TAMPA — Andrew H. Warren, a former federal fraud prosecutor for the U.S. Department of Justice, announced his candidacy Monday for Hillsborough state attorney, becoming the first Democrat to challenge Republican State Attorney Mark Ober in more than a decade.
Warren's entrance into the race sets the stage for a contest between a high-profile incumbent and a political newcomer on whose shoulders rests the Democratic Party's hopes of winning a coveted seat.
In a news release, Warren, 39, portrayed himself as an accomplished prosecutor who, though largely unknown to voters, has been working for the public for years. He recently stepped down from his position with the Justice Department to run for office.
"I've been talking with community leaders, friends and family about how I can best continue to serve and where we can do better for Hillsborough," he said in a statement. "For nearly a decade, I've been working for the United States Department of Justice to protect our community, and I would continue to bring my full commitment to protecting every family in our communities as your next State Attorney."
Warren's name has been on the tongues of Hillsborough political watchers for several months, as many waited to see whether he would enter what is likely to be a difficult race against an opponent for whom winning has become routine.
The last time Ober faced a challenger, he easily won the primary and ran unopposed in the general election.
That was in 2008. Now 64 years old, Ober has won re-election twice more without an opponent. After 15 years in office, he is practically an elder statesman of local politics, though a less visible presence in recent years.
"He enjoys a very, very good reputation," said Tampa lawyer F. Dennis Alvarez, a former chief judge of Hillsborough. "Mark has kept it low-key. There's no cause any voter would have to not vote for him."
"There's no outcry to get rid of him," said Mark Proctor, Ober's longtime adviser.
To supporters, the string of uncontested elections is a sign that Ober has earned voters' trust, as well as the support of law enforcement and the legal community. By the end of last month, he had raised about $117,000 and, for the first time in eight years, hired campaign consultants.
"I'm deeply rooted in this community and I look forward to sharing with the citizens of Hillsborough County our many successes at this office," he said in an interview Monday. "I also feel very sincerely that I have the passion, the desire and the energy to do this for four more years."
Originally from Gainesville, Warren, 39, worked for the Justice Department for eight years and has lived in Tampa since 2013.
His focus has been on white-collar crime. Perhaps his best-known case was against R. Allen Stanford, a Texas financier convicted in 2012 of fleecing investors in a $7 billion Ponzi scheme. Warren was part of a team of federal prosecutors who worked on the case.
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Democrats enthused about Warren's candidacy said his chances aren't as daunting as they might seem.
Hillsborough's demographics increasingly favor Democratic candidates and never more so than during presidential elections, when people who might otherwise stay home are often motivated to vote. Others suggested that Ober's name recognition could be overcome, particularly because many voters never interact with the State Attorney's Office as they do with the county tax collector or sheriff.
Warren "comes to the table with a lot of experience," said Alan Clendenin, a Democratic state committeeman for Hillsborough, who met with Warren before his announcement and faulted Ober's record as a prosecutor.
"Quite frankly, there's been issues in that office for some time — a lack of aggressive prosecution and picking and choosing cases," he said. "We end up having a lot of cases that probably should be prosecuted to the full extent that are not, because they don't want to risk a loss."
Ober defended his office, saying, "We follow the facts and the law wherever they lead. And that's without regard to the political process."
Contact Anna M. Phillips at email@example.com or (813) 226-3354. Follow @annamphillips.