Retired deputy Paul Fern, 53, who owns Wings and Weenies, is challenging Chief Deputy Col. Kurt Hoffman for sheriff

SARASOTA — Retired Sarasota County Sheriff's deputy Paul Fern, who became an air marshal following the 9/11 terrorist attack, filed papers Tuesday to run for sheriff in the 2020 general election. He will challenge Chief Deputy Col. Kurt Hoffman, a current command staff member under Sheriff Tom Knight and the only other candidate.

Knight surprised supporters in June when he announced that he would not seek re-election. He has been sheriff since 2008.

The sheriff said the deciding factor was family during an interview with the Herald-Tribune after announcing his decision. Hoffman announced his candidacy and filed papers to run for sheriff on June 6.

Both candidates are Republicans.

As of Aug. 12, Hoffman reports 299 donors have contributed $56,500 to his campaign. He has spent $3.303.56.

Fern, 53, who started his law enforcement career as a corrections deputy at the Manatee County Sheriff's Office, moved to Sarasota in 1997 and was in the patrol division when the World Trade Center was attacked. He got to know some of the Secret Service agents that came down a week before the attacks to prepare for President George W. Bush's visit to Emma E. Booker Elementary School seven months into his presidency.

Bush was famously photographed being notified of planes striking buildings in New York while he read to students.

"After 9/11, an agent sent me an email and said they were ramping up the air marshals," Fern said.

He became a federal air marshal with the Department of Homeland Security, which was created Nov. 25, 2002. His duties were to "detect, deter and defeat" hostile actions against aviation.

"I loved serving the country," Fern said. "I loved what it stood for. Nobody was going to do that on our watch again. It was a pride thing. The training was phenomenal — a great bunch of guys and gals in the agency. Couldn't have wished to work with a better group of law enforcement from around the country."

Fern was based at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, his hometown, but in 2011, travel demands became greater and he chose to return to Sarasota. He took a job as a patrol and K9 deputy at the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office. He worked there from 2011 until his retirement in 2018.

He now owns Wings and Weenies in Sarasota with his wife, Joann.

Fern said the need for changes at the Sheriff's Office drew him into the race, but said he respects his opponent, Hoffman, and former boss Knight.

"It's a sense of pride for me," Fern said of his decision to enter the race. "It's something I am passionate about. I love this agency and I love this county. I think I'm a perfect fit for it. The timing is right; I think I can do good things."

Fern said 80% of his career at SCSO was spent in the K9 unit. He says he remained a deputy throughout his career because he "enjoyed the boots on the ground approach."

"It wasn't ever about the money for me," he said. "I am passionate about the job and loved it."