TAMPA — Since Susan Lopez’s whirlwind appointment in August as Hillsborough County’s acting state attorney, the controversies have been large and small.
The biggest, of course, was Gov. Ron DeSantis’ surprise removal of then-State Attorney Andrew Warren. The governor accused the twice-elected prosecutor of refusing to enforce certain laws, while Warren called his ouster political payback. Now he’s suing DeSantis in federal court to get his job back.
Also controversial have been the changes Lopez wasted no time making, including rolling back Warren’s policies on not prosecuting certain non-violent misdemeanors or arrests that resulted from an officer stopping a bicyclist — locally known as ‘biking while Black’. Those policies were cited in the governor’s order removing Warren.
“We’re getting back to basics,” Lopez said.
Her changes have been applauded by some but condemned by others who say Lopez is making criminal justice decisions — as monumental as whether to seek the death penalty — without having won a single vote from the people of Hillsborough County.
“Anything involving whatever got me here — I answered a call to service,” Lopez said in a recent hour-long interview with the Tampa Bay Times about her sudden career change and what’s come next. “I am here.”
As the county’s top prosecutor, Lopez oversees 331 lawyers, investigators and other staff — a position she is expected to hold at least until after Warren’s Nov. 29 trial in Tallahassee in his bid to get his job back, longer if the judge’s decision is appealed, and through 2025 if Warren loses.
Lopez said she has been warmly welcomed “with open arms” back to the office where she worked as a prosecutor for 17 years. She visits the courtrooms daily and said she “absolutely” plans to try cases herself.
“I’m home,” she said.
A South Tampa native, she attended Tampa Preparatory School and Plant High and got her law degree from Suffolk University Law School in Boston. She’s single, and in a 2021 judicial application cited involvement in the Junior League of Tampa and St. John’s Episcopal Church.
These days, Lopez, 45, appears fully ensconced in the job. Days before Hurricane Ian, as workers were sandbagging the doors to a mostly deserted courthouse, she was at her sprawling desk, sipping a can of Fresca and wearing white sneakers in deference to the weather.
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A photo of her and Mark Ober — the sitting state attorney she supported when Warren narrowly defeated him in 2016 — is tucked in the corner of her desk. Most people call her Suzy.
“There was a rumor I was going to insist on being called Susan,” Lopez said.
On a coat tree, alongside a fluorescent vest to wear at traffic homicide scenes, hang her judicial robes — a reminder of the job she abruptly left at the governor’s request.
Lopez had submitted her name for a judicial appointment four times before DeSantis put her on the county court bench in 2021.
“I loved being a judge,” she said.
That judicial appointment prompted her to name her female English bulldog Rhonda Santis. Like the governor, the new dog was “changing my life,” she said.
A second bulldog she named August after “the craziest month in my life” when she was suddenly state attorney.
Did Lopez think becoming a judge would be the pinnacle of her legal career? “Until I got the call,” she said, “yes.”
Had she ever wanted to be state attorney? “I’m going to be honest — it was something I had not thought about,” she said.
A personnel move noticed by those closely watching Warren’s ouster and its aftermath was the presence of Fred Piccolo, a former communications director for DeSantis, after Lopez took over.
Gary Weisman, chief of staff for Warren and now Lopez, said the office had been working with an outside communications consultant under Warren. But that consultant left to work with Warren when Warren got suspended.
Weisman said he knew Piccolo, and it was he and not the governor who brought him in. He said Piccolo was in the office for one or two weeks after Lopez got appointed. Piccolo is not employed there but works on an on-call basis, Weisman said.
As happens with a new boss, small things at the beginning can get employees’ attention. Such as the pantyhose controversy.
Rumors rippled through the courthouse that prosecutors who wear skirted suits for jury trials would also be required to put on hosiery — legwear that many have avoided in recent years. (The New York Times’ fashion director referred to hose as “a giant generational, occupational and cultural lightning rod,” and the Detroit Free Press headlined a 2015 style article “Why pantyhose will never make a comeback.”)
But Lopez said that as “a gentle reminder,” she had reissued via email the general office dress code that has been in place since 2014 — which includes the pantyhose-in-trial requirement. Lopez said she “would like people to follow it,” but does not plan to police pantyhose.
“No one’s ever been disciplined for failing to wear pantyhose in trial,” Lopez said. That “will continue.”
Until Warren’s case is resolved, Lopez will no doubt be under a microscope. After his suspension, Warren referred to her as “a Ron DeSantis accomplice.”
Lopez says she largely tunes out what’s happening politically and with Warren’s quest for reinstatement. “I am told what I need to be told, but I can’t get bogged down in it,” she said.
If Warren gets the job back, would she again seek a judgeship? Lopez won’t say.
“This is my focus. This is my life right now,” she said. “I am moving forward one day at a time.”
Staff writer Dan Sullivan contributed to this report.