TAMPA — Andrew Warren floated into view on the big Zoom screen. Behind him were watercolor sketches, family snapshots, the American and Florida flags and — wedged in a corner — the state seal.
“Frankly, I’m angry,” said Warren, the state attorney for Hillsborough County.
This was in April, a couple of weeks into nationwide coronavirus shutdowns. Warren, a Democrat, had appeared days earlier at a news conference beside the Republican sheriff to announce the arrest of a megachurch pastor who held in-person services amid the pandemic. Now, Florida’s Republican governor had signed an order saying such services were A-okay.
Before a virtual wall of reporters, Warren used the words “weak” and “spineless” to decry the governor’s actions. He said much of the same the next day, this time in a CNN appearance.
“I really hope he was not caving to powerful interests and people who think that this was all a hoax,” he said.
Here was Warren, whose job it is to prosecute crime in and around Tampa, seemingly going out of his way to draw attention to himself. Lots of politicians do this sort of thing. But for Warren, the media blitz is a signature technique that sets him apart from other elected prosecutors.
The charges against the pastor were later dropped. But it was one in a number of news events Warren has used to put himself in the public gaze.
He did it again in June, announcing he would not prosecute 67 people arrested in a protest. He did it again in July, proclaiming his office would prosecute a local teen who the FBI said hacked celebrity Twitter accounts and used them to steal Bitcoin.
A few years ago, nary a registered voter had heard of Andrew Warren. He swept into office in 2016 after a surprise defeat of a longtime Republican incumbent. In four years, he has cultivated a brand of progressive criminal justice that treads between compassion and accountability.
His efforts have drawn waves of praise, but also quiet criticism.
Who is this guy?
He’s a man who has known tragedy and takes personally his duties as a public official. He has an eye for big prizes and thrives on competition. And he is ever-concerned with how he’s perceived.
Andrew Howard Warren was born in Gainesville in 1977. He has two older brothers and a younger sister. His father moved from Boston in the 1970s to teach at the University of Florida.
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There is a story that gets told in Warren’s family from when he was about 6. His father, Michael Warren, the proprietor of a Gainesville real estate development company, discovered that a business partner had committed fraud.
It was around that time a relative asked Andrew what he wanted to be when he grew up.
“A lawyer,” he said.
“Because I want to help put bad guys in jail.”
At Gainesville’s East Side High School, Andrew Warren played baseball and soccer. He won a scholarship to Brandeis University outside Boston, where he studied political science and economics. He spent his junior year abroad at the London School of Economics.
“If he wasn’t the smartest guy in the room, then he was one of the smartest,” said Jonathan Heafitz, a Brandeis alum who’s a Washington lobbyist. “He always had read the book before class and had thought of all the questions and was grilling the professor.”
Warren went to Columbia Law School in New York City. Richard Crisler, a Republican classmate, debated politics with the young Democrat.
“I always found him to be very open to having his ideas challenged,” said Crisler, an attorney in New Orleans. “I think his approach to being state attorney is similar in that it is not a straight sort of far-left platform. I think he is open to ideas from both sides.”
Warren met Alexandra Coler on his first day at Brandeis. Romanian-born, she grew up in Pennsylvania. They dated on and off in college, stayed together after starting law careers in different cities and married in 2006 in Philadelphia.
By then, Warren had clerked for U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti in San Francisco and begun a career with the sprawling corporate firm of Latham and Watkins. After a few years, he applied to work for the Department of Justice.
He got his start prosecuting street crimes in the District of Columbia. In about 2009, he caught the notice of Paul Pelletier, the chief in charge of the department’s fraud section. It sent prosecutors all over the country to assist in complex, high-dollar Medicare, securities fraud and foreign corruption cases.
“To me,” Pelletier said. “He was operating five levels above what I expected at that point in his career.”
He seldom brings it up. But it’s the one thing he says makes his work more personal than anything else.
Warren remembers the morning: Aug. 4, 2009. He was in a trial preparation meeting with colleagues from out of state when he got the call.
His wife had been in a traffic accident, and she was eight months pregnant.
He remembers rushing to the hospital. He remembers his wife in an operating room, being put under anesthesia.
He remembers the surgery, seeing his son born. He remembers holding the boy, his wife still unconscious, as doctors kept him on life support.
Zack Warren couldn’t survive. His father had to make a decision.
He remembers having to tell his wife when she woke up. He remembers making funeral arrangements and returning the crib and baby clothes.
“A part of me is broken that will never be fixed,” he says. “When I talk about keeping families safe, it’s personal to me.”
Flash forward to a hot afternoon last spring: Cars rolled past as Warren stood in the shade on the backside of Plant High School in South Tampa. Beside him were the parents of Katie Golden. She was 17 and weeks from graduating in 2017 when she died of a heroin overdose. Her parents wore tie-dyed ribbons in her memory.
