Whether he’s at a crime scene, a community meeting, or a political event, Seminole County Sheriff Dennis Lemma always manages to stand out as an Adult in the Room.
With a background in the U.S. Marines and a long, steady climb up the ladder of Seminole County law enforcement that had him lead almost every major department, plus a wide array of civic involvements, Lemma has pieced together not just a resume of accomplishment and earned respect, but a presence of no-nonsense leadership.
But it’s more than that, suggested Fred Streetman, a former Seminole County Commissioner and political consultant. Lemma also has a natural gravitas that seems to be natural to him, Streetman said.
When Lemme gets up to speak, people stop to listen. His endorsements may be the most sought-after for other political candidates in Seminole County. And when Lemma pushes for resources or attention for causes such as the opioids epidemic, he demands attention.
Lemma, 47, is ranked as the 16th most powerful elected official in the first-ever Florida Politics Central Florida 25 most Powerful Politicians survey.
When first elected without opposition in 2016, Lemma inherited what already had been considered a model sheriff’s office from longtime Seminole County Sheriff Don Eslinger, who retired and made Lemma his hand-picked successor. Lemma has a master’s degree in administrative leadership and graduated from the FBI National Academy and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Chief Executive Institute.
“No matter who you talk to, they will say Sheriff Dennis Lemma is the most likable guy around,” said Dana Loncar, a public affairs specialist with Consensus Communications. “But it’s not just his charm that has earned the respect of his department and the public. He worked his way up through the ranks and his tough, but realistic approach to fighting crime is commended. His recent appointment to a statewide panel on the opioid epidemic, an issue he is passionate about, has his statewide profile on the rise.”
He has largely built on what Eslinger left, rather than reinvent the department. Nonetheless, he has helped build some innovative programs, including a nationally recognized opioids addiction assessment center, mental health services, a cutting-edge digital forensics office, and a cold-case review program that has been solving cases.
Earlier this year Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody tapped Lemma to chair her Transition Advisory Committee Working Group on Opioid Abuse. Lemma also has traveled the country talking about opioids programs.
“I think you could compare it with almost any sheriff’s office in the country. It’s just outstanding,” Streetman said. “The reason is the leadership at the top.”