Editor’s Note: The Seminole Source is running a series highlighting several key 2020 election categories and candidates running in the August 18, 2020 primary, and November 3, 2020 election. While not every category of office will be covered, we will be spotlighting candidates running in the following races: Federal: Representative in Congress District 7, State: Florida Senate District 9, Seminole County Sheriff, Property Appraiser, Tax Collector, Supervisor of Elections, Commission District 3, Commission District 5, and School Board Member District 3.
We reached out additionally to candidates running for Seminole County Commission District 1, but we received no response from any of the three candidates.
For the Seminole County Sheriff race, there are two candidates who qualified to run: the incumbent, current Seminole County Sheriff Dennis Lemma (Republican), and candidate Paul “Spike” Hopkins (Democrat). Here is a brief snapshot of the two candidate’s campaign finances as of July 30, 2020:
The candidates for Seminole County Sheriff
Dennis Lemma: Total contributions received: $92,178.26; Total spent: $24,361.18; Cash on hand: $67,817.08
Paul “Spike” Hopkins: Total contributions received: $16,567.02; Total spent: $12,052.09; Cash on hand: $4,514.93
Who is Dennis Lemma?
Sheriff Dennis Lemma started serving our community long before he came to Seminole County. He began by joining the United States Marine Corps to serve our national community, and after having served his time, was honorably discharged. This was just the beginning.
Lemma attended Columbia College where he earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice Administration, and then went on to receive a Master of Arts degree in Administrative Leadership from the University of Oklahoma. Lemma also became a graduate of the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia, as well as of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Chief Executive Institute in Tallahassee, Florida.
In 1992 Lemma began his career with the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office (SCSO) as a Correctional Officer and four years later was selected as a Deputy Sheriff. He served as a School Resource Deputy and a Crimes Against Children Investigator before receiving a promotion to Sergeant of the Special Operations Section in 2002. Four more years and he was promoted again to Lieutenant in the Community Services Division where he managed the agency’s crime prevention efforts, served as the Public Information Officer, and coordinated programs to assist the elderly and domestic violence victims. In 2008, Lemma was promoted to Captain and tasked with management of the uniformed patrol division, property crime investigations, traffic safety and code enforcement. In 2011, he was appointed to Major of the Department of Neighborhood Policing. In this role, he oversaw the operation of five divisions including uniformed patrol, Special Operations, Juvenile Enforcement and Intervention, Public Affairs and Community Services. In 2014, he was appointed to Chief Deputy where he led operational and administrative functions for more than 1,200 members of the Sheriff’s Office.
Just 24 years after joining the SCSO, in 2016 Lemma was elected Sheriff, stepping into this position on January 3, 2017. As Sheriff, Lemma primary focus is on directing the agency’s enforcement, investigative, correctional, juvenile, and support services.
As a community leader, Lemma has been honored and awarded for his leadership and engagement with the Community Service Award recipient; Hugh Thomas Excellence Award recipient; and Puerto Rican Award recipient, 2018.
Lemma is a supporting member of several community organizations such as Aspire Healthcare Board of Directors; Central Florida Homeless Coalition Executive Board; Central Florida Crimeline Board of Directors; FBI National Academy Associates (FBINAA); International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP); Large Jail Network; Major County Sheriffs of America; National Sheriffs Association; Police Executive Research Forum (PERF); Kids House of Central Florida Board of Directors; Boy Scouts of America Central Florida Council; and Florida Criminal Justice Executive Institute Board of Directors.
The Lemma Family – including Diana, his wife of 19 years, and their two sons Dylan (16) and Dayne (11) – has resided in Seminole County for nearly 26 years. Both boys attend Seminole County Public Schools, and the family enjoys regularly visiting local theme parks, traveling, and attending sporting events together.
For Lemma, as Sheriff and running for reelection, his focus is on making Seminole County a safe place to live. His three top priorities include: Upholding Our Mission to Reduce Crime; Leaders in the Fight Against Opioids; and Commitment to Community Policing.
Interview questions and Lemma’s responses
If elected to this position, and if COVID-19 is still going strong, what would you do to make sure your vision for and effectiveness as a leader for and with the community stays on track and makes a difference?
“First, I think it is important to remind everyone that COVID-19 is very real and that our community should still take the virus very seriously. Seminole County has done a great job following orders and mandates and being neighborly with each other. There will always be pockets of problems, but we address those as they come up to the best of our ability.
I am very fortunate to have built relationships with many segments of our community over my 28-year career at the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office. Over that nearly three-decade career at the agency, citizens from Seminole County have had the opportunity to get to know me as a law enforcement professional, as well as an individual. A large segment of our community either knows me personally or knows what I believe is best for our community.
