Sunday, July 15, 2018

Did Hillsborough's longtime state attorney get a case of the 'complacency flu'?

TAMPA — Hardly anyone expected Mark Ober to lose.

Hillsborough County's incumbent state attorney enjoyed a good reputation, widespread name recognition and broad support in the local legal and law enforcement communities.

Yet, on election night, jaws dropped across Hillsborough County as Ober consistently trailed political newcomer Andrew Warren in a close race.

Warren, a former federal prosecutor, had squeaked out a win, garnering 50.4 percent of the vote to Ober's 49.5 percent. Ober, a Republican, conceded the race to his Democratic opponent early Wednesday.

How did Warren do it?

Political observers opined Wednesday that it was a combination of factors. Among them were Ober's weak efforts in the face of Warren's relentless negative campaigning.

"Ober had a bad case of the complacency flu," said Darryl Paulson, emeritus professor of government at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. "He assumed, as the incumbent, that he would be tough to beat. The commercials by his opponent raised concerns about Ober's sympathy for those who were victims of crime. If he had a response, it was ineffective."

It wasn't the first time a constitutional officer had been voted out in Hillsborough County. In 2008, Buddy Johnson lost re-election as supervisor of elections to Phyllis Busansky. In 2012, Rob Turner lost a Republican primary for property appraiser to then-state Sen. Ronda Storms, who later lost the general election to Bob Henriquez.

But in both of those elections, the incumbents had become mired in scandal. Ober had a largely unblemished reputation.

That didn't stop Warren from repeatedly criticizing Ober over his office's handling of two separate sex crime cases. Ober said Warren was misrepresenting both cases for political gain. But Ober stayed away from going after his opponent.

April Schiff, a Republican political consultant, said Ober seemed not to respond effectively to those attacks.

"Negative campaigns are successful campaigns," Schiff said. "Warren ran a pretty negative campaign, and I saw as it progressed that Ober was defending. My mantra is if you're explaining, you're not campaigning."

A spokesman for Ober's office said Wednesday that he was unavailable to comment.

Warren's campaign said he was working to prepare for his transition into the office. They did not offer specific answers about what the campaign did to win.

Turnout for the presidential race also likely lifted Warren, Paulson said. Hillary Clinton won Hillsborough County by a margin of 6 percentage points.

"I think (Warren) benefited from Clinton coattails, because I think the turnout in the inner city really helped him," said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

That seems to be reflected in the county's results in individual precincts. Warren dominated many precincts within the city. Ober did better in the county's rural and suburban areas, which tend to favor Republicans.

There was also the money.

Despite having lived in Hillsborough County for only a few years, Warren managed to raise nearly as much as Ober, more than $400,000.

Much of those contributions, campaign finance records show, came from outside Hillsborough County, and outside Florida.

Some of that money was raised through political action committees and crowd-funding sources. The CrowdPAC fundraising website, which provides a platform for donations to various political causes, featured a fundraising page for an entity dubbed "Americans United for Black Lives." The page referenced Color of Change, an organization that advocates for criminal justice causes, and urged donations to Warren and two other prosecutors campaigning in Texas and Ohio.

"If we want to make change," the page read, "it's time to channel our outrage at the local level by electing candidates who support black lives and making it clear to incumbents that indifference has a cost."

In the campaign's final weeks, Warren's campaign took in several large donations from the state and local Democratic parties. He then spent tens of thousands of dollars on advertising.

"He knows Mark's weaknesses, and he capitalized on them," said Tampa lawyer Barry Cohen, an early and vocal Warren supporter. "I think he ran a smart campaign and he went directly to the people. He didn't spend money on those stupid signs."

Tampa defense lawyer Rick Escobar, an Ober supporter, said he thinks the electorate's anti-establishment mood contributed to the 16-year incumbent's loss.

"I don't think Mark lost this election because he was a bad state attorney," Escobar said. "To lose a valuable member of our criminal justice system, such a class act, it's sad."

Escobar said he hopes Warren will consider the merits and skills of the prosecutors who work in Ober's office.

"I think it would be a huge mistake to try to clean house," Escobar said. "You've got individuals in this community that would be very, very difficult to replace."

Times senior news researcher John Martin and staff writers Steve Contorno and Richard Danielson contributed to this report.

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