All the Governor’s Men
Ron DeSantis suspended Tampa’s elected prosecutor over abortion rights. What does it mean to run for office in Florida if the governor’s whims can turn even a win into a loss?
Piper French, | September 22, 2022
Allison Miller, a public defender seeking to become the next chief prosecutor of Pinellas and Pasco counties in central Florida, may face one of the strangest conundrums of any candidate for political office in the United States. She has said she would not prosecute people for seeking or providing abortions, in a state whose governor recently removed from office a sitting, democratically elected prosecutor—in Tampa, just across the bay from Pinellas County (St. Petersburg)—for saying the same thing.
The repeal of Roe v. Wade in June vested enormous control over women’s reproductive decisions in local officials. There has been plenty of talk since about the resulting geographic injustices: people seeking now-illegal abortions in blue localities may at least be shielded from prosecution, the thinking goes, while their counterparts in redder areas may face criminal punishment for the same acts. But in August, after Hillsborough County (Tampa) State Attorney Andrew Warren signaled he would decline to pursue abortion cases should Florida’s 15-week ban go into effect, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis suspended and replaced him with a member of the conservative Federalist Society. (Warren has sued to get his job back; a judge has said the case should be decided at trial, but hasn’t set a date.)
The governor’s move, part of his broader push to undermine voting rights and override democratic results to install conservatives in local offices, summons an existential question for the shape of democracy in Florida. In the face of a governor willing to overturn an election to achieve his own ends, the familiar playbook of fighting for social change at the ballot box—organizing the grassroots, galvanizing young people and people of color, elevating candidates who will fight for reproductive justice—is under siege.
The threat of further undemocratic moves by DeSantis now hangs over Miller’s race—and by extension, any election in the state. What does it even mean to run for office when the governor’s political whims could turn a win into a loss? Miller compared running in DeSantis’s Florida to the myth of Sisyphus: the boulder rolls back down the hill every time, but he pushes it up again anyway.
“We have a governor who if you disagree with him politically, he just removes you from office,” she told Bolts. “Sometimes it feels like a set up—or it’s all just theater.”
But this sense that the game has long been rigged was part of the reason Miller decided to run in the first place. As a public defender, she says, she has represented people facing the death penalty, and she has seen over and over again how much pressure there was to obtain a capital conviction. “The way the system is set up in Florida is that the prosecution, the state, truly does hold all of the cards,” she said. And yet she has kept fighting, first as a public defender and now as an outsider running on criminal justice reform. Miller’s decision to challenge Republican State Attorney Bruce Bartlett, a DeSantis appointee, has made 2022 the first time in 30 years that Pinellas and Pasco have experienced a contested prosecutor’s race. Bartlett and DeSantis did not respond to requests for comment for this piece.
In DeSantis’s Florida, many are now haunted by similar questions about how best to approach local campaigns. DeSantis is running for re-election himself this fall against Democrat Charlie Crist, and holds a narrow lead in public polling.
Progressive advocates vow to not get discouraged by the climate of uncertainty that has accompanied Warren’s suspension. “This is a first, right?” said Sara Tabatabaie, the chief political and communications officer for Vote Pro Choice, which aims to elect candidates who will defend abortion rights across the country. “But the response is we do it again,” she added. “And the reason is because we’re not going to be intimidated by somebody like Ron DeSantis. If DeSantis wants to show everyone that he doesn’t care that the majority of Floridians are pro-choice, then let him.”
In stripping federal protections for abortion access, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision transformed down-ballot offices and races into a terrain of high-pitched political struggle. “This is the real battleground for the next decades—a real opportunity area,” said Paul Kim Bradfield, the Southern Regional Director for Run for Something, a national candidate incubator supporting Miller. “Republicans have been playing this playbook for decades… we’re kind of late to the game.”
Bradfield said over 1,300 Floridians filed a form on Run for Something’s website expressing an interest in running for local office since early May, when the Supreme Court’s decision leaked. That’s nearly three times as many as had registered interest between the beginning of 2020 and the leak.
“People are worried about what’s going on with their lives, what this means for them,” said Gretchen Johnson, the president of the St. Petersburg League of Women Voters (LWV), a nonpartisan group that promotes voter education.
Johnson referenced the Tampa judge who ruled that a 17-year-old girl was too immature to get an abortion because her grades were poor. In August, he was ousted by voters. Historically, “most judges are retained,” Johnson said. Now, though, she added, people are realizing, “‘This is affecting my life—or someone’s life, and that matters—so we do need to pay attention.’”
But now that energy and outrage is running up against DeSantis’s strategy for bulldozing over the authority of locally-elected officials.
“The governor has shown that … targeting different candidates and different issues is not off the table for him,” said Bradfield. “There’s a great irony,” he added: “the Republican side has for a long time been the vocal advocates of home rule, like, ‘local government should decide this, this and this.’” Now that the left is testing those waters, though, there’s a broad move from the right to shut it down—whether via DeSantis’s suspensions or bills like the Florida legislature’s attempt to preclude Democratic municipalities from reducing their police budgets, a top priority for DeSantis after the Black Lives Matter uprising of 2020.
“It can feel almost discouraging—you put all that effort and action into things and have this person unilaterally make decisions against it,” said Bradfield. But he wasn’t willing to sink into existential doubts about the purpose of voting if the governor may remove the victor. Bradfield emphasized that candidates and voters alike seemed more motivated than disheartened.
