A long shot candidate for sheriff in this college town who couldn’t legally carry a gun and would not be qualified to work as a deputy because of his felony record is campaigning to become the county’s top law enforcement official, despite questions about whether his candidacy is even lawful.
Tyrone Randy Johnson Jr., 42, is one of four Democrats running against the Republican incumbent appointed earlier this year by Gov. Ron DeSantis, Emery Gainey, in one of the few Florida counties where Democrats still wield significant political power. The former Democratic Sheriff, Clovis Watson, resigned in July after taking a medical leave for about two months.
Johnson, who was convicted in October 2016 and re-sentenced in January 2019 after appeals on a felony charge of acting as a bond agent without a license, spent nearly a year behind bars in a long-running case. It involved a car he seized from a woman he said owed him money for posting her bail. He tangled in court with one of the area’s most powerful judges, James M. Colaw, accusing the judge of unfairness and trying unsuccessfully to have him thrown off the case.
In a hearing, a prosecutor in December 2016 called Johnson “a danger to the community.”
In another case, he also was convicted of a misdemeanor theft charge in 2019 for stealing a $220 hose reel and ordered to perform 38 hours of community service. Facing three felony weapons charges in another case, Johnson pleaded those down to misdemeanors in an agreement with prosecutors in 2012.
“I think the guy who robbed me shouldn’t be the sheriff,” said Shannon Flesner, who owned the hose reel.
Johnson has not completed Florida’s process to restore his civil rights after his imprisonment in the felony case, according to an interview and records of the state’s Commission on Offender Review. That step is required under Florida law for a felon to hold political office — or be allowed to possess or carry a gun. He said he had formally requested clemency. The next meeting of the Clemency Board is Dec. 13.
It’s unclear how or whether Florida’s Division of Elections might intervene before next year’s election. In a similar case, voters elected a felon to the City Commission in 2019 in Ocala — but the city there blocked him from taking office and was forced to organize an expensive second election to replace him.
By June, Johnson will be required to formally submit a notarized candidate oath that he is legally qualified to become sheriff in Alachua County, home to the University of Florida. So far, he has filed preliminary paperwork to declare his candidacy and appointed himself as his campaign treasurer. He has collected $210 in campaign contributions — including $100 he lent to his own campaign.
The leading Democrat in the race, Chad D. Scott, has raised about $21,000 so far. Scott is a former police chief in the nearby town of Alachua. Gainey, the Republican appointed by DeSantis, has raised $2,550 so far.
Johnson is running on a platform he described as “stop corrupt cops and government officials” and said if elected, he would publish details about all sheriff’s deputies that include their names, photographs, ages, salaries and the gender and race of every person each deputy arrests, tickets or pulls over in a traffic stop.
He also said he supports legalizing recreational use of marijuana, which would require approval by the Legislature. He has openly complained about media coverage of his candidacy focusing on his felony record.
“They want to portray a certain narrative as if I’m some thug running for office,” Johnson wrote on his campaign’s Facebook page. He added, “If I am elected then everyone will know who is corrupt because there will be some police officers and public officials going to jail.”
Under a 2018 change to Florida’s constitution, Johnson is already allowed to vote in elections since he served his prison sentences and paid all his court fees. He registered as a Democratic voter in January for the first time one week before he filed his preliminary candidacy paperwork — meaning he has never in his life cast a ballot in any election, for any candidate.
Johnson said the theft involving the hose was a misunderstanding because he believed it was his. He said he thought friends or work associates might have left it at the building where he takes lunch breaks, he said.
Originally from nearby Palatka, Johnson said he moved to Alachua County in north-central Florida when he was 17. Johnson said he is qualified to be sheriff even if he never previously worked in law enforcement.
“Being a police officer is not that complex,” he said. “I mean if you know how to read and understand the law, which is basically instruction, then you can be a cop and you can be a Sheriff.”
Johnson would be ineligible to work even as a deputy in the Sheriff’s Office he hopes to run. Job requirements there prohibit the agency from hiring anyone with a felony record or convictions for misdemeanors involving false statements or moral character violations.
Democratic voter Larissa Gifford, 40, of Gainesville said she intends to vote for Johnson. She said Johnson’s experience on the other end of law enforcement gives him insights others don’t have.
“Individuals who have had that kind of firsthand experience probably have the most effective, definitely the most, kind of, informed opinions on what needs reform,” she said.
Johnson asked a circuit judge in Gainesville — not the clemency board — to restore his civil rights last year, but the judge said that wasn’t within his power. “The court cannot restore defendant’s voting rights,” Judge Phillip Pena wrote.
The Primary Election is Aug. 20, and the General Election is Nov. 5.
Alexa Herrera reports. Produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at [email protected]. You can donate to support our students here.