By Samantha Joseph
MARTIN COUNTY - At his desk in an office he's occupied for two decades, Martin County Sheriff Robert Crowder thumbs through the pages of a 57-year-old Bible.
The book, a gift from his grandparents, bears the inscription, "To guide your footsteps."
For more than half a century it has guided many of his major decisions, including the controversial ones of recent months that put a wedge between the longtime sheriff and some in his political party.
"I try, whenever I've had an important decision to make, to get some insight from the teachings of the Bible," he said. "It's generally kept me from making some mistakes."
Every deputy the sheriff has sworn in has taken the oath on this book, and he's read it before making every major decision.
He read it before he made the unpopular decision of backing Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink over Republican Rick Scott in a mostly Republican county - in a move that many thought cost him the Republican congressional nomination.
He read it again before endorsing Democrat Patrick Murphy over Tea Party favorite Allen West for Congress because he said the area needed more moderate representation.
"You have to take risks. Every law enforcement officer who serves has had to risk his own safety to serve the ultimate good and protect other people," he said. "I've done that much of my life, even in elementary school, standing up against bullies."
Decades in the spotlight taught him to measure risk and spot opportunities for change.
When the sheriff first took office, the average deputy earned less than $20,000 annually, and many officers were on food stamps. He worked with county commissioners to increase salaries, education and training for staff. The office's budget grew to $55 million, up from a few hundred thousand. Departments have emerged with chains of command and structural order.
Over the years, the office has evolved into an operation where teams of about six serve under sergeants and about 15-18 percent of the personnel have significant ranks.
One of the region's longest serving sheriffs, Mr. Crowder was responsible for getting state and national accreditation for the sheriff's office and jail. But his accomplishments came amid harsh criticism for some of his controversial political choices. As he looks back though, the sheriff says he wishes his job had nothing to do with politics.
"The office of sheriff is a partisan-elected office. I think it should remain an elected office, but I'm starting to seriously question whether or not it should be partisan," he said.
"There are people today who want to press issues and want to enforce political issues. If the sheriff was a nonpartisan office, he wouldn't have to consider pleasing certain people to get their favor."
He is set to leave office on Jan. 7, 2013. He said he has no plans to pursue other political posts, but will instead spend time on recreational pursuits.