“Being in his crosshairs…is certainly a risk that she faces,” he said of Miller, “but I think it can also be an opportunity.”
“It’s galvanizing,” Johnson said of Florida’s landscape in the aftermath of Dobbs and of Warren’s suspension. She believes that people’s attention to local races has never been higher.
Still, DeSantis is also cracking down on voting through other means. He inspired the creation of a state police force meant to investigate elections, which local advocates warn carries the risk of intimidating voters. Suppressive efforts typically affect the people who are already the most marginalized, further limiting their political power.
In August, DeSantis announced that this newly created office was pressing felony charges against 20 people who had voted despite not being eligible because of past convictions; this built on cases filed by local prosecutors this year against residents who voted despite owing court debt. There is no indication that any of these people did so intentionally or maliciously, The Guardian reported. The charges came after Florida Republicans adopted a law that deeply obfuscated the process for regaining voting rights in 2019, during DeSantis’s first year as governor; observers warned at the time that the new regulations were bound to confuse voters, and Warren vowed to help local residents.
That law was a direct response to a constitutional amendment approved by voters in November 2018 to expand rights restoration. The amendment had passed overwhelmingly, 65 to 35 percent. DeSantis won on the same day by under 0.5 percentage points.
“Ours is supposed to be a government of laws, not a government of individual men,” DeSantis trumpeted at his press conference announcing Warren’s suspension. But laws have to be interpreted—DeSantis himself unearthed an obscure 1936 gambling precedent in order to justify removing a state’s attorney. And the governor plainly wants the individual people interpreting those laws to be his men, so to speak.
DeSantis’s excuse for suspending Warren was a statement the prosecutor signed, along with more than 80 counterparts across the country, which vowed not to bring cases against people for seeking or providing abortion care. Florida’s new 15-week abortion ban is not yet on the books—at the moment, Florida’s state constitution protects some access to abortion. Currently the ban that Republican lawmakers passed is tied up in court, but the state supreme court has swung right under DeSantis, who has appointed four of its seven members, and may well overturn that precedent.
Still, DeSantis maintained that Warren’s signature was tantamount to professing intent to subvert the law. The governor also cited another statement Warren had signed that condemned the criminalization of trans people and gender-affirming healthcare; though anti-trans rhetoric has been a cornerstone of the DeSantis administration, there is no specific law that criminalizes trans people or healthcare in Florida.
DeSantis has turned Warren’s firing into an opportunity to force his political preferences onto an area of the state that has repeatedly rejected them.
In the 2016 and 2020 elections, voters in blue-leaning Hillsborough County embraced Warren, a proponent of criminal justice reform. In office, the prosecutor exercised his discretion to lower the number of people in jail and reduce racial bias in arrests and prosecution. His ouster has sparked a rapid shift toward the tough-on-crime policies DeSantis prefers. DeSantis’s choice to replace Warren, Susan Lopez, has already overturned a number of Warren’s initiatives, including his policies against prosecuting low-level misdemeanors and arrests stemming from the Tampa police’s wildly controversial bike-stop policy. According to a U.S. Department of Justice inquiry, that policy targeted Black people, who make up only 26 percent of Tampa’s population, in 73 percent of stops. Lopez has also announced her intent to seek the death penalty in a case where Warren previously declined to pursue capital punishment.
Meanwhile, DeSantis has also recently replaced four Democratic members of the Broward County school board with Republicans. The members were recommended for suspension by a grand jury for failures related to school safety, but the opportunity to install more ideologically aligned successors was not wasted on the governor. “To take out four women who are Democrats and replace them with four men who are Republicans—that’s certainly not representative of the demographics of Broward County,” said Miller. Now the chair of the Florida Board of Education, who is himself a DeSantis appointee, has suggested that the Broward County school superintendent—who didn’t even join the district until well after the grand jury had finished its deliberations—should be suspended, too.
There are five other Democratic state attorneys in Florida, and DeSantis claimed to have “reviewed” all of them during his press conference announcing Warren’s suspension. Though one signed the anti-trans criminalization statement, and several issued statements condemning the repeal of Roe v. Wade, none besides Warren clearly stated their refusal to prosecute abortion cases. And none have spoken up loudly in support of Warren since his dismissal, perhaps a tacit admission of fear that DeSantis could do the same thing again. “If DeSantis can arbitrarily suspend an elected official without one shred of evidence they have done anything wrong, how far will he go to punish anyone else who disagrees with him?” Warren wrote in a recent editorial.
Miller said she sympathized with the dilemma. “I can certainly appreciate kind of keeping your head down and doing the work and standing by the message, but maybe not publicly making yourself a target,” she said. “I know most of them and I think they all are there because they want to help people—and you don’t have the ability to do that if you’re not in office.” After all, she added, “It’s not like the governor stopped with Andrew Warren.”
Still, Miller herself has made a different choice. “For better or worse, I speak my mind,” she said. The stakes felt too high—and too personal—not to: she is a survivor of violent crime and sexual assault. “I was held at gunpoint when I was 14, and I was raped in college,” Miller told Bolts. “And so the idea of prosecuting a rapist, I would do with enthusiasm, but the idea of prosecuting a woman who aborts the product of that rape—somebody convince me how that possibly makes our community safer.”