Fulton County prosecutor Fani Willis and judge in Trump 2020 election case draw primary challengers

While races like these rarely attract national attention, the intense scrutiny on the 2020 election interference case lead by Willis has pushed them into the spotlight

ATLANTA (AP) — A progressive Democrat and a Republican who briefly worked in Donald Trump’s administration entered the Fulton County district attorney’s race Friday in an attempt to oust Fani Willis, who has been the subject of scrutiny and tense public testimony and is awaiting a judge’s decision on whether she’ll be removed from the Georgia election interference case against the former president.

Attorney Christian Wise Smith, who ran against Willis four years ago, is challenging her in the May Democratic primary election. Courtney Kramer, who said she interned in the White House counsel’s office under Trump for three months in 2018, was the only Republican to qualify by the noon Friday deadline. The general election is in November.

Meanwhile, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee, who’s presiding over the election interference case, drew two challengers for his nonpartisan race in May: Robert Patillo, a civil rights attorney, and Tiffani Johnson, a staff attorney for another Fulton County judge.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis looks on during a hearing on the Georgia election interference case, Friday, March, 1, 2024, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Alex Slitz, Pool, File)

While races like these rarely attract national attention, the intense scrutiny on the 2020 election interference case has pushed them into the spotlight. Willis obtained an indictment in August against Trump and 18 others, accusing them of illegally trying to overturn his election loss to Democrat Joe Biden in the state. But those charges have been overshadowed for the last two months by the focus on the romantic relationship Willis had with a special prosecutor in the case and whether that should disqualify her from pursuing the prosecution.

Willis and Wise Smith, who had both worked in the Fulton County district attorney’s office under then-District Attorney Paul Howard, challenged their former boss in the Democratic primary in 2020. Willis then beat Howard in a runoff and ran unopposed in the November general election that year.

Just a day after she took office, on Jan. 2, 2021, Trump made a rambling phone call to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger urging Georgia’s top elections official, a fellow Republican, to help “find 11,780 votes” needed to overturn his narrow loss to Biden. The following month, Willis announced her investigation into possible “attempts to influence” Georgia’s general election.

Trump and his allies have decried the investigation and resulting indictment as a politically motivated attack on him. Those criticisms have only increased as intimate details of Willis’ romance with special prosecutor Nathan Wade have come out in recent court filings and dramatic hearings, with attorneys for Trump and other defendants alleging that she improperly benefited when Wade used his earnings to pay for vacations.

Some progressive Democrats have also criticized Willis over the election case and several high-profile racketeering cases involving well-known rap artists, arguing that they’re eating up court resources while people languish in the overcrowded, dangerous Fulton County Jail. Even some of her close allies and supporters have questioned her judgment after the relationship with Wade was revealed.

Willis’ campaign website touts her “major indictments against gang leaders,” a “transparent process” for handling cases that involve police officers and a program for mentoring schoolchildren.

“I’ve said it before, being the district attorney of Fulton County is the greatest honor of my entire life,” Willis told reporters Wednesday after qualifying to run. “I love this community. It’s my home. It’s where I raised my children. It’s where I want to keep safe.”

Wise Smith told reporters he filed to run to keep his options open, saying “we’re going to see how things go over these next couple of weeks and then we’ll make a call.”

“Ultimately I want what’s best for the citizens of Fulton County,” he said. “And when the time is right, my team and I will make the right decision and we’ll be ready to go should we officially launch.”

Kramer told reporters at the state Capitol on Friday that the district attorney’s office under Willis “has been a complete disgrace” and “a clown show.” She accused Willis of “using her office for political reasons,” saying the Trump indictment prompted her to run.

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“The resources that were used for that investigation could have been used for many other things that would have been much more beneficial for the citizens of Fulton County, and I want to give those citizens a voice, an opportunity to vote for somebody else,” she said.

But in heavily Democratic Fulton County, with widespread name recognition and a sizeable campaign account, Willis will likely prove hard to beat.

A critical juncture in her tenure as district attorney is expected to come by the end of next week. That’s when McAfee has said he expects to rule on the efforts to oust her from the election case.

McAfee, who previously worked as both a federal and a state prosecutor, took the bench just over a year ago after Republican Gov. Brian Kemp appointed him to fill a vacancy. Little known before he was randomly selected for the election case, he has drawn broad praise for his even-keeled handling of the complex matter.

His campaign website says his priorities are: clearing the backlog of cases still remaining from the COVID-19 pandemic, providing a path forward for nonviolent offenders and holding violent offenders accountable. He also says he’s committed to transparency, pledging to continue live-streaming courtroom proceedings on YouTube.

In an email, McAfee said he looks forward to proving to voters that “my track record shows I am the best candidate to provide Fulton County with efficient, unbiased, and nonpartisan application of the law.”

Patillo said the core tenets of his campaign are “competency, compassion and change.” He said he wants to challenge the “prosecutor-to-the-bench pipeline” and ensure “an equitable system that is interested in actually getting to the truth and not just having plea deals and moving cases along.”

He said his decision to challenge McAfee isn’t personal and has nothing to do with his handling of the election case. He said the fact that McAfee was not previously elected and has only been on the bench a short time were factors he considered.

Johnson, McAfee’s other challenger, did not immediately respond Friday to a message sent to her campaign email address seeking comment.

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