Are the voters of Indian River County ready to elect a Black man to be their sheriff?
That might seem an awkward question to ask in these culturally advanced times, when we’re supposed to have moved beyond the racial prejudices of yesteryear and achieved a level of sophistication at which we no longer judge people by the color of their skin.
Some of you might even find it insulting that anyone would dare raise such an issue in a community where so many of its residents are educated, accomplished and affluent, or at least financially comfortable.
But Milo Thornton’s entry into the 2024 sheriff’s race last week delivered a jolting reminder that we’ve never had a Black sheriff, nor have we elected a Black candidate to any constitutional office.
We’ve never elected a Black county commissioner, either.
And while our school district remains under a federal-court desegregation order that dates back to 1967, two members of our current School Board are pushing for the repeal of the Racial Equity Policy approved two years ago.
So it’s fair to wonder if Thornton, who is Black, has any real chance to become our sheriff, despite his impressive credentials.
For those who don’t know: Thornton is a captain who has spent most of the past 25 years at the Sheriff’s Office, rising through the ranks while serving, or overseeing deputies, in every area of the agency – from corrections to community affairs, from road patrol to investigations, from SWAT to special ops.
In fact, Thornton was the first Black deputy in our Sheriff’s Office to be promoted to captain, then major and then deputy chief, which made him the No. 3-ranking member of the agency and, more noteworthy, the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in the county’s 98-year history.
He has earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Indian River State College, has been an instructor at the Florida Law Enforcement Training Academy in Fort Pierce for the past 19 years, and was the Sheriff’s Office’s “Law Enforcement Officer of the Year” in 2012.
Appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2021, Thornton sits on IRSC’s board of trustees – one of several local boards on which he has served. He also has coached football at Vero Beach High School.
Clearly, Thornton, at age 45, possesses the education, experience, qualifications, local and institutional knowledge, and community connections necessary to be a successful sheriff.
Will that be enough?
He believes so.
“I don’t think voters in this county are concerned with the color of my skin,” Thornton said. “They’re concerned with their safety and the safety of their community. They want a sheriff they can trust and a Sheriff’s Office that will be fair, honest, professional, responsive and accountable.
“They’re going to vote based on who they believe is the most qualified candidate, and I believe that’s me.”
Thornton was the third candidate to enter the sheriff’s race, where he joined Fellsmere Police Chief Keith Touchberry and Deborah Cooney, who in 2020 lost in a landslide to Eric Flowers.
As of Monday, Flowers hadn’t yet filed to run, but he said last year he will seek re-election.
Flowers, though, has lost the trust of many in the community during a mistake-filled 2022, which began with the public exposure of an extramarital affair that came only 13 months after he told his deputies to hold their oaths of office sacred, as if they were marriage vows.
His troubles – and the embarrassing headlines they generated – didn’t end there.
His deputies were involved in two controversial shootings. He gave a TV interview in which he inexplicably told a reporter where his school resource officers store their AR-15 rifles on campus. And he got pulled over for driving a car with stolen license plates.
Then, over the past couple of months, three members of Flowers’ command staff suddenly retired.
Thornton, however, said Flowers’ damaged reputation was not a factor in his decision to run for sheriff, and he did not want to specifically discuss his boss’ job performance.
Thornton also refused to discuss Flowers’ decision to demote him from deputy chief to captain in April 2022, following an 11-week in-house investigation into bogus complaints about his management style.
The clown-show investigation ultimately cleared Thornton of any wrongdoing, but Flowers – in an obvious attempt to discredit a potential political opponent – still imposed the reduction in rank and pay, and reassigned him to the school safety division.
The move backfired.
Many of the community’s political movers and shakers saw Flowers’ actions as petty, self-serving and politically motivated. Thornton was seen as the victim of a failed and flailing sheriff who was desperate to save his career.
Although Thornton said he didn’t want to “say anything to undermine the Sheriff’s Office’s current administration,” the demotion appears to have convinced him to challenge Flowers in 2024.
“I had been thinking about running for about a year,” Thornton said. “It’s something I’ve always aspired to do in my career. I’m not married. I don’t have children. I’m married to law enforcement, and I’ve devoted my life to serving my community.
“So after having conversations with friends, family members and mentors in the profession,” he added, “I decided now was the time.”
Would he be running if Flowers hadn’t demoted him?
“Honestly, I don’t know,” Thornton said. “I’m not in that situation, so I can’t answer that question. I believe everything in life happens for a reason, but I can’t say what I would’ve done if that hadn’t happened.”
Actually, Thornton seriously considered running in 2020 – so much so that he discussed the possibility with then-Sheriff Deryl Loar, now a county commissioner – but he decided to wait after being told Loar had promised to endorse Flowers.
His chances are better now.
Thornton said he already has amassed an army of backers, and he has multiple fundraising events scheduled, including one this week at Windsor. He believes his newly launched campaign will gain traction quickly.
“A lot of people know who I am, but they don’t know me,” he said. “That’s going to be the focus of my campaign, because the people who know me – who know what I stand for and what I’m about – are excited that I’m running.”
Less than 10 percent of the county’s population is Black, which means Thornton needs to attract white voters in big numbers to win.
Can he get them?
Thornton is not the first black candidate to run for sheriff in this county, but he might be the most popular.
He has many white friends in the community, including some prominent county residents eager to support his campaign. He also should benefit from the name recognition he has gained through his years of involvement is local causes and events.
There’s no way to know now, however, if there are enough voters here willing to see past skin color and elect our first Black sheriff.
“I trust the voters to choose the right candidate for the right reasons,” Thornton said. “If they decide another candidate is more qualified than me, I have to respect their decision.
“I’m not going to question their reasons.”