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Ober to face Shimberg for state attorney post

Both candidates win with wide margins in the race to succeed the late Harry Lee Coe, who committed suicide.

By GRAHAM BRINK and KATHRYN WEXLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 6, 2000


TAMPA -- Republican Mark Ober and Democrat Robert Shimberg emerged from bruising primary battles Tuesday with convincing victories and will face each other in the Nov. 7 general election to replace the late Harry Lee Coe as state attorney.

It wasn't even close.

Ober took an early lead against Bill Jennings and never let up, while Shimberg slowly built a wide margin over underdog Jonathan Alpert. They both won with 59 percent of the vote.

"We're going to carry on," Ober bellowed to big cheers as he walked into his victory celebration at the Cold Storage Cafe in downtown Tampa.

Ober credited his hardworking volunteers and his strong ties to the county for his overwhelming victory. He vowed to run a clean campaign.

Shimberg, who criticized Alpert for a string of attack ads, said his victory showed that positive campaigning works. His run for the general election will begin today, he added.

"I'm proud of the way I ran my campaign," Shimberg said at a party with over 100 supporters at the Cactus Club in Old Hyde Park.

It was a Democratic primary that began with Coe's stunning suicide 10 days before the qualifying deadline in July. Coe's death, coming on the heels of reports that he was deeply in debt and had borrowed money from two employees, changed the course of the election.

Considered the front runner for a third term, Coe had not even drawn a Democratic opponent. Ober and Jennings had been in the race for months, but struggled for the public's attention. Alpert, a political outsider with a reputation for suing rich and powerful corporations, jumped into the Democratic race within days of Coe's suicide. Democratic insiders scrambled to find a candidate of their own, and Shimberg soon stepped forward.

Shimberg, scion of a wealthy and politically connected family, quickly raised a formidable war chest, topping out at $147,230. Alpert, on the other hand, raised just $43,581 and contributed a whopping $81,760 from his personal fortune. Ober also out-raised Jennings, $132,554 to $25,341, with Jennings contributing an additional $17,000 of his own money.

The closing weeks of the campaign were marked by negative advertising and questionable tactics.

Alpert went on the attack with campaign fliers accusing Shimberg of having something to hide: not prosecuting a Hillsborough deputy accused of taking nude photographs of a woman he was questioning. Shimberg called the flier "a pack of lies," pointing out that he took the case to a grand jury, which declined to indict the deputy. Alpert also claimed Shimberg avoided campaigning in black neighborhoods, a charge Shimberg angrily denied.

Shimberg said he spent 11 hours Tuesday outside a polling site on Hanna Street in a crucial, predominantly black precinct.

On the Republican side, a Jennings volunteer videotaped an Ober supporter pulling up a Jennings campaign signs and throwing them in a trash bin. Jesse Dominguez, a lawyer and brother of a judge, said he had permission from the store owner. Last week, Ober sent out a mailing comparing his qualifications with those of Jennings, but the mailing failed to list Jennings' complete work history. Jennings' last mailing trumpeted that he opposes abortion and supports prayer in schools.

On the campaign trail, Shimberg, 38, played up the time he worked for Coe as a prosecutor from 1994 to 1998.

Alpert, meanwhile, cultivated the image of an outsider who would clean up the courthouse, at a time when investigations are swirling. Alpert, 55, had never been a prosecutor, but promoted his extensive trial experience.

If the seasoned litigator ran a scrappy, inflammatory race, he conceded defeat gracefully, endorsing his opponent even before all the votes had been tallied.

"I'm pleased and proud of the campaign that I ran and obviously, he got his message across better than I did mine," Alpert said.

Ober, 49, and Jennings, 51, emphasized their considerable legal and administrative experience, often repeating similar "tough on crime" rhetoric. Ober, a Brandon High School graduate, cultivated a folksy image.

Jennings often painted Ober as a "good ol' boy" and courthouse insider who would maintain the status quo. Jennings said being a Polk County prosecutor gave him a much needed outsider's perspective.

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