When Florida’s Republican governor fired the Tampa area’s top prosecutor for defying the state’s transgender and abortion crackdown, Ron DeSantis made it clear that he believes his power as governor supersedes the power of voters.
But now that prosecutor, Andrew Warren, is suing to get his job back, and the twice-elected state attorney tells The Daily Beast this is more than a fight over his employment; it’s about whether a strongman governor can single-handedly toss a democratically elected local official out of office.
“Can a governor just overturn elections in the state of Florida? If the governor has the power to do so, then what’s left of democracy?” Warren said in an interview Friday.
DeSantis, whose sycophantic political ads vowing loyalty to then-President Donald Trump got him into office in 2019, followed the president’s lead and turned Tallahassee into a MAGA hot zone that rejected bipartisanship and waged war on progressives. But he did it more effectively than Trump, launching a crusade to ban certain books in schools, halt transgender health care for young people, isolate and bully gay kids, and target transgender athletes in schools.
It’s that unrelenting conservative crusade that concerns Warren, who says DeSantis could feel emboldened to next target elected school board members for defying his book bans and punitive crackdowns on gay and transgender kids.
“There’s so much more at stake than my job. This is a fight to stop the erosion of our democracy. It’s to ensure our democracy has meaning, so we have elected officials and not a king, so no governor can steal the people’s vote and silence their voice. Regardless of what party you belong to, your vote matters,” Warren said.
This particular battle started shortly after the Supreme Court stripped women of abortion rights in June, when Warren and other elected prosecutors across the country sought to temper widespread fears about misogynistic crackdowns. Warren signed a joint statement vowing to not “criminalize reproductive health decisions.” DeSantis, seething over what he called a “woke” resistance, announced with much fanfare on Aug. 4 that he was suspending the Hillsborough County state attorney. The executive order accused Warren of “eroding the rule of law” and “encouraging lawlessness.” Warren sued two weeks later in federal court.
Things haven’t gone well for DeSantis so far.
For starters, the Warren case landed before U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle, who already had some experience throwing a damp towel on DeSantis power grabs. In 2021, DeSantis and MAGA Republicans tried to throw Trump and extreme right-wing conservatives a lifeline by passing a law forbidding any social media company from deplatforming a political candidate. Hinkle was the judge who blocked them, issuing a preliminary injunction that was eventually upheld on appeal and is currently awaiting input from the Supreme Court.
In Warren’s case, the judge has already refused the DeSantis administration’s request to dismiss the lawsuit. On Sept. 29, he issued an order saying that Warren can continue claiming his First Amendment rights were violated when he was fired.
And just last week, Hinkle again sided against DeSantis—and hinted at how this case might go. The judge issued an order reiterating how wrong the governor’s legal theory is, namely that public employees’ on-the-job statements aren’t protected by the First Amendment and can be subject to discipline by their employer.
The law DeSantis’s lawyers are trying to cite “does not apply to speech of elected officials, who are not subject to employer discipline,” the judge wrote. It shows how the judge is already making a distinction here that Warren was an elected official, not an agency employee the DeSantis administration can target vindictively—as it is accused of doing to Rebekah Jones, the Health Department researcher who claims she was pressured to resign when she wouldn’t fake COVID-19 data to make Florida look good.
“The judge ruled quite clearly I’m not an employee of the governor, and I’m accountable to the people,” Warren told The Daily Beast. “If you believe in the principles of conservative government, local control, why is Tallahassee dictating to the voters in Hillsborough who their state attorney should be?”
This isn’t the first time DeSantis and this local prosecutor have been at odds.
In 2018, when 65 percent of Floridians approved Amendment 4 to restore voting rights to some ex-felons, DeSantis and the GOP scrambled to limit it the following year. Six months later, Warren announced a new program that would make his state attorney’s office part of the process, showing a commitment that was more consistent with what voters actually approved.
Then in March 2020, just as the new COVID-19 pandemic was killing 1,000 Americans a day and overwhelming hospitals that still didn’t know how to treat it effectively, Warren cracked down on a conspiracy-spewing pastor putting his congregation at risk. Rodney Howard-Browne kept ignoring new social distancing rules and instead packed his megachurch, where he preached about the threat of the “globalist agenda” and celebrated Donald Trump for supposedly fighting back the “New World Order.” The pastor was arrested and Warren’s office initially prosecuted the case for violating public health emergency orders, but DeSantis relaxed state rules for churches immediately after the arrest, and Warren eventually dropped the case.
And in 2021, Warren pushed back on the governor’s ploy to threaten the lives of street protesters. DeSantis signed a so-called “anti-riot” law that gave enraged drivers a green light to run over demonstrators and denied bail for people arrested at a riot. Warren shot back with a statement saying that it “tears a couple corners off the Constitution.”
Warren told The Daily Beast he hasn’t thought about what actions he’ll take to counter the DeSantis administration next if he gets his old job again, but he vowed to keep pushing back.
“I think he’s abused his power to advance his ambition of running for president. My suspension’s not the only example. He’s pulled other political stunts that just reek of political gamesmanship that don’t do anything to help Floridians,” he said. “I’m not in a position to comment on the legality of all of them. But what we’re doing is holding him accountable for this stunt.”