"Weak dictator": Ousted elected Dem prosecutors fire back at "small, scared man" Ron DeSantis

"This is the new voter suppression," ex-NAACP Legal Defense Fund chief Sherrilyn Ifill warned

By Tatyana Tandanpolie

Staff Writer

Published August 9, 2023 2:13PM (EDT)

Republican candidate for president Governor Ron DeSantis speaks during the Republican Party of Iowa 2023 Lincoln Dinner at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, Iowa, Friday, July 28, 2023. (Rebecca S. Gratz for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Republican candidate for president Governor Ron DeSantis speaks during the Republican Party of Iowa 2023 Lincoln Dinner at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, Iowa, Friday, July 28, 2023. (Rebecca S. Gratz for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday announced he suspended State Attorney Monique Worrell, a Black Democrat and elected prosecutor for Orange and Osceola counties, on the grounds that she failed to pursue stronger charges in serious cases.

The 2024 presidential candidate took a brief break from his campaign to return to the Florida Capitol and announce Worrell's suspension with Attorney General Ashley Moody and Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Mark Glass at his sides, according to the Tallahassee Democrat.

"Prosecutors have a duty to faithfully enforce the law," DeSantis said in the announcement. "One's political agenda cannot trump this solemn duty." 

DeSantis declared that Federalist Society member Andrew Bain, an Orange County judge who is also Black, will serve as state attorney for the 9th Judicial Circuit in Worrell's absence. 

Worrell in response vowed to challenge the move in court and run for re-election while addressing a crowd outside her office in Orlando.

"If we're mourning anything this morning, it is the loss of democracy," she said. "I am your duly elected state attorney for the 9th Judicial Circuit and nothing done by a weak dictator can change that."

The attorney's brief pause was filled with the applause and cheers of her audience.

"This is an outrage," she added.

DeSantis took no questions following his announcement and was accompanied by Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd and Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey, who bounced praise of the governor's actions between pauses for applause from DeSantis supporters in attendance.

Judd went on to hold up a placard that splices an image of Worrell into a burning cartoon house saying, "This is fine," a modification of a viral meme that instead features a cartoon dog. 

"None of this would have been possible if we didn't have a governor, Gov. DeSantis, who said 'I'm going to do what's right,'" Judd said of the appointment of Bain.

Worrell has been the subject of Central Florida law enforcement criticism for declining to bring more serious charges against people in several high-profile shootings and other violent crime cases. In his announcement, DeSantis cited a series of cases over the past two years in Worrell's circuit where individuals accused of gun crimes, drug-trafficking and other offenses received reduced sentences, lesser charges or had charges dismissed altogether.

During her press conference, however, Worrell pushed back, arguing that crime in her circuit has decreased.

In April, Worrell accused the governor of pursuing "this witch-hunt to establish a basis for the removal of another duly-elected prosecutor" after she learned that a Central Florida Republican Party official had sought prosecution data from her office in connection to human trafficking cases. 

DeSantis' suspension of Worrell is "another illegal and unconstitutional attack on democracy by a small, scared man who is desperate to save his political career," according to former Florida State Attorney Andrew Warren. DeSantis removed Warren, a twice-elected Democrat in Tampa, from his position last year after Warren signed pledges asserting he would not pursue criminal charges against people seeking or providing abortion or gender transition treatments, alongside policies that lower the chance of charges for certain low-level crimes.

Warren challenged his removal in a federal lawsuit in September. Though U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled in January that DeSantis' move against the prosecutor violated the state's and the country's Constitutions, Hinkle said he lacked the authority to reinstate Warren.

Worrell was elected in 2020 with 67 percent of the vote in Orange and Osceola counties. On her office's website, she outlines the office of the state attorney's goals.

"While engaging in the day-to-day prosecutorial function, we likewise seek to reform and improve the criminal justice system by measuring success in the courtroom and the community," the site said.

We need your help to stay independent

She succeeded Aramis Ayala, who had been Florida's first Black state attorney. Ayala, a Democrat, had also been at odds with DeSantis' predecessor, then-governor and now Sen. Rick Scott, over her refusal to pursue the death penalty in capital cases, prompting him to reassign more than two dozen cases. 

The Republican attorney general whom Ayala had unsuccessfully challenged last year, Moody, made a case against Worrell, saying that she had dismissed over 16,000 charges against defendants in the past year, more than any other Florida state attorney. She noted that those dismissals were significant in comparison to that in Palm Beach County, where Democrat Dave Aronberg serves, which had a quarter of the number of dismissals.

"Officers may arrest you, they risk their lives arresting you. But if you're in the 9th Circuit, nearly half the time, the state attorney will not follow through," Moody said. "That is incredibly dangerous to people in the 9th Circuit." 

For DeSantis, Worrell's suspension comes a day after he overhauled his presidential campaign, replacing his campaign manager with his governor's office chief-of-staff as he continues his bid for the Oval Office. 

DeSantis appeared to have been building a case against Worrell for some time with his general counsel demanding at the end of February that Worrell turn over emails, reports and documents connected to a 19-year-old man accused of killing three people in Orlando.

The governor had decried her earlier prosecutions of the suspect, who had a record of arrests as a juvenile and was on probation when he allegedly committed a shooting spree. The general counsel wrote Worrell asking how the suspect was permitted to "remain on the streets after multiple arrests, including one your office has refused to prosecute."

DeSantis described his Wednesday actions as an effort to bring prosecutions in the Democratic-leaning 9th Judicial District into compliance with state laws.

"Prosecutors do have a certain amount of discretion about which cases to bring and which not, but with what this state attorney has done is abuse that discretion and it effectively nullifies certain laws in the state of Florida," DeSantis said.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

Florida State Rep. Anna V. Eskamani, a Democrat, decried DeSantis' removal of Worrell as "another example of his extreme anti-Democratic stances" on X, formerly known as Twitter, emphasizing that Worrell was the only Black woman serving in that office in the entire state at this time.

Worrell's "removal is a complete slap in the face to Orange and Osceola County residents and another example of Governor DeSantis eroding our local control and democracy," Eskamani wrote in the statement. "This politically motivated action by the Governor in a predominantly democratic part of the state should alarm everyone.

"DeSantis is extreme, unfit to serve, and must be held accountable," she concluded.

"Over 60% of voters in Orange County voted for Rent Stabilization and then Gov DeSantis essentially overturned it. Over 60% of voters in Orange/Osceola County vote @MoniqueHWorrell for State Attorney, then Gov DeSantis removes her from office," U.S. Rep. Maxwell Alejandro Frost, D-Fla., tweeted. "Fascist Gov DeSantis hates Democracy."

Sherrilyn Ifill, former president of the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund, called DeSantis' move "the new voter suppression."

"He accuses this D.A. of neglect while he travels around the country collecting $ for his personal fantasy of being president - while still no solution to the housing insurance crisis, leprosy on the rise, teachers are leaving the profession, & residents [leaving] the state," she added. "Disgrace."

By Tatyana Tandanpolie

Tatyana Tandanpolie is a staff writer at Salon. Born and raised in central Ohio, she moved to New York City in 2018 to pursue degrees in Journalism and Africana Studies at New York University. She is currently based in her home state and has previously written for local Columbus publications, including Columbus Monthly, CityScene Magazine and The Columbus Dispatch.

MORE FROM Tatyana Tandanpolie

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Aggregate Politics Ron Desantis