opinion read.
Legally, Clark and Nienhuis said that clears the way for sheriffs to publicly endorse anyone they want.
Clark added that possibly gets them in good with someone they believe will win.
“That’s why you’re not seeing many law enforcement people with Democrats in Florida this year,” he said. “They’re all going toward the Republicans because they think the Republicans are going to win.”
News 6 contacted the local sheriffs to ask why they felt it was so important for them to appear in these campaign ads.
Judd responded with a statement:
“Wilton Simpson is originally from Lakeland, like myself. He is a good friend of mine, and I admire the work he has done for the people of Florida. As Sheriff of Polk County, a large number of people I serve are involved in the agricultural community, and it’s my belief that Senator Simpson has the background, knowledge, and skills, that will help not just Polk County, but the entire state of Florida. It’s important that we have a highly qualified person as our next Agriculture Commissioner, and I feel that he’s the best person for the job right now.”
News 6 also asked the candidates why a sheriff’s endorsement was so valuable to their campaign.
Rubio’s campaign spokeswoman, Elizabeth Gregory, responded with a statement:
“Members of law enforcement know better than anyone what happens when their representatives in Washington abandon them, like Val Demings did when she called Defunding the Police ‘thoughtful’ and violent riots ‘a beautiful sight.’ Senator Rubio is grateful for the hard work these officers do every day, and Florida law enforcement know that Marco will always have their back.”
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