'Deportation bus’ candidate’s rocky ride began long before criminal charges

Michael Williams, a GOP candidate for Georgia governor in 2018, and his "deportation bus." (Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Michael Williams, a GOP candidate for Georgia governor in 2018, and his "deportation bus." (Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

From the moment Michael Williams entered the race for Georgia governor, he seemed determined to defy attempts to treat him seriously.

At his first big speech, a June 2017 address to the state GOP convention in Augusta, the Republican state senator alleged that Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle's allies offered him a plum committee assignment to keep him on the sidelines.

He promised time and again to provide proof, but never did. One fellow senator called it a “fantasy.” Cagle, then the front-runner, was spotted shortly after Williams’ speech at a gas station on the way back to Atlanta. He laughed out loud when apprised of Williams’ claim.

Williams' troubles didn't end with a last-place finish in May's Republican primary. He was charged last week in Hall County with making a false report that computer servers were stolen from his campaign office shortly before the vote.

The senator's attorney, A.J. Richman, said Saturday that his office's investigators are delving into the case and awaiting more details from prosecutors. He said Williams, who has declined to comment, is innocent.

For Williams, the charges were an ignominious cap to a forgettable campaign that once had at least a hint of credibility.

He had ties to Donald Trump as the first state official to endorse the president, an upset victory in the state Senate, personal wealth and a say-anything candor he put to use pummeling Cagle at a time when few others dared to do so.

But Williams and his campaign manager Seth Weathers, a controversial figure who briefly led Trump's Georgia campaign, settled on a strategy that focused not on cultivating a base of voters but instead on a series of ill-fated publicity stunts.

He raffled off a deadly bump stock device after it was used in a mass shooting. He enlisted a TV reality figure to promote his call for increased police pay. He led a protest against a teacher who told a student to leave her classroom because he was wearing a T-shirt supporting Trump.

There was plenty more, including a much-distributed picture he took in June with a militia group and a series of rocky interviews with CNN. And he relentlessly targeted Cagle, including a much-hyped press conference at the Statehouse promising "corroborating" details about dirt on the lieutenant governor.

The event was a flop, though it could have been worse: Cagle's campaign considered hiring a team of clowns to join Williams.

Occasionally, Williams would veer toward more serious messages. He shared deeply personal stories about his father's suicide and the need for more mental health funding. He was one of the most vocal Republican supporters of a medical marijuana expansion.

But that side of his campaign was vastly overshadowed by the quest for attention and outrage that Weathers and Williams believed would move the electoral needle.

The opposite happened. By the time Williams launched a "deportation bus tour" with a gray-painted vehicle emblazoned with a sign to "fill this bus with illegals," he had become a full-fledged sideshow.

When the bus broke down on the side of a highway, it seemed a coda to a campaign that had gone off the rails: He was not, as he hoped to be, the candidate that Democrats and Republicans loved to hate. He was the candidate they delighted in ignoring.

So it was little surprise that his colleagues were silent this week after he was indicted by Hall County prosecutors.

The charges were linked to a May incident in which Williams reported that thieves lifted computer servers being used to mine cryptocurrency from his office.

The only ally who stepped forward was Weathers, his erstwhile aide, who called the indictment a "witch hunt" and mused that authorities in deep-red Hall County must be hankering for payback against a "fearless conservative."

Even Williams doesn’t want that kind of backup.

The senator told politicos shortly after the runoff that he had cut ties with Weathers, and his attorney reinforced that position. Richman made clear Saturday that Weathers’ comments “do not reflect my team’s position.”

Williams will remain in public office for a few more weeks. There was some talk about a move to formally eject him from the chamber, but doing so would require a two-thirds vote. And the next time senators meet is on Jan. 14 — the same day his successor, Greg Dolezal, will be sworn into office.

That’s likely little consolation to Williams.

Prosecutors have declined to comment on the specifics of the case, but Hall County District Attorney Lee Darragh allowed this much: As Christmas approaches, the senator is making arrangements to turn himself in to authorities.