As Andrew Warren was being sworn in as the new Hillsborough County State Attorney early Tuesday morning, approximately a dozen activists stood outside the at the George E. Edgecomb Courthouse to cheer his ascension.
“Our purpose this morning is to welcome change into this Hillsborough County criminal business system!” declared Life Malcolm through a megaphone.
In what was considered a major upset in Hillsborough politics, Warren defeated 16-year Republican incumbent Mark Ober by less than one percentage point (50.44 percent vs. 44.66 percent) on November 8. A former federal prosecutor with the Dept. of Justice in Tampa and Washington D.C., the 40-year-old Democrat campaigned on a platform opposing what he said was Ober’s aggressive prosecution of low-level drug crimes, to the detriment of fighting violent crime.
“We have been so focused on the one goal, retribution and punishment,” he said at one point of the campaign, “that we have lost sight of the other goals: reducing recidivism, rehabilitation, and victims’ rights.”
“He challenged the African-American communities, the poor communities, and asked, ‘what can I do to help?’” said Malcolm. “And he laid down his plan for change, told us that he would be a voice for us who have historically been disenfranchised, and the people showed up for Andrew Warren, just like Andrew Warren showed up for us, and so today on his swearing-in day, the people showed up again to greet him.”
During his monologue, Malcolm cited examples of what he said was the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s office under Ober of unequal justice, citing the high profile cases like Deborah Lafave and Jennifer Porter.
Porter was the former school dance teacher who fled after killing two black children and injuring two others with her car in Tampa in 2005. Though Ober’s office did aim to send Porter to jail, Circuit Judge Emmett Lamar Battles sentenced her to two years of house arrest and three years of probation.
Lafave, the former Greco Middle School teacher whose case made national news, was sentenced to three years of house arrest and seven years of probation after pleading guilty in 2005 to having sex with a 14-year-old boy.
“Under Mark Ober’s tenure, Debra Lafave came to this courthouse right here and admitted to raping her students more than one time,” said Malcolm. “Her lawyer stood in front of a judge and said, ‘judge, this woman is too pretty to go to prison.’And she didn’t go. That was the defense!”
“Go in and tell your lawyer to tell the judge that you’re too pretty to go to prison! You do that, and see how that works for ya!” he added.
“We want equality for everyone,” said Yvette Lewis with the Hillsborough County NAACP. “We reached out to the other state attorney and didn’t get anywhere, so now we have a new person in, and we’re letting him know the community voted him in.”
Lewis and others at the demonstration stressed that it was the black vote in Tampa that was crucial in helping Warren narrowly edge out Ober, who rarely if ever had faced an opponent in his previous elections.
“We put him in office,” Lewis asserted, saying that while Ober won the vote outside Tampa, Warren won in the city with its large percentage of African-American voters.
For years, Hillsborough County under Ober was among the leading counties in the nation in incarcerating juveniles in adult jails and prisons, something noted on Tuesday by longtime Tampa activist Connie Burton. “We want to turn that all around,” she said. But she cautioned Warren that she isn’t acting under any “false hope.”
“This is not a love fest. We’re talking about reform now. Stop the prosecution of these low hanging drug charges,” Burton said.
Burton also says the activist community wants a Citizens Integrity Board, similar to a citizens review board that has been established in Tampa to review policies and procedures by the police dept.
At approximately 8:20 a.m., Warren exited out of the Edgecomb Courthouse after being sworn-in by Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta, he greeted the activists individually.
“We’re looking forward to you keeping your promise, just like we kept our promise to you,” Malcolm shouted out to him through his megaphone.