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Politics

Meet Bernie DeCastro: His Sheriff's Race Could Result in Biggest Third-Party Win in Florida History

October 24, 2012 - 6:00pm

Bernie DeCastro is an ex-convict running for sheriff of Marion County on an obscure third-party ticket; and he might win.

That's because the redeemed jailbird-turned-social worker, whom Jeb Bush once referred to as "one of my heroes," is the only man in the race whose name appears on the ballot.

The race wasnt supposed to end up this way. Republicans command a solid plurality of Marion Countys registered voters, the Democratic Party did not bother to field a candidate, and the GOP nominee was expected to cruise to an easy November victory, facing none but token opposition from a write-in candidate or two.

The current sheriff of 14 years, Ed Dean, announced in February that he would not seek a fifth term of office. Dean, a Democrat, endorsed his second-in-command, Republican under-sheriff Dan Kuhn, to succeed him, and Kuhn won his partys primary against Chris Blair, who before his retirement in 2010 served in law enforcement for some 35 years, most recently as major/bureau chief of detectives.

Enter Bernie DeCastro, a sexagenarian with one of the most colorful pasts of any candidate running for office in the Sunshine State. He spent 18 years in state prison, after a string of offenses that included drug possession, drug dealing, burglary, and a string of armed robberies. It was the last of these that earned him a life sentence, though he was paroled in 1984, three years after he experienced a profound conversion to Christianity and resolved to turn his life around.

And by all accounts, DeCastros made good on that resolution. Since his release, his life has been devoted entirely to ministering to and rehabilitating prisoners and ex-convicts, and hes received numerous public accolades for his service.

Ten years after his release, an impressed Gov. Lawton Chiles and his Cabinet gave DeCastro a full and unconditional pardon for his crimes, restoring all of his civil rights; that same year he was ordained a minister. Popular former Gov. Jeb Bush once publicly declared that DeCastro was one of my heroes.

In 2001, U.S. Congressman Cliff Stearns nominated DeCastro to represent Floridas 6th District at the National Faith Based Summit in Washington, D.C., and in subsequent years he was nominated by Bush to serve on three different statewide task forces devoted to rehabilitating drug users and other criminals. He currently operates a 132-bed private work release facility known as the Re-Entry Center of Ocala, which he runs through a 10-year contract awarded him by the Florida Department of Corrections.

And that list of accomplishments is far from exhaustive.

Whats he doing running for sheriff?

His original intention was to support longtime and now, onetime friend Chris Blair in his Republican primary run against Dan Kuhn. That was until DeCastro realized that Blair was not the constitutional conservative he thought he was.

In March I sat down with Chris to ask him if he would enforce [state or federal] directives that contradicted the United States Constitution, DeCastro tells Sunshine State News. Do you know what his answer was? It depends. That was the wrong answer.

(Sunshine State News reached out to Blairs campaign to obtain verification of DeCastros account. No comment was forthcoming before this piece went to press, but in at least one public forum where DeCastro brought the incident up, Blair did not deny having said it.)

DeCastro shortly thereafter announced his candidacy for the office under the ticket of the Constitution Party, one of the more visible of the nations third parties, whose platform is a hybrid of classical libertarianism and cultural traditionalism.

Im a staunch believer in the Constitution of the United States, De Castro tells the News. The Constitution in many ways comes from the Word of God [i.e., the Bible]; certainly, our morals and our values all came from the Word of God and many of the Founding Fathers referred to that fact. The Declaration of Independence talks about our God-given, inalienable rights. It just made sense to me to run on the Constitution Party ticket.

Asked why he did not run on his constitutionalist platform within the Republican Party, DeCastro refers to his disenchantment with what he refers to as the duopoly held by the Republican and Democratic establishments.

The Republican Party is in some ways worse than the Democratic Party, he insists. At least the Democrats tell you they believe in entitlements, the welfare system, and in not securing the borders; the Republican Party says it believes in limited government, limited taxes, and in securing the borders; and what happens? Republicans get in, government gets bigger, you get more taxes, and nothing is done on the border. Its all just empty rhetoric.

DeCastro admits the Constitution Party does not have the infrastructure in Florida which it enjoys in a few other states; he knew hed have to raise all his funds single-handedly. And hes not new to these sorts of campaigns: in the past three election cycles he ran respectively and unmemorably for governor, U.S. representative, and U.S. senator. No one expected his latest run to turn out differently

But a funny thing happened on the way to the voting booth: Just a couple of months after winning his partys nomination, Under-sheriff Kuhns mistress who happened to be his wifes boss at Hale Academy, a private school in Ocala publicly revealed details of their two-year-long affair. It was later revealed that at least some of their sexual romps took place while Kuhn was working on the taxpayer clock, and had even taken place in law enforcement facilities.

