July 31, 2019 Atlanta - Fulton County DA Paul Howard talks to the AJC about the new conviction integrity unit which will look at the Leo Frank case and could ultimately result in a posthumous exoneration. August is a month of milestones in the Leo Frank case. This year brings prominent renewed interest and sharp divisions. The superintendent of the National Pencil Company was convicted on Aug 25 1913 for the murder of 13-year-old worker Mary Phagan. Two years later, on Aug 16 1915, a lynch mob furious that Gov. John Slaton had commuted Frank's sentence broke him out of prison and hanged him in Marietta. Frank was posthumously pardoned in 1986 and now the Fulton County DA's office is reexamining the case. Rabbi Steven Lebow and former Gov. Roy Barnes are among the advocates working to fully exonerate Frank. A recent lecture on the case drew a SRO crowd to the Marietta History Museum on the Marietta Square, just up the road from both Mary Phagan's grave and the site where Leo Frank was hanged. The crowd included former AG Sam Olens and members of the Breman Jewish Museum - and Mary Phagan's two great nieces, who are furious at the effort to exonerate Frank. (TYSON HORNE / TYSON.HORNE@AJC.COM)
Photo: Tyson Horne/TYSON HORNE / TYSON.HORNE@AJC.CO
Photo: Tyson Horne/TYSON HORNE / TYSON.HORNE@AJC.CO

The Jolt: A trio of district attorney contests that are worth your attention

Races for district attorney are suddenly all the rage in Georgia. Three in particular. One is Atlanta-centric, another on the coast has been revived by the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. But we’ll start with the one that has disappeared.

On Feb. 5, District Attorney Ken Maudlin, who served in the judicial circuit that includes Athens-Clarke County and Oconee County, resigned effective Feb. 29. His term was up this year. Deborah Gonzalez, a former state House member from Athens, had announced her intention to run for the seat last July.

But as of May 3, 88 days after Maudlin announced his resignation and 64 days after he left office, Gov. Brian Kemp had not filled the vacancy. That’s important.

Under a low-profile measure passed in 2018, if a vacancy for district attorney is filled less than six months before a general election, the election disappears. The gubernatorial appointee doesn’t face the electorate until the next general election cycle – in this case 2022.

If this sounds similar to the situation that allowed the Georgia Supreme Court to endorse the disappearance of a race to fill a vacancy on its own bench, you’re not mistaken. The legislation governing the treatment of district attorney vacancies was designed to imitate it.

But on Monday, Gonzalez and four voters filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law. Here are two paragraphs that crystallize the argument:

[B]ecause the 2018 Law gives the Governor unfettered discretion to determine the timing of his vacancy appointment, the Governor can, and here has, repressed a political process that is already underway, thereby violating the First Amendment rights of candidates and voters.

The Law enables the Governor to consider the viewpoints and political affiliations of potential candidates and the majority of a circuit’s electors in deciding when to fill a vacancy. By withholding his appointment until after May 3, 2020, Governor Kemp forced the cancellation of the 2020 Western Circuit District Attorney election, depriving Plaintiffs of their constitutionally protected First Amendment rights to speech and association.

A lawsuit challenging the disappearance of the state Supreme Court race for the seat being vacated – in mid-November – by Justice Keith Blackwell has also been filed in federal court. 

In Fulton County, the legal problems of Paul Howard, who 1996 became the first African-American elected as district attorney in Georgia, may be turning into Democratic primary head winds.

This month, the GBI opened an investigation into his use of a nonprofit to funnel at least $140,000 in city of Atlanta funds to supplement his salary. He’s also facing a string of allegations from women who once worked for him.

Democrat Fani Willis, a former judge and prosecutor, had raised $123,917.08 as of March 30, compared to Howard’s $54,985. (A third candidate, Christian Dior Wise Smith, reported raising $26,845.)

The financial advantage has allowed Willis to begin airing two 15-second TV ads, beginning today. One has a biographic emphasis. The other is an attack on Howard.

Several current Democratic office-holders have endorsed the primary challenger – never a good sign for an incumbent.

They include Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore; Andre Dickens, an at-large member of the city council, and District 11 Councilwoman Marci Overstreet; state Reps. Derrick Jackson of College Park, Angelika Kausche of Johns Creek, Josh McLaurin of Sandy Springs; state Sen. Jen Jordan of Atlanta; Janice Laws, the former Democratic nominee for insurance commissioner; and Mary Norwood, chairman of the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods.

