Jim Manfre seeks third term in his fifth campaign to be Flagler County's sheriff
Jim Manfre is a devoted husband and doting father. He reads regularly from the Bible that sits on his desk across from his nameplate identifying him as sheriff of Flagler County. He also has a reputation for a hot temper. On April 15 he was fined $6,200 for ethics violations. (That matter is addressed below under the heading "Violating the public trust." Manfre plans to fight the ruling, no matter the political or financial cost.)
Jim Manfre has run for Flagler County sheriff in each of the past five opportunities: in 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012 and now again in 2016.
On his office walls are the typical frames containing academic degrees, but his are different from those of most other sheriffs in the state because they represent a background as an attorney, not as a former police officer.
As an attorney, and as a resident of Flagler County for only about a year at the time, he ran for sheriff in 2000 and trounced longtime sheriff Robert McCarthy in the primary, winning 69% votes out of 4,771 cast, before also winning the general election. Then Manfre lost in 2004 and 2008 before winning a second term in 2012. He is a Democrat and the incumbent in a crowded race once again, as he tries for a third term in his fifth campaign for the office.
The intention of our meeting was to give the residents of Flagler County an impression of what it is like to talk with Manfre on his own terms, to hear his life story, how he came to his current position, his attitude toward his detractors.
Family and childhood
Manfre was born in 1957, the year Eisenhower began his second term and the Dodgers announced they were moving to Los Angeles.
When his father, Anthony, was hit by a drunk driver in a terrible crash, Manfre had his first lasting impression of law enforcement. Manfre, who was 7 years old at the time, was watching Saturday morning cartoons, and his mother was six months pregnant with the family’s fourth child, when a knock came on the door. It was the police.
“I remember the blue so clearly — the Suffolk County dark blue,” Jim Manfre recalled. “I remember them showing up, the squad car outside. I remember them going to the house, my mom getting hysterical. At the time, they didn’t know if he was going to live.”
He saw that the officers had empathy for his family as victims, and that has remained with him until today.
Anthony, an Air Force veteran, was in bad shape. When he finally came home from the hospital, he was in a full body cast, from chest to toes. Anthony endured that cast in the living room for about six months, with nurses having to come every so often to turn him over.
The police officers came back every so often to check on the family, Manfre recalled. “That put it in my head — that respect for law enforcement,” he said. He saw that the officers had empathy for the victims, and he said that has always remained with him.
His father, Anthony, was only in his life until he was 13. He was a heavy drinker and left the family, Manfre said. That left Manfre’s mother, Margaret, as the sole provider. She worked in humble circumstances as a clerk at the landfill during the day, making $100 per week, and began going to night school to become an LPN.
“To say I grew up poor would be an insult to poor people,” Manfre recalled. “There wasn’t food in the refrigerator most of the time, so my brother and I worked at restaurants. … Food was an issue.”
“It’s all about your family. There’s nothing more important than that.”
But through that experience, he said, he learned a valuable lesson: “It’s all about your family. There’s nothing more important than that.”
As a father himself, Manfre made sure to attend his children’s sporting events and be supportive. He said he learned from his own father what not to do, as well as the importance of mentoring other children who don’t have fathers at home.
“A lot of my emphasis on PAL programs and preventive programs stems from that,” he said. “But for sports and some of my coaches, I could have gone a different direction.”
Manfre’s mother insisted on the children accompanying her to church every week. Manfre attended a Catholic middle school, then a Catholic High school, a Catholic university (Fordham) and finally a Catholic law school (St. John’s).
“Going through all these challenges, sometimes you needed faith to get through the day,” he said. “I found Jesus Christ early in my life, and he has been with me through my entire journey. … It’s who I am.”
In high school, Manfre found that he was good at math and science, and he also loved cop shows on TV, including “Dragnet” and “Hawaii Five-0.” Going into the FBI seemed like the thing to do. He also considered becoming a doctor, mostly because his mother wanted him to, and he thought about becoming a priest as late as his freshman year in college.
But in September 1975, on his first day of college at Fordham in New York City, he met Cornelia, and Manfre decided being a priest was not for him. After a year-and-a-half of being friends, they went on their first date to play pool at a bar called The Web, on Webster Avenue.
They became close in part because their families had both been impacted by tragic accidents. In addition to Manfre’s father’s crash, Cornelia’s father and sister had drowned in a boating accident when she was a sophomore in high school. “When something like that has happened in your life, you’re more sensitive to others who have experienced tragedy,” he said.
