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By GRAHAM BRINK
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 8, 2000
TAMPA -- Republican Mark Ober appeared headed to victory Tuesday night over Democrat Robert Shimberg in the closely watched race for Hillsborough State Attorney that was jolted by Harry Lee Coe's suicide in July.
Ober jumped ahead after absentee ballots were counted and held a solid lead with two-thirds of the precincts counted.
Ober, 49, praised his campaign volunteers for working down to the wire to get his message out. He said he was humbled and overwhelmed by all the support, win or lose.
"I simply want to put together the best State Attorney's Office possible," Ober said outside his party at the Cold Storage Cafe.
Shimberg, 38, said he was proud of the way he conducted his campaign, championing experience and ideas.
"It was a great experience," he said.
Coe's stunning suicide 10 days before the qualifying deadline changed the course of the election. His death came on the heels of reports that he was deeply in debt and had borrowed money from two employees, sparking a state investigation.
Considered the front-runner for a third term, Coe had not even drawn a Democratic opponent. Ober and fellow Republican Bill Jennings had been in the race for months, but struggled for attention.
Jonathan 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. Shimberg, scion of a wealthy and politically connected family, soon stepped forward.
Ober and Shimberg emerged with convincing victories after bruising primary battles in September. Ober beat Jennings 59 percent to 41 percent, the same margin with which Shimberg vanquished Alpert.
Those races were marked by negative mailings, attack ads and nasty sniping. This time around, Ober and Shimberg said they would keep their campaigns positive. For the most part, they did just that.
Ober and Shimberg emphasized their legal and administrative experience, often repeating similar "tough on crime" platforms. Neither candidate regretted the decision to refrain from going negative.
"I wouldn't have done it any other way," Shimberg said.
Despite his late entry, Shimberg raised more than $230,000, about $92,000 since the primary. Ober, too, raised a formidable campaign fund of about $200,000, more than $62,000 since the primary.
Both candidates spent much of their money on television ads and direct mail. Shimberg and his supporters often were seen around Tampa waving signs at major intersections. Ober spent time shoring up support in traditional Republican strongholds like Sun City Center and his hometown of Brandon.
Ober has spent his career in Hillsborough, working first for the State Attorney's Office, where he headed several units including major crimes and homicide. He prosecuted several death penalty cases and many others that made headlines. He left the office in 1987 to start a private practice.
During the campaign, Ober said he did not see a need for wholesale changes at the State Attorney's Office, though he acknowledged that problems lingered from Coe's tenure. He thinks the office needs a strong leader who can motivate the employees and raise public confidence in the "important work that gets done at the office."
Ober plans to enhance the mentoring programs at the office to help improve the skills of younger lawyers. He said his decade of teaching classes at Hillsborough Community College will help him pass along his knowledge and experience.
Ober vowed that his top staff would include people with expertise in areas that he is not as familiar with, such as finance and budget matters, not a group of friends or family.
"The first thing to do is put together a solid staff," Ober said.
Shimberg had worked for Coe for five years and touted that experience. He left Coe's office in 1998 to take a job at the Tampa law firm of Hill, Ward & Henderson.
On the campaign trail, Shimberg vowed to target career criminals for lengthy sentences. He also wanted to keep first-time offenders from repeating their crimes by expanding existing programs and creating new ones.