Finally, there’s the race for district attorney in the Brunswick Judicial Circuit, which has been hobbled by the coronavirus pandemic and roiled by the slaying of Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed as he jogged through a Glynn County neighborhood on Feb. 3. Only this month were a white father-and-son charged with felony murder.

Incumbent Jackie Johnson was the first of two DA’s to recuse themselves from the case – the arrested father had worked as an investigator for her. She has been accused by a pair of Glynn County commissioners of advising local police against charging the two. Johnson has denied doing so.

Johnson, a Republican, was appointed to the position in 2010 by Gov. Sonny Perdue. Brunswick attorney Keith Higgins announced an independent run for Johnson’s seat in January.

The Brunswick News reports that he’ll need at least 4,991 petition signatures to make the November ballot – a figure we haven’t independently confirmed.

On one hand, the Arbery killing has put a new focus on the contest. “It has increased the interest in my candidacy and the frequency and number of signatures I’m getting,” Higgins told us Monday.

But the pandemic has made door-to-door canvassing impossible. The best Higgins has been able to do is to drop off petitions at local business that are open – and hope that customers will sign them.

A July 14 deadline for submitting the signatures to election officials has been extended to Aug. 14, but Higgins is still worried.

“We’re asking the governor several things under his emergency powers. Given the need to get signatures in person and manually obtain them, we’re asking him to do one of two things – either eliminate the requirement altogether, or reduce the number of signatures required,” Higgins said.

***

The New York Times has a piece detailing multi-million dollar GOP plans to focus on “voter security” in November, which tells us that tells us that Stacey Abrams and her Fair Fight Action organization will have a key role in the 2020 campaign — whether or not she’s Democrat Joe Biden’s veep pick. From the newspaper:

The Republican program, which has gained steam in recent weeks, envisions recruiting up to 50,000 volunteers in 15 key states to monitor polling places and challenge ballots and voters deemed suspicious. That is part of a $20 million plan that also allots millions to challenge lawsuits by Democrats and voting-rights advocates seeking to loosen state restrictions on balloting. The party and its allies also intend to use advertising, the internet and Mr. Trump’s command of the airwaves to cast Democrats as agents of election theft.

The efforts are bolstered by a 2018 federal court ruling that for the first time in nearly four decades allows the national Republican Party to mount campaigns against purported voter fraud without court approval. The court ban on Republican Party voter-fraud operations was imposed in 1982, and then modified in 1986 and again in 1990, each time after courts found instances of Republicans intimidating or working to exclude minority voters in the name of preventing fraud. The party was found to have violated it yet again in 2004.

***

Already posted: In a weekend memo, the U.S. Senate campaign of Teresa Tomlinson urged Democratic party leaders not to “squander” the chance to oust U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., by rallying behind rival Jon Ossoff, the investigative journalist and former Sixth District candidate who is leading the public and private polls.

***

A financial disclosure will likely confirm next week that U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., is by far the wealthiest member of Congress. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer, alyssa.pointer@ajc.com

U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler isn’t going anywhere. But the swirling talk about her November viability forced her campaign on the defensive. 

Some politicos were buzzing over the weekend that the new Georgia senator could resign to make way for U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, who is leading in some internal GOP polls and has recently landed some high-profile endorsements. 

They were further stoked by comments from former Georgia congressman Lynn Westmoreland, a Collins ally who said Republican elders needed a “kitchen table” conversation about whether Loeffler’s campaign should go on. 

“The governor made a decision that a woman could definitely help him and the other Republicans on the ticket in the suburbs. I understand his thinking,” Westmoreland said. “But I don’t know that I could find a suburban woman in a year that could relate to having her husband buy her a private plane to take her to the office.”

Loeffler’s campaign swiftly tried to dispel the talk. “Wishful thinking,” said Loeffler consultant Ryan Mahoney to a Fox Business Network reporter who floated the idea. “Total BS,” sniffed her campaign spokesman. 

We’d have to agree. Loeffler just laid out roughly $4 million for a fleet of TV ads meant to rehabilitate her image after damaging news coverage about her stock transactions during the pandemic. 

Her campaign has also recently unloaded new attacks on Collins, a four-term congressman, using a dougcollinsforsenate.com domain name it snapped up. And a recent internal survey from a respected pollster shows a tight race.

