1. Florida Politics

Carlton: A state attorney's surprise exit

Published Nov. 24, 2016

This was Election Day's biggest shocker. Okay, locally, anyway.

Hillsborough's affable and well-liked state attorney — endorsed even by the public defender his lawyers squared off against daily — faced a challenge by a politically unknown former federal prosecutor. Not likely, right?

And then incumbent Mark Ober walked away with 49.5 percent of the vote, with newbie Andrew Warren getting 50.4 percent.

Fair to say it was a rough campaign.

Bold ads distorted some of the facts in two rape cases handled by Ober's office. A last-minute blitz included a giant PAC-funded billboard trucked through neighborhoods tying Ober to Tampa's bicycling-while-black ticketing controversy.

Except those tickets — issued disproportionately to black residents — were actually civil citations handed out by the Tampa Police. Ober's office got involved only if there was a criminal charge.

And so it will be a different courthouse.

Ober, 65, sounds surprisingly Zen about this sudden turn in his legal career — prosecutor, then defense lawyer, then state attorney for 16 years. As in the campaign, he does not bad-mouth his opponent. He's given Warren an office to help with the transition.

"I'm at peace with myself," Ober says.

Like every state attorney who has come through — and we have had some interesting ones — Ober is a distinct part of the place. His years as a defense attorney gave him more ways of looking at a case, local lawyers will tell you. He will talk your ear off about nuances in the law he clearly finds fascinating.

He is a bear of a man who likes to fish and regularly took his own recipe mullet spread to legislators in Tallahassee. After his annual small-townish inspection of the games at the Florida State Fair — a statutorily-obligated duty Warren now inherits — Ober would bring platoons of corn dogs, candy apples and Amish doughnuts back for his staff. It's probably not the reason they are fiercely loyal, but it doesn't hurt.

When I ask what he thinks he leaves behind, he says a safer place, and "prosecutors that were honest, ethical and fair — the best trial lawyers in the nation." In fact, he sounds more concerned about their futures than his own.

Which will be? I guessed teaching, which he likes. He's not saying — only that he wants to catch his breath and that he's lucky to have options.

Though he meant to win this race, he said he has slept soundly probably for the first time in 16 years.

Here is classic Ober: Thursdays at 3 p.m. he held meetings of the Homicide Committee, composed of his top prosecutors, because the decisions were too important for a single person.

Behind closed doors, they debated whether a death was manslaughter, first-degree murder or something in between; whether a defendant deserved to die for his crime; whether Florida's controversial "stand your ground" law exonerated someone who pulled the trigger. Ober poked people with rhetorical questions. Shouting was not unheard of.

I wondered if Ober — the boss, after all — ever walked in convinced about a case only to walk out with a different decision.

"Absolutely," he says, and that, people will tell you, is how he ran the office, open to debate and loving the law.