Florida sheriff race hinges on massacre, old shooting

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FILE- In this Oct. 21, 2019 file photo, former Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel appears before the Senate Rules Committee concerning his dismissal by Gov. Ron DeSantis, in Tallahassee, Fla. Israel is running against Sheriff Gregory Tony in the upcoming Florida primary. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon, File)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The two shootings dominating the Democratic primary for sheriff in Broward County, Florida, couldn't be more different.

The 2018 massacre that pushed former sheriff and current challenger Scott Israel out of office left 14 students and three adults dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, a top-tier school in the wealthy Fort Lauderdale suburb of Parkland. A former student is awaiting trial.

The campaign of Sheriff Gregory Tony, appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis when he fired Israel in 2019, is haunted by his 1993 killing of an 18-year-old neighbor in a poverty-stricken section of Philadelphia when he was 14. A judge found he was defending himself and his brother, but he has been hammered for not disclosing the shooting to DeSantis or when applying for police jobs.

Tony and Israel are the top contenders in Tuesday's primary, which also has four lesser-known, lesser-financed candidates. Tony and his political action committee have raised about $1.5 million, while Israel has gotten about $600,000, according to election records.

The Democratic winner will be a strong favorite in the November general election as that party has a 50% to 21% advantage over the Republicans in registration. Tony and Israel are former Republicans. The sheriff runs a 6,000-employee operation with a half-billion dollar budget.

Accusations of racism entered the contest recently when a Black campaign staff member for Israel called Tony, who is also Black, a racial slur referencing a slave who enthusiastically serves his white masters. Israel, who is white, fired the staffer.

Israel, 64, eked out a win in 2012 and won handily 2016, but days after his second term began in January 2017 a gunman killed five people at Fort Lauderdale's airport. Broward deputies quickly captured the killer, but Israel received criticism in an investigator's report for failing to take charge at the chaotic scene that had passengers cowering in fear for hours amid false reports of a second gunman.

Israel escaped that storm, but couldn't get past Stoneman Douglas. In the days immediately after the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting he portrayed his deputies as heroes and criticized the National Rifle Association during a nationally televised town hall as blocking needed gun regulation, a position he had long held. But school security video soon showed his deputies failed to enter the building to confront the shooter. Israel refused blame for their actions and said he had shown “amazing leadership.”