A Times Editorial
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 16, 2000
The suicide death of Harry Lee Coe opened not only the race but a window on the office of the Hillsborough state attorney. For the first time in decades, as recent courthouse scandals come to a head, two solid candidates are forced to confront the office's credibility as the defining issue for voters. The candidates' experience, character and potential set them apart. Republican Mark Ober would make a better state attorney.
EXPERIENCE: Ober, 49, a former prosecutor, who runs a private practice, is widely considered one of Tampa's best trial lawyers. He was raised in Brandon, graduated from the University of Florida and -- after considering becoming a teacher -- earned a law degree from the South Texas College of Law in Houston.
Ober worked 11 years as a prosecutor for the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office. He handled misdemeanor, juvenile and felony crimes before becoming chief of the career criminal, major crimes, special prosecution and homicide divisions. Ober's experience prosecuting a vast array of complex and high-profile cases would be an asset to the office and an inspiration to the hundreds of lawyers and other professionals the state attorney oversees. He has an excellent reputation and working relationship with law enforcement, and is highly regarded by opposing counsel for his straight-forwardness and integrity.
Democrat Robert Shimberg prosecuted homicide and economic crimes during his four years at the state attorney's office. He was also chief of the drug and a felony division. Shimberg is a Tampa native and University of Florida graduate. While a prosecutor, he formed a restitution court to seek repayment from criminals for victims' losses. Shimberg seems mature and rational, but, at 38, cannot match Ober's criminal, managerial or private-sector business experience.
CHARACTER: Character is a subtle but defining quality that distinguishes the candidates in this race. Both men are lauded as ethical and honest, but only Ober acknowledges the loss of public confidence Coe's record and behavior caused the office.
Ober entered the race when Coe was still alive, offering himself as an alternative to a popular and well-financed incumbent. Coe's bizarre management style, his politicization of the office, his poor judgment, record of clearing police in disputed shootings and his debts and suspected gambling practices combined to undermine public trust in the county's chief law enforcement officer. Ober's willingness to break the silence has had the effect of freeing up calls for reform and bringing greater public attention on what happens at the courthouse.
Shimberg has been slower to question the legacy of his former boss. He touts, instead, an admirable record of community service. But the qualifications for this office are more serious than the commitment to volunteer. Ober is direct: "I am seeking this position to restore the public's trust and confidence in the office." Ober's refusal to step aside in July, in the wake of Coe's death, when courthouse insiders maneuvered for the seat, reflects a strength and disdain for back-room dealing any good state attorney needs.
POTENTIAL: Another factor worth remembering is that both candidates are young, popular and free of any known ethical baggage, which means the choice voters make in November could guide the office for a decade or more.
Ober's long history in Hillsborough hardly makes him the outside candidate. The respect Ober carries among trial attorneys and his down-home nature explains the support he draws from Coe's base and his cross-over Democratic appeal. The next state attorney will need that wide support for the office to function on sound terms. Ober's experience as a defense attorney also gives him a more balanced picture of what criminal justice means, a perspective that should sharpen the skills and improve the judgment of younger lawyers moving into positions of authority.
Either successor would be an improvement. But it reflects on Ober's thoughtfulness that he's managed to fault Coe without turning personal, promising special-interest groups what they want to hear or painting Coe's staff with a broad brush that impugns the professionalism of employees still working there. That discretion instills confidence Ober would wield his authority responsibly. The Times recommends him for state attorney.
The Times offers candidates not recommended by its editorial board an opportunity to reply. Candidates in the races discussed today should send in their replies no later than 5 p.m. Wednesday to: Philip Gailey, editor of editorials, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731. (E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Fax: 893-8675). Replies are limited to 250 words.