Warren had argued that Golden’s boyfriend was responsible for her death. His office accused him of manslaughter, a charge that could have meant 15 years in prison. The case elicited criticism that the state was making a tragic accident into a crime.
Just before trial, they struck a deal. The charge was dropped when the boyfriend agreed to testify against the man who the state believes sold the drugs. The new charge against the alleged dealer: first-degree murder.
“Today,” Warren told reporters, “Hillsborough County is a little bit safer as we took a heroin dealer that sold to kids out of our community.”
So how did Warren get here?
You might say his path began in Houston, where he helped prosecute the biggest case of his career.
Allen Stanford was a Texas financier. In 2009, he was charged in a federal indictment with orchestrating one of the largest Ponzi schemes in U.S. history. Losses were estimated at more than $7 billion.
In Washington, Pelletier tapped Warren to assist two other prosecutors. As the third chair in the case, Warren orchestrated the forfeiture of Stanford’s assets. He also cross-examined defense experts.
“He kicked ass during that trial,” Pelletier said.
Stanford was sentenced in 2012 to 110 years in prison and ordered to forfeit more than $5 billion in assets.
The case was a career-maker for the prosecution team. Lawyer Greg Costa became a federal judge. William Stellmach went to work for a premier white-collar defense firm in Washington.
Warren came to Tampa.
His wife had become weary of his frequent and lengthy work-related trips. By then, the couple had a daughter, Elliot. A second daughter, Lucy, was on the way. He’d always wanted to return to Florida.
“(Tampa) was the right fit,” he said. “With the type of work I did, I needed to be in a bigger city."
He says he didn’t intend to pursue politics. But he began meeting people at community functions. When they heard what he did for a living, he says, they’d ask if he was interested.
Rod Smith had been the state attorney for Alachua County, a candidate for governor and lieutenant governor and later chairman of the Florida Democratic Party. He was a friend of Warren’s father. When Warren came to him in 2014, he was happy to help.
“I was encouraging him to run for state Senate,” Smith said. He was surprised, months later, when Warren said he planned to run for state attorney.
“My political advice is invariably wrong,” Smith said. “But I thought, ’Boy, that’s the wrong race to get into.’ ”
Smith knew Mark Ober, the longtime Republican incumbent, would be hard to beat.
But for Warren, there was a calculus. Recent elections had seen Hillsborough County trending blue. And Ober, while popular and respected, hadn’t had to campaign in more than a decade.
When asked in a 2016 interview with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board about why he was running, Warren spoke of a string of killings in Tampa’s inner city the previous year. He spoke of wanting to do something about crime, but alluded to broader societal failings.
“The country is having a conversation about the problems in our criminal justice system,” he 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.”
One of the people Smith approached was Stacy Frank, the late daughter of Hillsborough Clerk of Court Pat Frank. She introduced Warren to Chris Mitchell, a Democratic political consultant.
“About five minutes in, those spider senses went off,” Mitchell said. “His demeanor. The way he talked. His look. … He’s very authentic when he talks. He’s passionate. He’s measured. He makes it to where people want to listen. People naturally trust him.”
Warren mounted an aggressive campaign. He accused Ober of rarely showing up for work. He also seized on a verbal flub Ober made during a debate. It had to do with a complicated sex crime case pending in Ober’s office.
Warren said Ober was insensitive to rape victims. Ober said Warren was misrepresenting the facts. (The case was transferred to a different state attorney after Warren took office, and ultimately most of the charges were dropped.) But the damage was done. Ober became the subject of unflattering headlines. Ober did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Late in the campaign, a rumor circulated among Ober’s supporters, fueled in part by large contributions Warren’s campaign received from state and local Democratic parties.
The rumor centered on George Soros. The billionaire philanthropist has funneled money to progressive political causes over the years. He’s known to have helped fund the campaigns of district attorney candidates throughout the country.
Did he help Warren’s campaign?
“We think so,” Warren said. “We understand that he gave money to the state (Democratic) party. And the state party money ... went to support different candidates. And I have very little insight into the amount of money he gave, who it went to, etc.”
There was other help, too. Warren managed to nearly match Ober in fundraising, compiling close to a half-million dollars. He touted heavy-hitting local supporters, like the late Barry Cohen, a legendary Tampa attorney.
And there was Color of Change. The civil rights organization targeted district attorney races throughout the country in 2016, an effort to force change within the criminal justice system.
In Tampa, days before the election, a mobile billboard bearing the Color of Change logo rolled through town. Its message sought to link Ober with the Biking While Black ticketing scandal, even though the State Attorney’s Office does not handle bicycle citations.
