Update: As expected, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp did not do the right thing. He let the deadline expire, thereby cancelling a special election and assuring that his appointee will serve more than two years without facing the voters. Check back for more on this.
Action item: Call the governor at 404-656-1776 and tell him to appoint a district attorney TODAY so that his home folks can have a voice on the issue in November. But you’ll have to do it soon.
By Jonathan Grant
Deborah Gonzalez saw this coming. On Feb. 5, Western Judicial Circuit District Attorney Ken Mauldin announced his resignation effective February 29, rather than serve out his term to the end of this year. Thanks to a nasty piece of legislation the General Assembly passed in 2018, this gave Gov. Brian Kemp an option. He could do the right thing by the citizens of his hometown of Athens by quickly appointing a district attorney, who would presumably seek election Nov. 3. The deadline for such action is today. Tick-Tock.
Or Kemp could wait and appoint the DA later. If he made his pick closer than six months to the general election, that person wouldn’t have to be on the ballot until November 2022. This may not have been fully understood by some legislators who voted for House Bill 907, although most House Democrats must have had an inkling: They voted against it, but the bill sailed through the Senate almost unanimously. The AJC’s Jim Galloway wrote an excellent piece on House Bill 907, headlined “The case of the disappearing race for Douglas County district attorney.” Unfortunately, it was after the fact.
The bill’s sponsor was Barry Fleming (R-Harlem), who also pushed through Georgia’s problematic new voting system in the 2019 session. The bill was meant to do one thing, as Fleming described it: make the appointment process for filling district attorney vacancies the same as for judicial vacancies.
There’s a deep flaw there, since DA positions are not the same at all as judicial positions, and shouldn’t be treated as such. For one thing, DA races are partisan; judicial races are not. Extending a judicial term two years does not (in theory, at least) create a partisan advantage, while extending a DA’s term certainly does in the two instances discussed here. While judges interpret the law, district attorneys function in an executive and policy-making role, which should call for more accountability.to voters.
And here’s a glimpse at how this piece of sausage was made. Galloway noted:
Fleming’s presentation to the Senate Judiciary Committee lasted all of 90 seconds. At no point was Fleming pressed to disclose this wrinkle: If a governor fills a vacant district attorney position within six months of a term’s end, the impending vote would be delayed until the following general election — “even if such period of time extends beyond the unexpired term of the prior district attorney,” according to the bill.
And thanks to Georgia’s 1983 Constitution’s provision on judicial appointments, that means another two years, until the next general election.
Once passed, the bill was quickly signed into law. Gov. Nathan Deal had appointed Republican Douglas County District Attorney Brian Fortner to a state court judgeship on March 2, and two people had signed up to run in a special election to replace Fortner: his chief assistant, Republican Ryan Leonard, and Democrat Dalia Racine, a woman of color. Deal waited until May 10–less than six months before the election–to appoint Leonard, prompting this headline in the Marietta Daily Journal: “Leonard appointment takes Douglas DA selection from voters this year.”
One of HB 907’s co-sponsors, former GOP Rep. Buzz Brockway, told Galloway he regretted signing on to the bill: “‘I had no clue there was a district attorney’s race that was imminent,’ Brockway said. ‘I certainly didn’t know what was going on in Douglas County–this is not what I had in mind.’”
But somebody had something in mind, because Republicans had seen the writing on the wall. In November 2018, Douglas voted nearly 60 percent Democratic. And in 2019, Leonard would express his willingness to prosecute women under the provisions of HB 481, Georgia’s infamous abortion ban (the woman’s husbands or boyfriends, not so much). For some reason, he decided not to stand for election in 2020. Racine, who had come close to defeating Fortner in 2014, is running for the office unopposed this year.
Georgia Republicans can only stave off the inevitable for so long by rigging the system. And the Purpling and Bluing of Georgia will be the trend in coming years, which is why we’re seeing these power grabs affecting the state’s judicial systems, similar to Mitch McConnell’s court-packing plan at the federal level. Kemp is also locked in a contentious court case following his theft by cancellation of a Supreme Court election. That’s currently locked up in the State Supreme Court, with two other federal suits on the same issue.
