BSO Sheriff Gregory Tony declares victory over Scott Israel in Democratic Party showdown

Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony, a little known security consultant and former cop who was appointed to the prestigious job in the wake of Florida’s worst mass high school shooting, held off a crowded field — including his predecessor, Scott Israel — to win Tuesday’s Democratic primary.

In a statement released by his campaign, Tony said voters chose him, in part, because he embraced police reform measures. With all 577 of Broward County’s precincts reporting, Tony defeated Israel by 4,700 votes, according to the Broward Supervisor of Elections Office.

Tony’s hard-fought victory over Israel, a two-term elected sheriff, and retired BSO lifer Al Pollock means Tony, who became the first Black sheriff in county history upon his appointment, will likely win a four-year term in November. Broward is the bluest county in the state.

The sheriff thanked voters and said the department had come a long way in the past 18 months. Tony will likely face off against Republican H. Wayne Clark, a military veteran and practicing trial attorney whose expertise is construction litigation.

“But there is still much work to be done. Together, we’re reforming the sheriff’s office, promoting good deputies and keeping our communities safer by embracing police reform,” Tony said.

Tony campaign supporter and Broward Mayor Dale Holness said Tony took charge and made the necessary changes after his appointment.

“And he diversified the leadership command like it hasn’t been done in 105 years. He did what the public cried for — disciplining deputies who used excessive force,” Holness said.

Israel, in a conciliatory tone, conceded defeat. But he didn’t once mention the sheriff when asked his thoughts on the bitter election loss.

“The people of Broward County have spoken and I accept their decision. I poured my heart and soul into being sheriff. I just wanted to keep the kids out of jail and give them second and third chances and we did that,” Israel said of second-chance programs he created for Broward’s youths.

Though voter turnout was high for a primary election — approaching 30% — Tuesday was relatively quiet compared to the weeks leading up to Election Day, when accusations of a rogue and out-of-control office under Israel and lying and illegitimacy during Tony’s 19 months as sheriff were lobbed back and forth.

But for many voters the election really came down to a pair of shootings almost three decades apart — one that tore at the heart of a Broward community considered one of the safest in the nation and another that lay hidden for almost three decades.

To win back the office he was elected to twice since 2012, Israel, 64, had to overcome being removed from office by Gov. Ron DeSantis after a state-appointed panel determined his lack of leadership likely contributed to deputies not initially confronting the gunman during the Valentine’s Day 2018 rampage at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas Senior High. The shooting left 17 students and administrators dead and another 17 seriously hurt.

And for Tony to remain in office he needed to convince voters that he wasn’t hiding a shooting that occurred 27 years ago when he was 14. The shooting left a man dead outside Tony’s home in Philadelphia — an encounter he never mentioned to DeSantis when he was appointed Broward sheriff in January of 2019.

To 61-year-old Jeanna Rhoulhac, who voted at the Answer Church in Hollywood, Tony’s past didn’t matter. She said she voted for the incumbent because he was “trustworthy” and “safety-minded.”

“He definitely is a champion for the children. He’s a strong leader. I just felt that Gregory Tony’s been doing an excellent job and he was the better choice,” said Rhoulhac. “He’s less controversial.”

But for M. Patrice Bourdeau-Quispe, choosing Israel was an easy decision. The governor, she said, has no right to appoint someone to an elected post.

Former Broward Sheriff Scott Israel
Former Broward Sheriff Scott Israel

“It’s not an appointed position. It’s a usurpation of citizen rights and I’m pissed,” she said after casting her ballot at Coconut Palm Elementary School in Miramar. “I voted for Israel on principle. He was democratically elected. The governor of Florida does not have the right to usurp our democratic decisions. It’s not an appointed position.”

Linda DeMaio Riley, a Plantation woman with two daughters, said the fighting between Israel and Tony was so “ridiculous” she voted for a third candidate, Pollock.

“He’s just generally a nice guy and I think he’d do a good job,” she said.

Pollock hoped to latch onto disgruntled voters tired of the dirt being thrown around leading up to Tuesday’s vote. He received the backing of the largest deputies union in the county. Also in the Democratic primary were businessman Willie Jones, retired Marine and BSO Deputy Andrew Maurice Smalling and another former BSO deputy, Santiago Vazquez Jr.

The primary battle between Tony and Israel was fierce from the start. Mud-slinging was in vogue as voters mailed in ballots and cast early ballots in large numbers, trying to keep safe during the worst pandemic to infect the country in over a century.

When Israel stumbled through a Zoom debate in early July and announced the next day he had contracted the coronavirus, the strangeness of this primary election season only increased. By the end of the month he had recovered and was once again in full campaign mode.

From the start, the race was primarily about Israel and Tony, two men whose careers could be defined by a pair of shootings almost three decades apart.

Israel, who lost his first race for Broward sheriff in 2008, followed that up with election victories for the same post four years later and again in 2016. But six years of relative normalcy as sheriff would suddenly change on Valentine’s Day 2018, when Nikolas Cruz, a former student, stormed into Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas Senior High.

By January 2019, only a few days after DeSantis was sworn in, Israel was gone. In one of his first decisions as governor, DeSantis removed the once-popular sheriff after a state-appointed panel determined his leadership contributed to the slow response of deputies who failed to confront the shooter.

In a surprise move, Israel was replaced by Tony, 41, a relative unknown who was running a security company in another state. He had spent a decade as a Coral Springs police officer and was friends with a Parkland man who had lost a child during the high school shooting.

Almost from the start, Tony’s relationship with the county’s most powerful police union frayed. The new sheriff suspended or fired several deputies who were captured using excessive force during arrests, including one who shoved an unarmed teen’s head into the pavement and another who punched a man handcuffed to a hospital bed.

When Broward Sheriff’s Office Deputies Association President Jeff Bell tried to link the COVID-19 death of a deputy to a lack of personal protective equipment in the department, Tony had enough and in an unusual move suspended the union president indefinitely.

Soon, disturbing information about the sheriff would be made public: He failed to tell the governor that as a teenager 25 years before he was appointed sheriff, he had shot and killed a man outside his Philadelphia home. The Coral Springs police chief who hired Tony more than a decade before his BSO appointment said had he known about the shooting, he never would have hired Tony. Tony argued he was cleared of any wrongdoing by a judge about six months after the encounter. The records were sealed, Tony added, so the information wasn’t pertinent.

DeSantis distanced himself from the sheriff and a few days later a British tabloid produced pictures of a buff Tony and his wife at a Miami sex club.

“I am deeply honored that Democratic voters have chosen me to lead the Broward Sheriff’s Office into a brighter, safer future,” said Tony, who with a victory in November will once again oversee almost 6,000 employees in corrections, fire rescue and law enforcement. “As your sheriff, I will work tirelessly to make this department a model for how a public safety agency can be effective, transparent and accountable to our community.”