At this time, he also witnessed an increase in crime around the campus. There were fires and sirens regularly, including one night when The Web itself burned down, across the street from Manfre’s dormitory building. Through a mentoring program, he worked with young kids who were too scared of the violence to go to school and had gotten behind in their classwork.
Manfre is often puzzled today by the detractors who criticize his credentials to be sheriff. If the head of the FBI was a lawyer, why can’t a sheriff be a lawyer?
He decided that the FBI was his goal, and his research told him that a law degree was a good preparation, which was confirmed by the fact that the head of the FBI at the time had a law degree. For that reason, he is often puzzled today by the detractors who criticize his credentials to be sheriff. If the head of the FBI was a lawyer, why can’t a sheriff be a lawyer?
From 1980 to 1984, Manfre attended St. John’s Law at night on a full scholarship, and he worked during the day at the Bronx District Attorney’s Office, right across from Yankee Stadium. He saw a lot of horrible crime, but one stood out to him in the early days of working at that office:
A 12-year-old girl was dragged to the top of her apartment building by the superintendent and was raped. The man left her for dead, but she survived. When he was gone, she held her hands to her wounds to stop the bleeding, and she showed up at her apartment and fainted in front of her mother.
“The mom was not prepared to handle what had happened,” Manfre recalled. “But this 12-year-old was the most incredible kid I’ve ever met. She was so resilient. She was bright and cheery.”
She eventually appeared in court and “testified to some of the most gruesome things I’ve ever heard,” he said.
In hearing the story across from Manfre’s desk on April 7, I asked him, Why would you want to experience those kinds of horrible cases close up? Did it make you reconsider your chosen profession?
On the contrary, he said. Because of his experience with law enforcement as a child, when the officers visited his home and showed such empathy, he developed the same kind of approach to the victims of crimes. “It was very important and very satisfying that you could somehow get them through the process more easily than they would have otherwise,” he said.
Manfre said that today he is proud of the victims advocacy program at the Sheriff’s Office. He took personal interest in the design of the rooms at the Operations Center where victims are interviewed, wanting to make sure they were comfortable.
“You don’t get into this field, whether it’s me or the million other officers, unless you care about people."
“I think that law enforcement officers are naturally empathetic,” he said. “You don’t get into this field, whether it’s me or the million other officers, unless you care about people. It sounds trite, but it’s true. … The empathy is part of their DNA. My role is to make sure that (the officers) understand I think it’s as important as they do.”
After law school, Manfre’s family grew. Catherine was born in 1987, followed by Alec in 1989 and Barrett in 1996. Being a father, he said, is “the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me.”
He is very proud of his children, who have accomplished a great deal. Catherine is a consultant with Boston Consulting Group. Alec is an entrepreneur who was recently recognized by Forbes. Barrett is a Marines ROTC student planning to attend Duke.
From the late 1980s to the mid-1990s, Manfre worked for the Suffolk County District Attorney on a variety of cases, from DUIs to organized crime on Long Island.
He also got involved in politics for the first time. A Congressman asked him to run for Congress in 1994, and he agreed. He sees his political views as a reason why he lost the primary: It was a Democratic district, and he was more of a conservative Democrat, who was pro life, pro gun rights, and favored a business approach to government budgets.
I asked him what it was like to run and lose a campaign. It seems that after putting in so much time and effort, it would be heartbreaking to lose.
"If losing is going to traumatize you, don’t run for office."
“I believe that if losing is going to traumatize you,” he said, “don’t run for office. There is dignity in running for office, and it pains me that we’ve gotten to this point where it’s all ad hominem, just attacking each other. … Running for office is what our democracy is all about. It’s a participatory democracy. If good people don’t run, we don’t have good government.”
He added: “I would rather have won than lost, but it was a good experience for me. When the opportunity came to run for sheriff, it certainly helped me in my decision.”
From Babylon to Flagler
He needed a break. After the campaign stress and the intense criminal cases that he had worked on for so many years, Manfre decided to shift to real estate law and eventually became the planning board attorney for the town of Babylon, New York.
One day, the FBI called him saying there was a recording of a town official taking a bribe, and they asked for Manfre’s help and cooperation to prove the wrongdoing. He agreed, and in the end eight people were indicted in the town, he said.
“It had been clear that the town was corrupt around us with out us knowing about it,” Manfre said. But, “The town was not very happy that we were cooperating. They brought a lawsuit that they dismissed, saying that I was testifying about confidential things.”
