Fulton DA Fani Willis faces two challengers in reelection bid

Judge overseeing Trump case has also drawn a pair of opponents
Fani Willis qualifies to run for office on Wednesday, March. 6, 2024, at the Georgia State Capitol.  (Steve Schaefer/steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer/AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer/AJC

Fani Willis qualifies to run for office on Wednesday, March. 6, 2024, at the Georgia State Capitol. (Steve Schaefer/steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis drew two challengers on Friday as her critics try to make her pay a price at the ballot box for her election interference case against former President Donald Trump as well as allegations of an improper romantic relationship with a deputy that threaten to derail her work.

A pair of opponents have also lined up to run against the judge overseeing the case, a sign of how politically polarizing the high-profile prosecution has become.

Christian Wise Smith qualified to challenge Willis in the Democratic primary on May 21. A progressive former Fulton prosecutor and city solicitor, he finished in third-place to Willis in the 2020 race for Fulton DA. He also waged a failed campaign for attorney general in 2022.

Meanwhile, attorney Courtney Kramer filed paperwork to run for the seat as a Republican. She worked as a litigation consultant for Trump’s legal team after the 2020 election and helped handle other election-related matters for state GOP legislators and the Georgia Republican Party.

Willis is the odds-on favorite. Fulton County is a Democratic stronghold, and she is one of the most recognizable political figures in the state, if not the nation. She has the advantage of incumbency and amassed a small fortune in her campaign account.

But Wise Smith and Kramer could still present her a political headache by trying to turn the race into a proxy fight over her racketeering case that charged Trump and 18 others with conspiring to overturn President Joe Biden’s narrow 2020 victory in Georgia.

And they could bring more scrutiny to Willis’ personal relationship with special prosecutor Nathan Wade that’s at the center of efforts by Trump and several of his co-defendants to remove her from the case.

‘What’s best’

Wise Smith received about 23% of the Democratic vote in the 2020 primary for Fulton DA. He ran on a platform that included vows to no longer seek the death penalty, eliminate cash bail and decriminalize drug possession.

He went on to endorse District Attorney Paul Howard in the runoff, saying he was particularly troubled that Willis had received the support of the Atlanta Police Union. Willis easily defeated Howard, a six-term incumbent, in a head-to-head runoff.

Wise Smith told the AJC Friday he is still “weighing his options” about how vigorously to pursue his challenge this time around, indicating he could wait for the outcome of the disqualification effort before deciding whether he needs to wage a more concerted campaign.

“It’s a necessary first step. I had to take that step, or else I can’t run. But a lot of how we move forward is going to be determined by the outcome of that case,” he said in an interview, declining to comment further about Willis.

“Ultimately, I just want what’s best for Fulton County.”

Atlanta lawyer Christian Wise Smith is a candidate in the 2020 race to be Fulton County district attorney. (credit: Facebook)

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He would likely try to paint Willis as too conservative in a primary. In 2020, he endorsed a “restorative justice” approach to criminal justice, which emphasizes alternatives to incarceration such as accountability courts that treat substance abuse and mental illness.

Two years later, in the Democratic primary for attorney general, Wise Smith was crushed by then-state Sen. Jen Jordan, who won the party’s nomination with more than 77% of the vote.

‘Clown show’

Republicans were aggressively seeking a candidate to run against Willis, if only to force the Democrat on the defensive. After Kramer qualified on Friday, Georgia GOP chair Josh McKoon said she would put an end to the “nakedly political prosecution” against the former president and his allies.

Kramer appears to have a history with Trump loyalists. Records indicate that, in her capacity as an election attorney, she previously worked with two defendants in the election interference case, former state GOP chairman David Shafer and attorney Ray Smith. A former law school classmate, now a law professor in Pennsylvania, surfaced a picture on social media that showed Kramer in the background of the room where Georgia Republicans cast Electoral College ballots for Trump in December 2020.

Kramer told reporters on Friday that Willis had turned the DA’s office into a “clown show.”

“The moment she decided to indict President Trump and 18 other defendants was the moment I said I had enough,” said Kramer. “The resources that were used in that investigation could’ve been used for many other things and been much more beneficial for the citizens of Fulton County.”

Judicial contest grows

Willis is one of several key figures in the case who will face a ballot challenge this year. Fulton Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee has drawn opposition from civil rights attorney and talk radio host Robert Patillo and Tiffani Johnson, a senior staff attorney for Fulton County Atlanta Judicial Circuit Judge Melynee Leftridge.

Patillo, the former executive director of Rev. Jesse Jackson’s civil rights organization the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, has pushed back against speculation that he was drafted by Willis’ allies to run against the judge to pressure him to rule against disqualifying her from the Trump case. Patillo said he had been thinking of running for the seat before McAfee was even appointed and that he “didn’t particularly get along” with Willis while working against her as a defense attorney.

“I think it’s very much I would rather people look at my record as opposed to my race when making these determinations about my motivation for running,” he told WSB Radio’s Shelley Wynter on Wednesday.

Speaking to the same radio host a day later, McAfee said he would not let any sort of outside pressure impact his decision on whether to remove Willis and her office from the Trump case.

“No job is worth my integrity,” he said. “I’ve got two kids, 5 and 3. They’re too young to have any idea of what’s going on or what I do. But what I’m looking forward to one day is maybe they will grow up a little bit and they ask me about it. I’m looking forward to looking them in the eye and telling them I played it straight and I did the best I could.”

The judicial race is nonpartisan. The fact that there are three candidates raises the potential that the contest goes to a runoff in mid-June.

Willis, meanwhile, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution earlier this week she is unconcerned by the prospect of a political challenger.

“This is a democracy that we live in, so people have a right to run for office. But they should come prepared for a fight,” she said. “They should know that my heart is still in this work. My heart will continue to be in this work.”

Staff writer Michelle Baruchman contributed to this report.