On Election Day, Ober drew 283,843 votes. Warren got 288,883. He won by less than 1 percent.
When Warren took over, many assistant state attorneys feared he would clean house.
Initially, there were few personnel changes, but there were departures. Some lawyers who held high-level positions in Ober’s office later found themselves demoted with little explanation.
Many declined to speak publicly with the Times. But privately, some mentioned a perception that personnel changes occur based on personality and office politics.
Linda Shiflet, a part-time intake attorney who worked for the office for more than a decade, was fired last year. She was told it was for a curt comment she made to a supervisor. But she suspects Warren just didn’t like her.
“Decisions there are being made based on personality conflicts and people being pigeon-holed,” she said. “I promise you, it’s not just me.”
Warren maintains that staff departures were a byproduct of a good economy. He dismissed the criticisms as the gripes of a few disgruntled former employees.
Some people like his leadership style. Douglas Covington worked for the office 35 years under five state attorneys. He retired last year as chief of the misdemeanor, traffic and juvenile divisions.
“He’s probably the smartest state attorney I’ve worked for,” Covington said.
Chris Moody was a longtime senior prosecutor who gave money to Ober’s 2016 campaign, but Warren made Moody his first chief assistant. Within six months, he said, most people became comfortable with the new boss.
“People think it’s changed more than it really has,” said Moody, now retired. “Prosecution isn’t magic dust. There aren’t too many other ways you can do it.”
There have been changes, though.
Use of the death penalty has declined. Warren inherited 24 capital cases. The office now has seven. The only case in which Warren has sought death at trial is that of Granville Ritchie, who was convicted last year in the murder of 9-year-old Felecia Williams, and who a jury unanimously recommended should die.
One stat Warren touts of late is 22 percent. It’s the reduction in Hillsborough County’s crime rate from 2016 (2,081 crimes per 100,000 residents) to 2019 (1,633 crimes per 100,000 residents). Surely, the state attorney’s influence on that stat is debatable. Police chiefs and sheriffs typically get more credit or blame for crime rates.
Another stat, one that Warren calls his proudest achievement, is 7,000. That’s the rough number of cases of driving with a suspended license he says have been dismissed in the past three years. A new policy allows people whose licenses were suspended due to outstanding debts to avoid prosecution if they can show they paid back their obligations.
“That’s 7,000 people who can go back to being law-abiding citizens ... without wasting taxpayer resources on them,” he said.
He’s been a frequent voice in support of efforts to restore the right to vote for felons who have completed their sentences. He’s also expressed a desire to address racial tensions and disparities that have long plagued the justice system. In June, he was among the speakers at a “Lawyers March” in Tampa to support the Black Lives Matter movement.
He does, of course, have his critics. And in this year’s election, his opponent gave them a voice.
Mike Perotti, a lawyer for the Sheriff’s Office, seized on a recent surge in violent crime as evidence that Warren’s reform-minded policies are not working.
He also criticized Warren’s political style, adopting the campaign slogan “principles not politics.”
“If there’s good news,” Perotti said in a campaign forum, “the microphones seem to pop up everywhere.”
That was true in September when Warren, the man in charge of sending people in Hillsborough County to prison, helped to get a man out.
Robert DuBoise spent 37 years incarcerated for a murder he did not commit. The state attorney’s conviction review unit, which Warren created in 2018 to root out wrongful convictions, was instrumental in locating the DNA evidence that proved DuBoise' innocence.
It’s unclear to what extent the exoneration helped Warren’s campaign efforts.
He secured a second term this month, though the victory — a margin of roughly 53-47 percent — wasn’t a landslide and mirrored the broader political divide in Hillsborough County and elsewhere.
Where might Warren be going?
The people closest to him aren’t certain, nor are local political busybodies. But if you ask around, there is a sense that Warren won’t be state attorney forever.
“Every time I ask him, he tells me he’s focused on the job at hand,” said Ione Townsend, chairwoman of the Hillsborough Democratic Executive Committee. “If he has those ambitions, they have not been shared with me.”
Whatever he does, the one-time outsider now has significant local support.
In his reelection campaign, he drew words of praise from Republican Sheriff Chad Chronister. He also had the support of Public Defender Julianne Holt, a fellow Democrat. Still others are quiet in their opinions of Warren. Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan has publicly disagreed with some of his decisions, but did not return a message for comment for this story.
Earlier this year, as Warren worked a luncheon crowd full of public officials and political fundraisers, people eagerly shook his hand and echoed each other: “What can I do to help you?”
Correction: A case that became the subject of debate in the 2016 state attorney campaign was transferred to a different state attorney after Warren took office, and ultimately most of the charges were dropped. An earlier version of this story misstated the outcome of the case.