In Manfre’s eyes, he was simply doing the right thing. It wasn’t his job to protect the town, after all, but to pursue justice, even if it meant his employer was at fault.
His colleague at the town ultimately moved to Florida — a rural county called Flagler. Manfre became involved in real estate investments in the area.
His father died in 1996, and that also required some travel to and from Florida to help settle his affairs. Finally, in 1999, Manfre and his family made the move to Flagler County, where they have lived ever since. One of the first developments he worked on was an apartment complex on State Road 100. Today, that complex is called Palm Pointe.
First election victory: beating McCarthy
In 2000, Manfre’s son was playing on a PAL baseball team, and so Manfre got to know some deputies who coached the team. He told them in one conversation that he had run for Congress six years earlier, and they told him he should run for sheriff to replace Robert McCarthy, who had been in office since 1983. He laughed it off.
“Then they started getting other deputy sheriffs to get me to run,” he said. “Probably a dozen of them showed up over the course of the season. I told them it was flattering, but it was not something I was interested in doing. I wanted to get away from law enforcement and make some money.”
Then one day another officer came to Manfre’s office on State Road 100. Manfre tells the story like this:
“Are you running for sheriff?” asked the man, who was an employee of McCarthy’s.
“No,” Manfre replied.
“If you do, we’re going to hurt you and your family.”
Manfre couldn’t believe this was coming from the mouth of a sworn officer. He got angry and he changed mind right then.
Manfre said, “I wasn’t running when you walked in, but I am now. I will spend every penny to defeat you. Now get out of my office.”
He consulted with his wife afterward, and then met with a group of deputies and asked them for their support. Considering McCarthy had been in office for so long, it would take a miracle to defeat him.
But he did beat him, and he did it easily, winning almost 70% of the vote in the primary.
“It was stunning,” Manfre said reflecting on that 2000 political season. “Most people thought it was quixotic to be living here for a year and beat the incumbent sheriff, especially by that amount, but he had lost the support of his troops, and they responded, and the public saw that.”
I wasn’t living in Flagler County during Manfre’s first term, but I have heard stories about the controversy. After the dramatic victory in 2000, he lost after one term, and it all started to decline when the calendar was distributed.
As Manfre explains it, every year, the Sheriff’s Office compiled an annual report, and a staff member proposed turning the report into a calendar for 2004, with the hope that people would hang onto it all year rather than just throwing it away.
But who paid for the calendar? The County Commission in general and, according to Manfre, police union head Pat McGuire in particular, suspected Manfre of not telling the whole story about how it was paid for.
Manfre refused to let them search his computer, so they obtained a court order, and it was granted. A court for the matter was scheduled at quite an inconvenient time for Manfre: the day of the Democratic primary.
Manfre feels that he was the victim of a conspiracy — that the County Commission and Judge Kim Hammond, who Manfre pointed out was the one who scheduled the hearing for the primary date, were complicit in bringing him down.
"How do you make this much about nothing? But apparently people in this community are very good at that."
“How do you make this much about nothing?” Manfre asked me. “But apparently people in this community are very good at that. Maybe I’m naive in not seeing how these wild accusations can resonate with people.”
Manfre added: “Their whole thing was that I was hiding something. It was not true. It was never proven. And I was not hiding anything.”
Manfre focused on being a dad in his time out of office. He said he went to as many of his kids’ sporting events as he could and enjoyed his time “out of the spotlight,” he said.
Then, in 2008, he said that once again, “People were pushing me to run.” He wasn’t interested, until he got into a disagreement with the Democratic frontrunner, Mark Carman, who was one of Manfre’s employees at one time and still works for the Sheriff’s Office today.
“Mark works for me,” Manfre said. “We’re fine together. But we got into a disagreement (in 2008), which I’m not going into, about how he was running his race. Because of that disagreement, I decided to run.”
I noted during our conversation that this was the third time Manfre had decided to run for office in as many opportunities. In fact, every four years from 1996 to 2016, he has run for office, and in each instance, it was not something he claims to have wanted.
First, it was a Congressman in New York convincing him to do it. Next, it was a bully from the McCarthy Sheriff’s Office, and now it was because of something Carman was doing.
The pattern continues: In 2012, he decided to run because of Donald Fleming’s involvement in the case of the hit-and-run that killed Francoise Pecquer, a woman who was acquaintances with Manfre’s wife, Corneila.