“The ultimate in voter suppression”
Back to Kemp and the situation in Athens. Unfortunately, the odds that he’d do the right thing when there’s a partisan advantage to be had are extremely low. But I could be wrong here. Sure, there’s always that chance, right?
Gonzalez, a former state representative who voted against HB 907, had to feel a pang when she learned of Mauldin’s resignation, especially given its timing. It is hard not to see conspiracy when it’s designed to short-circuit candidate qualifying. “It’s the ultimate in voter suppression,” she said, just as John Barrow did when Kemp recently cancelled that Georgia Supreme Court election on the eve of qualifying.
An attorney who specializes in digital technology and entertainment law, Gonzalez won her seat in a special House election in 2017 as part of Georgia’s outrage wave that made Jonathan Wallace the winner in a neighboring district and put Jen Jordan in the state Senate. Gonzalez was appointed to the Non-Civil Judiciary Committee, where she developed a deep interest in criminal justice and its reform. After losing her re-election bid to Houston Gaines, she set her sights on the district attorney’s office. Gonzalez announced her candidacy on July 11, 2019, and soon learned Mauldin was not happy to hear she was running.
Like Racine, Gonzalez is a progressive woman of color, and like Douglas County, the Western Judicial Circuit (Clarke and Oconee counties) is about 60 percent Democratic. Clarke is one of the bluest counties in Georgia. While Oconee County is red, it isn’t as populous. The Democratic margin in the district is about 10,000 votes. While Acting District Attorney Brian Patterson announced last year he was running as a Democrat, Gonzalez doesn’t think he is one. It’s interesting that his campaign website doesn’t mention his affiliation, making his party loyalty somewhat suspect. In any case, Gonzalez would be the favorite to win, having already run a well-financed House race and running as a progressive in a lefty college town. “My platform is full of restorative justice,” she said. Check out her website for more on that.
So, Gonzalez would bring reform and shake things up. That’s always a problem for certain people. “We had a good old boys network that was very well off with he status quo, who looked at me as the outsider coming in to change things. I’d be the first woman prosecutor in the area, the first Latina district attorney in the history of Georgia. I am very outspoken and progressive. I’m definitely not the status quo, and they knew because of how I’d worked in the legislature, they wouldn’t be able to pick up the phone and call me to get what they want. And that’s the bottom line.”
Which would be ample reason for Brian Kemp to steal an election.
As mentioned, Gonzalez saw this coming and within two days of Mauldin’s resignation announcement, she called on Kemp to appoint a new DA on a timely basis, thereby triggering a Nov. 3l election. She also launched a petition drive that collected more than 1,200 signatures, which was delivered to the governor’s office Feb. 18.
Among other things, the petition stated:
The people of Georgia have witnessed systemic voter suppression for decades and they must not have this election stolen from them. Issues of criminal justice reform and mass incarceration are too important for the people to wait more than two more years to have a voice in who their next DA will be. Take this opportunity to redeem your legacy when it comes to voters’ rights. The people of Athens-Clarke and Oconee Counties have the right to vote for their next District Attorney of the Western Judicial Circuit. Governor Kemp, we call upon you to do the right thing and ensure voters can decide for themselves: Meet the May 3rd deadline to appoint a successor and schedule a Special Election for November, 2020.
Gonzalez said that interviews for prospective DA candidates were scheduled, but she didn’t apply for the job,because she believes that choice should be put to the voter. But that didn’t matter, either, because the interviews were cancelled, she said.
Nevertheless, Gonzalez persists. She’s drawn support from Mokah Johnson, who’s running for Gonzalez’s old House seat, Fair Fight, House Minority Leader Bob Trammell and Athens State Rep. Spencer Frye, among others, but the odds are against her and the voters. While the old boys may have the power to delay justice, Gonzalez says she’ll run in 2022 if that’s what it takes, and I wouldn’t bet against her then.
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