TAMPA — To Mark Ober, Republican state attorney in Hillsborough County, it's all about experience — "the lifeblood of leadership," he told Tampa Tiger Bay Club members Friday.
To his Democratic challenger Andrew Warren, it's about modernizing the county's prosecutor's office, which he said "is a generation outdated. … We're like a rotary phone."
The two squared off before the crowd of political aficionados as part of the first serious re-election challenge to Ober since he became the county's top prosecutor in 2000.
Besides those major themes, they also hurled smaller, pointy barbs.
Warren suggested Ober was using his staff to bulk up his crowds at campaign events. Ober replied that staff members at his events, including 11 at the Tiger Bay lunchtime meeting, were there on their lunch hours or taking vacation time.
Ober said Warren was unrealistic and unaware of the community and its history, citing his own upbringing and previous career, all in Hillsborough County.
"What about community involvement? What about being from this area?" he asked, calling Warren "an outsider."
The two sparred over a controversial child sex case in which, according to a local television news investigation, Ober's office initially declined to prosecute Alexander Pelzer, a 26-year-old Maryland man accused of luring a 15-year-old Tampa girl to visit him for sadistic sex.
In response, Ober denied his office was unwilling to prosecute — Pelzer now faces charges — but also appeared to suggest that the girl's consent was part of the question.
"Mr. Warren does not know the facts of the case," Ober said. "This man has committed a crime, so don't read between the lines here. She was with him voluntarily. She flew to see him. … And consent is not an issue. … We differ on — I know the facts of the case."
Throughout the campaign, Warren has been more aggressive in attacking Ober. As a first-time candidate challenging a well-known incumbent for a county constitutional office whose occupants tend to hold them for years, Warren has a tougher job.
But in an interview after the forum, Ober wasn't shy about knocking Warren. He suggested that Warren, a federal white-collar crime prosecutor before he quit for the campaign, abandoned a multimillion-dollar fraud case when he resigned to run. The case ended in dismissals of the charges.
He also contended that Warren isn't prepared for the job. "He's never stepped foot in a state courtroom" in Florida, Ober noted.
Warren denies abandoning the case, saying he prepared a transition, and told the crowd his experience is broader than Ober's, from prosecuting street crime in Washington, D.C., to complex fraud cases.
He said Ober's accusation "is like saying Derek Jeter couldn't play for the Rays because he spent his career with the Yankees."
Based on recent studies by Harvard Law School and Human Rights Watch, Warren contended Ober's office is discriminatory and overzealous in charging juveniles as adults and in seeking and applying the death penalty — "an outlier" in the state and nation.
Ober responded that his office carefully scrutinizes such decisions, focusing solely on the requirements of the law and the safety of the community.
"If you folks could sit in my homicide meetings, if you could see the great pains we take … perhaps we wouldn't be having this discussion at all," he said.
Contact William March at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect first name for Pelzer.