Still, the very fact that Loeffler’s aides were forced to respond to the rumors — and that Washington reporters were amplifying talk that she might step down — indicates the challenge ahead. 

*** 

The above quote from former congressman Lynn Westmoreland caught the eye of Janelle King, a veteran Republican strategist and “Georgia Gang” panelist who backs Kelly Loeffler. She told us in an interview:

“That was very underhanded. Women put in a lot of work and time to build a successful career, but when we marry a successful man, there’s an assumption that we put our feet up and relax. That’s the part that really ticked me off...

“As a voting bloc, to think that Collins can win over suburban women by belittling other women, it’s just as bad as thinking Senator Loeffler can’t do it just because she’s wealthy.”

***

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s attack on U.S. Rep. Doug Collins’ allegiance in the 2016 presidential primary appears to have netted him a new endorsement. 

It started with Collins asserting that he was a supporter of President Donald Trump from the onset of the campaign, even though he was an early backer of then-Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's bid.

Loeffler tweeted a link reminding him of that short-lived campaign with a pointed question: "Why were you the chair of Scott Walker’s campaign?” she asked.

“Care to share any stock tips?” he responded.

Soon, Walker offered his bona fides, saying that Collins helped Donald Trump carry Georgia in 2016 and stood with him “since the very start of his presidency.

“@realDonaldTrump had no greater ally in the fight against the partisan impeachment than @CollinsforGA He’s a true conservative!” he wrote. 

By day’s end, Collins tweeted a picture of Walker and other high-profile supporters under the hashtag #conservativecrew. 

***

Georgia isn’t the only state where data surrounding the coronavirus pandemic has come under fire. From the Miami Herald:

The state official managing Florida’s public “dashboard” of COVID-19 data says that her office has been removed from the project — and questioned the Department of Health’s commitment to “accessibility and transparency.”

Rebekah Jones, the geographic information system manager for DOH’s Division of Disease Control and Health Protection, wrote in an email, distributed Friday that authority over the dashboard was taken away from her office on May 5. The sharply worded email, which was shared with the Herald by a recipient of the message, was addressed to users of the state’s data portal, which includes researchers and journalists. It was not clear who replaced her and her staff.

And yet, Charlie Hayslett, author of the Trouble in God’s Country website focusing on rural areas of the state, says we need to cut Georgia tabulators some slack. From his Facebook page:

Yeah, they've made a couple of gaffes, including one that earned them a pretty savage beating in the AJC, but they owned up to and corrected the mistake, as well as criticism for some of their statistical presentations.

But as somebody who does a good bit of work collecting and analyzing large buckets of data, I'm more than a little sympathetic to the difficulty of their challenge. I don't know how DPH has organized its data collection work on this project, but basically it's collecting Covid19 testing, results, and fatality data from 159 counties seven days a week and probably 24 hours a day -- and then reporting it in more or less real time. Stuff is gonna happen.

***

In endorsement news: U.S. Reps. Sanford Bishop, Hank Johnson and David Scott each endorsed the Rev. Raphael Warnock’s campaign for U.S. Senate. 

***

The revelation of a photo of state Rep. Matt Gurtler standing alongside a man with ties to white supremacist groups hasn’t shaken one of his main supporters.

“No change. He has addressed it,” a Club for Growth spokesman told the AJC about its backing of Gurtler, a Republican from Tiger, Ga.

The conservative group’s political arm is even spending $244,000 on a new advertisement that will run on cable and satellite channels in Atlanta and Greenville, S.C., stations. These are the two markets that cover most households in the Ninth District, where Gurtler is making his congressional run.

The ad, titled “Conservative,” describes Gurtler as the best candidate to fight for President Donald Trump’s priorities in Washington.

In a lengthy series of tweets Monday, Gurtler called the scrutiny “sleazy attacks” and blamed news media and “unprincipled actors” who support the status quo. 

“I don’t like giving them a platform for their hate and lies but let me be clear: I abhor bigotry and hate of any kind. Racism doesn’t have any place in our community.” 

***

Jill Biden, wife of former vice president and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, is holding virtual campaign events in Georgia.

The events Thursday include virtual coffee with frontline workers in Albany, a listening session with Atlanta educators and an organizing event with campaign volunteers and supporters.

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