Carlton: The fed who took the Tampa courthouse by surprise wants round two, please

State Attorney Andrew Warren may not totally get Tampa's unique political flavor, but he's ready for term two anyway.
Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren, a not-from-here political newcomer with an ambitious plan for criminal justice reform, wants a second term. [MONICA HERNDON   |   Times]
Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren, a not-from-here political newcomer with an ambitious plan for criminal justice reform, wants a second term. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published February 10
Updated February 11

When a buttoned-up former federal prosecutor named Andrew Warren surprised pretty much everyone two years ago by ousting longtime Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober, the collective courthouse response was:

Who?

Politics-wise, Tampa is often a home-grown, come-up-through-the-ranks kind of town and this guy was definitely Not From Here. So two years down the road, what's the view of the still-new top prosecutor who just announced early that he'll run for a second term in 2020?

Courthouse observers will tell you the crisp-shirted Democrat from Gainesville has been busy and purposeful, setting out a deliberate agenda of criminal justice reform that ranges from civil citations for minor crimes to a more considered use of the death penalty, and that he has struck a decidedly different tone.

And that he's still not used to the whole hugging thing.

Because this is a hugging sort of town in which physical contact is part of the politics. In fact, one longtime mayor perfected the art of the political hug in which you embrace allies and friends and those you would like to be allies and friends, potential contributors and sometimes those suspected of plotting against you in the keep-your-enemies-closer tradition. Warren seems unused to this. When I ask, he says something about how it's great there's "such a cohesive legal community" here, then comes back with a line about how he only wishes there was more time in the day to hug his wife and kids.

And this quip is progress for a newbie politician who started out communicating even the most innocuous information through press releases like he was running the CIA.

Formality aside, his politics have proven refreshing. Warren has established a review unit for ferreting out wrongful convictions, pushed to disarm domestic abusers and been an active participant in mental health courts. He talks about avoiding "poverty traps," like people charged with driving with suspended licenses when their license was suspended because they couldn't pay the civil fines.

And here's an interesting historical note: In his run to unseat the incumbent, Warren sharply criticized Ober for the results in two sex offense cases. (Mr. Ober, rape is rape, a campaign flier said.) Notably since then, Warren's office did not pursue a sexual battery charge against a former Tampa Police officer accused in an encounter with a woman he pulled over or against a University of South Florida sophomore accused of raping a 16-year-old girl at a frat party. So maybe there's a lesson in how these are often the most nuanced and complex cases to pass through a courthouse.

Tampa is also a town that savors political rumor, and already one has an insider taking on Warren in the next election. We'll see.

Some of his predecessors made a media event — and a break from the daily dose of domestic violence, murder and assorted other crime — out of one of the weirder aspects of being state attorney in Tampa. Yearly, the top prosecutor walks the grounds of the Florida State Fair inspecting the games of chance — the throwing of beanbags at cans or darts at balloons, often with reporters in tow — to ensure they are fair. (My favorite year was when a concessionaire refused to lower his basketball hoops to regulation height, opting instead to run his game as "ASKETBALL.")

But no, Warren's office did not make it into a big media event.

In another state fair tradition, a group of game politicians — this year, Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Sheriff Chad Chronister and new Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried — were photographed flying down the giant slide together, the sheriff notably in full uniform, the mayor in a tie.

If asked, would Warren be willing to slide?

"I'd be happy to," he says, a man maybe getting to better know the place that he's landed.

Contact Sue Carlton at [email protected]

 

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