Whisenant has lived in Flagler County since February 2015 and wants to bring community, accountability and trust to the office.
I met Mark Whisenant the morning of Sept. 10 at Panera Bread. I was early for our appointment, which he had called twice to confirm, but he was even earlier, already with a cup of coffee on the table. He greeted me with a firm handshake, a clean-shaven man with glasses; his eye shape and facial expression occasionally reminded me of George W. Bush.
Whisenant, pronounced WISS-nent, is 46 years old. He has 25 years of law enforcement experience in South Carolina, between working as deputy and as a training officer in the U.S. Coast Guard. He moved to Palm Coast in February of this year, and he has filed his paperwork to run as a Republican for Flagler County sheriff for 2016.
He is not a tall man, but he has broad shoulders that make you think he’s got an athletic past — and he does. He was a state champion football player at a small private high school, playing in the trenches as both offensive and defensive lineman.
(After our interview was over, he called me again and said that he neglected to mention that he was also a national champion weightlifter among a police and fireman organization, benching 405 pounds in the 198-pound division.)
At the table at Panera, Whisenant wore a striped polo shirt with the words “Springfield College Pride” embroidered on the front. He wore a nametag in a lanyard around his neck.
Whisenant had come prepared. He had a binder with laminated copies of his online bio and mission statement, etc., as well as photocopies of his diplomas from his masters in human services, completed this year from Springfield (hence the logo on his polo shirt), his bachelor’s in workforce education and development from Southern Illinois University (2013), and his associate in public service from Piedmont Technical College (1999). He handed me the photocopies and said, “You can keep these if you like.”
Some of the preparation seemed to be evidence not just of enthusiasm for this campaign, but also evidence of being nervous that he was being interviewed by the media, and he acknowledged after we were done that it wasn’t nearly as bad as he thought it would be.
No comment on current sheriff
He began the discussion by revealing his mission statement, which is in the box toward the top of this page. He also noted that the statement is on his website, markwhisenantforflaglersheriff2016.com.
His mission statement identifies three values as central to serving the people: community, accountability, trust. Trying to understand Whisenant’s motivation for running for this office, I asked whether the current sheriff, Jim Manfre, is doing a good job with those aspects.
“I’m not running against anyone,” Whisenant said. “My main focus is on having a team concept, which will open up lines of communication with the public and the stakeholders.”
But, I asked, is Manfre already doing a good enough job? Are those lines of communication already open? If so, why bother running?
“I want to stay focused on the community,” he said. “It will always be my focus point. That’s why I’m saying, ‘Community, accountability, trust.’ Same with serving my country: My country came first. That’s my focal point, taking care of the people and the community.”
Not satisfied that the question had been answered, I asked whether Manfre was focused on the community.
“It starts with the sheriff, it starts with the team, it starts with the citizens of the community,” Whisenant said. “Being involved, being immersed in the community and listening to the community. Sometimes people talk on deaf ears.”
Is Manfre listening to the community?
“I’m not saying that’s a problem here, but you want to make sure the voices are being heard,” Whisenant said.
In the end, the answer seemed to be that Whisenant is not very familiar with the current Sheriff’s Office yet. He has only lived in Flagler County since February, he said. But he is dedicated to getting to know everyone better, he said.
“I’m listening to the voices of the community,” he said. “I’m looking forward to this election cycle. I’m going to be totally immersed in the community. I want to listen to all the citizens of the community.”
"I’m going to be totally immersed in the community. I want to listen to all the citizens of the community.”
— Mark Whisenant
About Manfre, Whisenant said, “I’m not going to cast any stones on someone I haven’t met. I’ll be all over Flagler County in the next several months, counting today.”
Whisenant’s first influential exposure to law enforcement came after his parents’ business was burglarized in Johnson, South Carolina. The doors were fortified with bars after the incident, but then came a second break-in, resulting in the insurance behind canceled. Improbably, a third time an alarm went off, but the responding deputy was stuck on the other side of the railroad tracks, as a train rumbled past, allowing the burglars to escape yet again.
“It was horrible seeing my mother and father struggle during that time,” he said. “They came out ahead in the long run, but being preyed upon by someone who can take something away from someone who worked hard for it all their life — that was my main drive getting into law enforcement.”
Early police experience
In 1989, Whisenant became an officer for the Leesville Police Department, in Batesburg, South Carolina. On his first traffic stop, he arrested a man for driving under the influence.
“He thanked me later on, after he got out of jail,” Whisenant recalled. “He could have killed someone. I felt like I had made a difference.”
He moved on to the Saluda County Sheriff’s Office and was promoted to sergeant in 1995. “It was satisfying,” he said. “If you work hard, you can move through the ranks.”
In Saluda, a county of 20,000 population and 445 square miles, the deputies covered a lot of ground without having any back-up close by. He said it taught him to be a good communicator, and to defuse the situations that arise because if they escalate, it could get dangerous, and the closest deputy might be 35 minutes away.
From there, Whisenant moved to Charleston County, the largest sheriff’s office in South Carolina. He worked on the road and on the SWAT team, as well as being an instructor. In 2000, he joined the U.S. Coast Guard as a reserve.
It started out as one weekend per month, two weeks per year, but it quickly became a bigger engagement. For the next several years he was back and forth between the sheriff’s office and being active duty and training in the Coast Guard.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, his unit was activated to North Carolina, and he was assigned to train officers in New York. Later, he was sent to the Middle East as an enlisted petty officer first class. He showed me documentation of his medals for good conduct and marksmanship.
After going back to the sheriff’s office for a time, he was activated again with the Coast Guard from 2005 to 2009, training 1,000 people in expeditionary warfare.
“I’m proud of what I did. Am I a special person? No."
— Mark Whisenant
He was also deployed to Kuwait for seven months under Operation Iraqi Freedom as a leader of a squad of 12 people.
“I’m proud of what I did,” he said. “Am I a special person? No. I’m only as strong as the people who mentored me at that time.”
He showed me a picture of his squad in Kuwait, dressed in desert camo. “That definitely shaped my career as a leader, taking care of their needs every day,” he said. “All these people right here are leaders. I always look back at this photo. A leader is only as strong as his team. What I’ve learned throughout my life is having members stand beside you through rough times.”
After Kuwait, Whisenant worked at Charleston County until 2011. Then he retired and became an instructor at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.
He met his wife on eHarmony and was married in 2012 while he was getting his masters degree.
Today, he is still in the Coast Guard Reserves, as a chief warrant officer.
After having been exposed to Flagler County in 2003, he and Ashley visited again in late 2014 and decided to move here in 2015.
Ran for sheriff in Charleston
In 2012, Whisenant ran for sheriff in Charleston as a write-in candidate. “That’s in the past,” he said, “but I’m focused on the future.”
That year, more than 200 candidates were removed from ballots across the state because of paperwork not being turned in on time — the local media said the candidates were “decertified by a paperwork misunderstanding” — and Whisenant was one of those candidates. “There was mass confusion,” he said.
But Whisenant continued his effort to be elected that year, as a write-in candidate, and received 1,498 votes. “I didn’t want to give up,” he said. “It was a learning experience.”
I asked what he learned from that experience, and he said, “If you have a passion for something, not to give up. Stay focused. And do the right thing regardless. Stay positive.”
Positivity was a consistent theme throughout our interview. It’s part of Whisenant’s mentality. “You see a lot of the negative in life, in general,” he said. “You may have a bad day, but look at the positive points in life. We live in a wonderful world. Ashley and I have found our home, and this is where we are here to stay.”