Finally, Manfre has said that he was willing to give up the office and not run in 2016 if his then-undersheriff Rick Staly wanted to run. But then came the ethics allegations.
Violating the public trust
Manfre says it’s much ado about nothing, that he spent more than the per diem allotted to him while away on agency business, but that he intended to pay it back all along. He insists he did nothing wrong, and that his financial officer Linda Bolante purposely neglected to bring the accounting error to his attention until it was too late. The ethics commission disagreed, as did a judge, who criticized Manfre harshly for being "neither apologetic nor contrite."
A judge ruling on the ethics case criticized Manfre harshly for being "neither apologetic nor contrite."
Staly also set up him for an ethics fine, Manfre believes. According to Manfre, Staly convinced him to stay at Staly’s Tennesee cabin, and when Manfre and Staly listened to a seminar on ethics months later — when Manfre says he first considered it should have been reported as a gift — it was too late.
By way of full disclosure, I was involved in one hearing related to this case. An assistant state attorney contacted me and asked if I had interviewed Manfre in the past, and I said I had, in October 2012, when Manfre was running against Fleming.
In that interview, Manfre was adamant that Fleming was not fit to be sheriff because of the ethics charges that had been levied against him at the time: that he accepted a free gift of a membership to Hammock Dunes Club and then failed to report it as such.
In 2012, Manfre said of Fleming: Accepting that gift “violated the public trust … You’re not supposed to use your position to get things other people cannot get.”
In 2012, Manfre’s conclusion was this: "If (Fleming) had a question, he could have called the commissioner on ethics themselves, and they would have told you. That’s what you do."
Fleming used the same argument Manfre is using now to defend his actions: Both said that their attorneys advised them to report their actions one way, and the Ethics Commission voted otherwise.
In 2012, Manfre’s conclusion was this: “If (Fleming) had a question, he could have called the commissioner on ethics themselves, and they would have told you. That’s what you do. And beyond that. He’s the sheriff. He’s imputed to know that. He’s an office holder. It’s not a defense to say I didn’t know. Ignorance of the law is not a defense.”
Flashing forward to today, Manfre is running once again, for the fifth election in as many cycles, and he is using the same defense he criticized Fleming for using. To be fair, Fleming's error stretched over years, and Manfre's were one-time infractions. Also, Manfre may have a point that his $6,200 fine is excessive, so I don't blame him for challenging the process.
Manfre told me and David Ayres on "Free For All Friday," on April 22, that he doesn't want to roll over and accept the fine. He said it wouldn't be the right thing to do, and he thinks the whole process is unconstitutional, so he wants to fight for the betterment of future sheriffs, as well.
Why four more years?
To be clear, Manfre is not merely reactionary in his decision to run for office. He is also firm on a personal motivation for running for office this year: serving the people. And for him, that is the top reason, he said.
As a longtime member of the Rotary Club, Manfre believes in the club’s motto, which is “Service above self.” He is motivated because he is making a difference in the community that he loves.
And he has been successful as sheriff, with numbers to prove it.
In 2012, when Manfre took over the sheriff’s office, there were 2,262.9 crimes committed per 100,000 people. In the most recent year for which stats are available, 2014, there were 2,073.2 crimes per 100,000 people, which is a decrease of 8.4%.
In 2012, when he took over the sheriff’s office, there were 2,262.9 crimes committed per 100,000 people. In the most recent year for which stats are available, 2014, there were 2,073.2 crimes per 100,000 people, which is a decrease of 8.4%.
“That’s a sign we’re doing something well,” Manfre said, “that we’re patrolling more, catching the crooks earlier. You never see that number go down.”
He points out that in 2007, under Don Fleming, the high point was 2,908.9 crimes per 100,000 people. Since then, there has been decrease of 28.7%.
Manfre has also overseen the installation of body cameras for deputies, which is a move that some law enforcement agencies resist. It’s a move he touts as evidence that he is a forward-thinking leader.
The agency was recently accredited, as was the communications department.
“All of the confusion and tumult is gone,” Manfre said, referring to the employee turnover in his first year in office. Now, he said, “People are happy. Not everybody, but people are happy. In any organization, 10% are disgruntled.”
Under his watch, the Sheriff’s Operations Center was built, the jail will open soon, there is a new precinct office and a new PAL office.
“Things are working well,” he said. “Why would you change things now when things are working so well?”