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Hillsborough state attorney race sees respected incumbent pitted against aggressive challenger

TAMPA — Ousting an incumbent politician is never easy. They have the name recognition, and usually the money, to overwhelm most opponents.

That's certainly been the case for Hillsborough state attorney Mark Ober, who has sailed to re-election three times with little or no opposition.

But this is no ordinary election year. And Andrew Warren, a former federal prosecutor, is putting up a considerable fight in his bid to replace Ober as Hillsborough's top law enforcement official.

He isn't far behind the incumbent in campaign fundraising. And, in recent weeks, he put Ober on the defensive over comments he made about his office's handling of two sex cases.

Political observers say it's part of what Warren, a political newcomer, can do to overcome Ober's name recognition and largely unblemished reputation.

At the same time, with local loyalties trending in Ober's favor, the more Warren attacks the more he risks angering people, especially in Hillsborough's close-knit legal community.

• • •

Ober, 65, is among the many prominent local attorneys to have been mentored by E.J. Salcines, a former state attorney who guided a number of them to his alma mater, the South Texas College of Law. Ober graduated there in 1977, the same year Andrew Warren was born.

As a young prosecutor, Ober handled some of the area's most notorious homicide cases. As a defense attorney, he defended some of the area's most notorious killers.

When Ober first ran for state attorney in 2000, the incumbent Democrat, Harry Lee Coe, was an early favorite to win. Then the former judge known as "Hangin' Harry'' committed suicide. In the aftermath, Ober emerged the victor in what became a competitive field of candidates.

He ran on the promise that he would restore the office's reputation in the wake of high-profile scandals and low office morale under his predecessor. Supporters say his success is evidenced by his long tenure as state attorney.

On the campaign trail this year, he has repeated much of the plainspoken rhetoric he has used in past campaigns.

"I follow the facts and the law," he says.

"I don't do things for the applause of the crowd," he says. "When I look in the mirror, I see an honest, hard-working man."

So why is Warren challenging him now?

"It has nothing to do with Mark," Warren says. "I respect the fact that he has spent much of his career as a public servant."

A 2002 graduate of the Columbia University School of Law, Warren has spent the bulk of his career as a prosecutor in the federal system. Much of his work has been on multimillion-dollar fraud cases.

The biggest difference Warren says he has with Ober is philosophical.

Ober, he says, is focused on a retributive form of criminal justice. Warren says he wants to shift toward rehabilitation and reducing recidivism. He wants to focus more on violent crime and gang violence and less on things like low-level drug offenses.

"The country is having a conversation about the problems in our criminal justice system," Warren said. "And it's the first time it's happened in a long time. And there is a window of opportunity to actually participate and be a voice of leadership in that conversation."

Ober counters that his career as a jurist, and his tenure as an elected official, set him apart.

"I have kept our neighborhoods safe and secure," he said. "I have run an honest office. I've been involved in the community. I grew up here. This is my community. And I have what I feel is overwhelming experience on both sides of the table."

• • •

Warren's biggest hurdle: He's unknown. He has only lived in Tampa since 2013. But beyond being unfamiliar to voters, he's also a relative newcomer to the local legal scene. Many of the cases he handled as a federal prosecutor were ones that took him to other cities.

Warren rejects the notion that he's an outsider.

"Raising two children in Hills-borough County gives me as much of a stake in the community as anyone else," he said.

In contrast, Ober has practiced law in Hillsborough County for nearly four decades, as both a prosecutor and a defense attorney. Local loyalties, especially in the law enforcement community, trend his way.

That shows up clearly in financial contributions. About 42 percent of the contributors to Warren's campaign live outside Hillsborough. Large chunks of the more than $226,000 he has raised came from contributors in Gainesville, New York, and the Washington, D.C., area, all places where Warren has lived, attended school and worked.

Almost all of Ober's financial support has come from Hillsborough County. He has raised more than $277,000. About 20 percent came from active and retired law enforcement officers, employees in his office and attorneys who work in law enforcement.

His biggest hurdle: an aggressive challenge from a progressive candidate in an unpredictable election year.

Warren's attacks against Ober are likely an effort to appeal to certain demographics — young people and single women, among others — who turn out in higher numbers in presidential years, said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.

But Warren risks turning off others, particularly those in the legal community, where Ober is respected.

"I'm a little disappointed in some of the attacks I've seen going on," said Tampa defense attorney Rick Escobar. "I'm surprised it takes that kind of campaigning to win voters."

Those who have known Ober throughout his career tend to describe him as a tough prosecutor but not one who dismisses the arguments of defense attorneys. It is reflected in the work of his top deputies, they say.

"Of all the circuits I've practiced in, (Hillsborough) is one of the better managed," said defense attorney Bryant Camareno. "Some of the prosecutors in other circuits are just unbearable and unreasonable. You don't get that here."

But not everyone is happy with Ober. One of Warren's most vocal supporters is noted defense attorney Barry Cohen.

"Mark has lost his spirit, he has lost his enthusiasm," Cohen said. "The job has outgrown him."

Cohen said he thinks reform is needed in the criminal justice system. He also said he has been dissatisfied with the way Ober's office has handled some of the cases he has defended.

But conventional wisdom suggests that Warren still has an uphill battle.

"It strikes me that Andrew could be a real rising star politically," said Tampa attorney Eddie Suarez. "What I don't understand is, why this race? In other words, you're coming in and trying to fix what's not broken. I find that disturbing."

Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

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