According to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Andrew Warren was a “woke” prosecutor who sought to impose the radical agenda of the billionaire George Soros on the residents of Hillsborough County. DeSantis suspended him on Aug. 4, after Warren said he would refuse to prosecute cases involving abortion or children’s gender-related surgeries, issues on which the ambitious governor has crusaded in recent months.
“We are not going to allow this pathogen that’s been around the country of ignoring the law — we’re not going to let that get a foothold here in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said at a press conference.
In conversation, Warren comes across as earnest, crisp and straight-laced, about as woke as a pair of pleated Brooks Brothers khakis. “These are labels that the far right throws out to demonize people,” he says. Soros is Jewish, and the Republican preoccupation with his policy objectives has been branded by many scholars as antisemitic. “Woke,” meanwhile, is often used, especially on the right, as a pejorative term to indicate an affiliation with political and social issues that especially matter to Black people.
“He's feeding sugar to his diabetic base,” Warren says of DeSantis. Both men are young, ambitious, opinionated and highly educated. They occupy opposing poles of American public life, and the dispute between them is indicative of a cultural and political climate that shows no signs of cooling.
Warren points out that he was twice elected by his constituents (in 2016 and 2020) and that his dismissal is nothing more than an attempt by DeSantis to increase his standing with conservatives before he announces a bid to run for the presidency in 2024.
“This is just purely a political play to appeal to his base,” Warren told Yahoo News earlier this week. “So he can add a line in his stump speech in Iowa when he's running for president.”
DeSantis and his supporters say the firing was justified because Warren signed an open letter, along with many other liberal prosecutors, saying they would “refrain from prosecuting those who seek, provide, or support abortions.” The letter had been published in June, after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. By then, DeSantis had already made abortion illegal beyond the 15th week of pregnancy. Progressives fear that he is intent on making abortion illegal in Florida altogether.
In July, Warren also joined an amicus brief in a Texas case that argued against prosecuting children, or their parents, if those children seek gender-transition surgery. Texas had outlawed the practice, and Florida was moving to do the same.
For the governor, Warren’s assertions of prosecutorial discretion were an affront to the conservative principles he was trying to implement in Florida.
DeSantis saw him as one of the progressive prosecutors who had been ascendant in recent years but have faced challenges to their liberal criminal justice policies as crime spiked across the country. The perception is not entirely incorrect, although Warren is not nearly as outspoken as Larry Krasner in Philadelphia or as polarizing as George Gascon in Los Angeles.
But in an increasingly red Florida, he stood out as a beacon — and lightning rod — of liberalism, and not just when it came to issues of gender and reproduction. In the executive order announcing that Warren was suspended, the governor’s office also criticized him for declining to prosecute police stops of bicyclists, a practice criminal justice reformers say targets Black men.
“I was totally blindsided by this,” Warren said of his dismissal. He points out that a Florida judge had struck down the state’s 15-week abortion law, although he neglects to add that the law was reinstated on appeal. He notes that the new rule on gender assignment surgery for children had not been implemented at the time of his public opposition, in the Texas case, to criminalizing the procedure. But it is only a matter of time before Florida health officials, led by the controversial Florida surgeon general Dr. Joseph Ladapo, make that rule final.
As far as Warren is concerned, he was punished for expressing his views — views on cases he had never had to try. “It's like I'm being accused of robbing a bank,” he says. “But the governor is acknowledging I didn't take any money and the bank doesn't even exist yet.”
In many ways, the battle between DeSantis and Warren — which has played out on cable news and social media, and will soon head to the courtroom — is a symbol of the nation’s divisions over sexuality, crime and democracy itself.
“This isn't about the suspension of one elected official. This is about trying to overthrow democracy in the state of Florida,” Warren told Yahoo News. DeSantis has never denounced the baseless, conspiratorial claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Trump, and he is now campaigning with Republican candidates in other states who have enthusiastically made that claim.
Warren is suing DeSantis over his dismissal. But even as he makes his legal case, Warren has made a moral argument that DeSantis is no different from the Trump supporters who stormed the U.S. Capitol to prevent Joe Biden from becoming president. “People tried to overthrow an election on Jan. 6,” he told Yahoo News. “Well, Ron DeSantis overthrew an election on Aug. 4.”
Taryn Fenske, communications director for DeSantis, pointed to the Florida constitution, which does give DeSantis the authority to suspend state officials for “incompetence” and other reasons.
“It’s not surprising Warren, who was suspended for refusing to follow the law, would file a legally baseless lawsuit challenging his suspension,” Fenske told Yahoo News. “We look forward to responding in court.”
DeSantis has gained in popularity with conservatives who feel that progressives have seized control of American public life, not to mention what remains of the country’s tattered culture. Highlighting conservative grievances bubbling up from Twitter, he has battled mask mandates and equity agendas. Supporters have celebrated his administration as “the Free State of Florida,” where onerous coronavirus restrictions and progressive dogma have no traction.
But even some conservatives and libertarians have started to worry that DeSantis’s attacks on corporations, educators and officials like Warren undermine the kind of economic liberalism he claims to support. His hard-edged tactics have won him fans on Twitter, but endorsements from the likes of Alex Jones, the right-wing media host who propagates conspiracy theories, may not help to broaden his national appeal.
Warren says that the notion of Florida as an anti-regulatory, free-speech, free-market paradise is about as fanciful as the kingdom of Oz.
“Gov. DeSantis likes to brag about the so-called Free State of Florida,” Warren says. “But let’s look at the people that he's gone after for speaking out in a way that he disapproved of. First, it was businesses, where he went after Disney and other ‘woke companies,’ whatever that means. Then it was teachers and their ability to talk to students in the classroom. Now he's going after a public servant.
“It sure doesn't seem free to a lot of us.”