My re-election campaign is not about me. It is about us. I am running to represent the customs and philosophies that the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office represents. It is about the men and women, of all ranks and positions, that are creating solutions for our community. I am running on our proven track record of community policing, and the services that many other Sheriff’s offices across the state do not provide. Those are things like child protective services, county probation, and running the county’s correctional facility, to name a few. While COVID-19 has impacted my ability to get out to many large groups to discuss these things, it has not slowed down how we are doing these things. The virus, although serious, does not just stop these things from happening.
I am hopeful that these relationships that I have built over the past 28-years help people know more about me, my style, and our shared vision for our agency. At the core of that is the mission of reducing crime and the fear of crime. That vision remains the priority, and it is my honor to get to lead the charge. That is what this campaign has always been about.”
What have you been doing that is unique to let voters know who you are and what you are about since campaigning during COVID-19 (mid-March to present)?
“This has no doubt been a challenging time for all candidates to campaign and fundraise. I had a few fundraisers hosted for this re-election campaign before the pandemic affected the Central Florida community. That was a great way to connect with supporters, friends, and to remind them about the great things we have accomplished over the past three years. When the pandemic hit, much of that came to a halt. What I have had to focus on first and foremost is the preparedness and response to the pandemic by the agency. The commitment to serve and protect does not just stop when faced with unprecedented and challenging times. During the virus response, and then the attention on law enforcement agencies across the nation since May, I have needed to find ways to connect with our community – not as a candidate, but as their Sheriff. I have had to remind them that we have plans and relationships in place to make sure that these incidents do not negatively affect our community’s safety and well-being.
This means that the majority of what I have had to do for campaigning is sharing information via social media channels, (and through valuable public service interviews like this one). While it does not reach 100% of the community, it provides a great opportunity to inform citizens of things going on in the community, and oftentimes, those are important issues for voters to evaluate.”
What has been a highlight during your experience running for this position?
“It has been wonderful to continue to hear the stories people often share with me about their positive interactions with the members of the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office. As sheriff, citizens frequently share stories, or their thoughts with you, which is such an important thing for me. It helps me hear more directly from our community what is impacting them the most. However, when I am reminded about the quality of work, the professionalism, or the way that a member of the SCSO (at all ranks) helped someone with a problem, it is an incredibly rewarding experience – and serves as a reminder that our organization positively impacts lives every day.”
What do you see as the greatest challenge facing this district?
“I remained concerned about the outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic in our community. Ultimately, we will see more than just the health impact, and the financial impact, but many professionals suggest we will see an unprecedented need for mental health services as people cope with the social isolation, personal finances, etc. This is something that I have been speaking about for several weeks now. Additionally, the SCSO has been the leader in addressing the opioid epidemic and creating innovative solutions to help those suffering from opioid use disorder. I was honored to be selected by Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody in January 2019 to lead a statewide panel on opioid addiction. Opioid use is still a major concern, and it has not “gone away” because of the pandemic. We cannot let up on finding solutions, as we recognize that those suffering from dependency will frequently commit other crimes just to feed their addiction.”
What is your #1 hope for Seminole County that you would love to make a reality if elected?
“Seminole County is blessed to currently have the lowest crime rate in the county’s 107-year history. That is because of the partnership that the SCSO has with our local municipal police departments, and equally as important, the partnerships and trust that we have with our communities. Over the past three years alone, we have experienced a 23% reduction in crime. The SCSO has been a community-policing agency for three decades, and we have emphasized these relationships because we know it is the right thing to do. While so many other communities in our state, and across our nation, are experiencing anti-law enforcement sentiment, it is my hope that we will only continue to enhance the relationships that we already have, and that we will build new ones at the same time.”
What would you like to say to voters who have not decided who they will vote for yet?
“My campaign to be re-elected your Sheriff will be on the general election ballot in November. Our team will continue to educate the public on the great work that we have already accomplished in the past few years. The members of the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office, and the work that they do every day, serve as advocates for our successes. The innovative programs and services that we offer in the community, in our correctional facility, and for our agency members are important to continue to educate the community on. I remain focused on November, but would also encourage everyone to do their research on the candidates on the August primary ballot.”
Endorsements and Supporters
Sheriff Don Eslinger, Retired Seminole County Sheriff
Bevard/Seminole State Attorney Phil Archer
Brevard/Seminole Public Defender Blaise Trettis
Florida Senate President Pro Tempore, David Simmons
State Representative David Smith
State Representative Scott Plakon
Every Seminole County Commissioner
Every Mayor from all seven Seminole County Cities
Four of Five Seminole County School Board Members
Chiefs of Police in Seminole County, unless prohibited by city policy.
Orlando Regional Realtors Association
Central Florida Associated Builders and Contractors
Central Florida Branch of the Fraternal Order of Police
About the process: The Seminole Source emailed the same six questions to all candidates running in the offices and positions outlined above, if their email address was listed. In cases where no email was provided, we left a voicemail requesting their email, and /or sent a message on Facebook requesting it if no phone number was provided. There were a few candidates that provided no contact information at all. The response deadline was given equally to all candidates. Biographical information was pulled from the candidates campaign websites and / or Facebook page.