Kuhn dropped his candidacy in disgrace, and in accordance with state and local laws, the Republican Party appointed his opponent Blair to take his place. But theres a catch: under these same laws, Kuhns name remains on the ballot. Voters who wish to vote for Blair cannot manually write his name in the ballot; they must register their vote for the sex hound.

DeCastro hopes to capitalize on voter dissatisfaction with the political establishment, and is trying to appeal to conservative tea partiers, independents, and even Democrats.

Sunshine State News spoke to Joyce Blake, state committeewoman of the Marion County Democratic Party. Asked why her party declined to nominate a candidate for this race, she said it was because the Democratic incumbent, Ed Dean, had endorsed the now-disgraced dropout Kuhn, and thats who Democratic votes were expected to gravitate toward. She says she does not think either Blair or DeCastro will appeal to the countys Democrats; she believes many of them will simply sit this race out.

DeCastro counters that he supports many policies that are popular with Democrats and other center-left voters: He says he will use his platform as sheriff to advocate for the restoration of voting rights to all convicts who have served their sentences, and will not enforce any provision of the Patriot Act or the National Defense Authorization Act, both of which he says violate the United States Constitution.

In addition, he says his administration will not focus on going after nonviolent drug offenders, a disproportionate number of whom are racial minorities. He says he also thinks minority voters, traditionally very suspicious of the police, are warming up to him because he is himself part black and part Hispanic.

He says voters would make a serious mistake if they underestimated just how important a position sheriff is.

On the local level, the sheriff is the most powerful elected official, he explains. Look at Senator Marco Rubio. Your sheriff has more power than he does. Lets say the Department of Environmental Protection or any other federal agency comes in here and begins to violate the constitutional rights of the citizens of Marion County. Rubio couldnt do anything about it.

"It is the sheriff who takes a constitutional oath and is charged with not just protecting against the thieves, the rapists, the robbers, and the murderers; hes also charged with protecting the citizens from the government, which is what the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were written for: to protect us from the government."

As sheriff, his first priority will be to clean up what he says is an office infested with corruption, at least among the higher-ups. He does not believe Kuhn acted alone in betraying the public trust when he adulterated on the public dime.

Here you have an agency of 750 people; everyone knows whats going on in that office, he says. People talk. You mean to tell me this guy was bringing this woman inside the sheriffs office, gave her a security code enabling her to get in at night, having sex with her inside the office; and then using the sheriffs cell phones, their vehicles, even going so far as from Ocala to Jacksonville to have sex with this woman and you expect me to believe that no one knew about this?

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is currently investigating the matter and at least three deputies have been suspended, with pay, pending the outcome.

DeCastros other priorities include ending DUI roadblocks, and educating citizens on how to properly arm and defend themselves from aggressors. He said the average 911-call is answered in about 11 minutes, which is too much time for a perpetrator to do his harm. The first people with the responsibility to defend citizens, he says, are citizens themselves. He believes the expenses of such initiatives can be offset by his own personal financial contributions as well as those of local businesses.

If elected, he also vows to donate half of his $142,000 sheriffs salary to charities which assist wounded police officers.

Finally, he wants to implement what a few sheriffs around the country already have experimented with successfully: a volunteer posse of concerned citizens, trained in how to safely operate firearms, who can be called on to assist professional law enforcement should the need arise.

Our countrys financial status has already been downgraded once, and will probably be downgraded again, he says. Were turning into a European-style [social democracy], and theres a good chance our markets could crash, and if it does crash, there could be pandemonium. Right now theres just 250 deputies on the force. Id like to have 1,000, maybe 1,500, sworn-in volunteers, all of whom have concealed carry weapons, have been through safety training, and are on alert and ready to be called upon at a moments notice if we need them.

DeCastro doesnt regret running against the party he once called his political home.

I may have a checkered past, but Im not the same man today I was back in 1981, and I have never violated the public trust, he says. Unfortunately, thats not the case with political establishmentarians of both parties who, he says, go [into office] with [their] ideals, and the first thing the party does is get [them] behind closed doors, give [them] a dose of reality, and tell [them] to take [their] ideals and put them on the shelf. They tell [them], This is the way we play the game up here, and if you want to be re-elected you go along to get along.

"Im not a go along, get along kind of guy. Thats all there is to it.

Reach Eric Giunta at egiunta@sunshinestatenews.com or at 954-235-9116.

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