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Last September, Bruce Udolf and his wife, Sheryl, were in the living room of their Southwest Ranches home watching the news. A report came on about disgraced Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne, who had just resigned after entering a guilty plea to mail fraud and tax evasion based on pocketing some $86,000 in illegal payments.
In the annals of Broward County politics, Jenne's was an epic collapse. Before taking over as sheriff in 1998, he'd represented the region for 18 years in the state legislature. His career in public service had started in the '70s — as a state prosecutor who relished busting crooked politicians. This had been Udolf's calling too. In the '90s, he was South Florida's top federal prosecutor when it came to public corruption cases. In 1997, he left for an ill-fated stint on Kenneth Starr's legal team, investigating President Bill Clinton. A few months later, Udolf gave up crime-fighting altogether and became a criminal defense attorney.
Only he'd never quite lost his prosecutorial sensibilities. When the news segment ended, the now-56-year-old Udolf unleashed a diatribe, right there in the living room, about Jenne and how the next sheriff ought to clear out the department cronies and instill some accountability in the ranks. When he finished, his wife said, "You should run for the office." She was joking.
Udolf wasn't. He told her he'd already made up his mind to do exactly that.
In the years since leaving the Justice Department, Udolf had made no secret of his interest in an appointment to U.S. attorney. But with George W. Bush in the White House, a Democrat like Udolf had no chance. Cleaning up the Broward County Sheriff's Office may have seemed like the next best option — or at least one that was open to him.
But running for Broward sheriff is not the kind of endeavor one embarks upon casually. The job comes with a $700 million budget and 6,000 employees. It is the largest accredited sheriff's department in the nation, functioning as the police force and fire rescue in more than a dozen cities and towns as well as all the unincorporated sections of the county. Its deputies staff the courts and the jails. The Broward County sheriff ranks among the most powerful public officials in the state.
After Jenne's resignation, Gov. Charlie Crist appointed a fellow Republican, Al Lamberti, to the post. But given the county's majority Democratic registration as well as high voter enthusiasm, a Democrat stands an excellent chance of winning the general election. That's why the primary election Tuesday (August 26) looms large. Five candidates will be on the ballot, each of whom comes with at least one major question mark.
In Udolf's case, the central question is why a wealthy defense attorney would seek an extremely demanding, intensely public job that pays $170,000 — a fraction of what he makes in the private sector? That very question haunted Jenne ten years ago.
Udolf himself struggles to explain exactly what prompted his candidacy. During a recent lunch hour, Udolf saw an acquaintance who had learned about his candidacy from seeing a "Udolf for Sheriff" sign. "I know," he told the woman. "I should have my head examined."
Udolf had agreed to give New Times an interview about his desire to become sheriff. But on the evening of July 30, on his way to meet a reporter, he received a call informing him that his best friend, Steve Chaykin, had fallen to his death at age 56 while on a hiking trip with his wife. Udolf was devastated. He and Chaykin had worked together as prosecutors in the early 1990s and had remained best friends even after they both left the public sector.
The following week, after Udolf delivered the closing eulogy at Chaykin's funeral, he recalled how he'd sought out his friend in the days before he struck out on a bid for Broward sheriff. "He was one of the few people," Udolf says, "who didn't think I was crazy."
In the days before he learned of Chaykin's death, Udolf's biggest concern was the health of his pinkie. While walking the ample grounds of his Southwest Ranches home with his wife and 12-year-old daughter, the family's two hunting dogs set upon the family cat. They might have torn the cat in two had Udolf not dived between them. In doing so, he bent the pinkie on his left hand. He received a splint and the news that it would be crooked forever.
The problem: Udolf is a serious bass player. For most of his life, that avocation has been a refuge from the gravely serious business of practicing law. A native of Long Island, New York, Udolf played in bands of every genre after graduating from Hofstra University, where his father was a professor. Rock 'n' roll was the hobby, though, not the career. He eventually enrolled in law school at Emory University in Atlanta and then found a position as an assistant district attorney in the northeastern Georgia town of Gainesville.
By his third year, the district attorney who had hired him retired and endorsed Udolf as successor. At just 29 years old, Udolf won the election. Although he would be defeated in his bid for a second term, Udolf's résumé landed him a job at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami, where he advanced quickly from major crimes to narcotics. In 1988, he landed an assignment in the public-corruption unit, where he would encounter another fast riser, Steven Chaykin.