Once reticent, Democrats are again rallying around Fani Willis

Key Democrats didn’t forcefully defend the DA after a codefendant argued she was in an improper relationship. That began to change during the two-day hearing that could shape the future of Fulton County’s case against Donald Trump.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens bounded into the Fulton County Courthouse on Friday and took a conspicuous seat in the second row of the cramped courtroom, on the same row where a handful of other prominent Democrats were already stationed.

To his right sat former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin. Charlie Bailey, the party’s 2022 nominee for lieutenant governor, was a few seats over. And former Gov. Roy Barnes, the state’s last Democratic chief executive, was about to testify at the behest of District Attorney Fani Willis.

Dickens only stayed a short time, but he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that his visit to the high-stakes legal showdown was meant to send a clear message.

“Fani Willis is not on trial,” the first-term mayor said after he returned to City Hall. “We know who is on trial. Donald Trump is on trial for trying to steal an election. Women are under attack across this country, and she does not need to feel alone in the courtroom.”

Many senior Democrats were reticent to speak in defense of Willis after a Jan. 8 motion alleged she was in an improper relationship with special prosecutor Nathan Wade, who she hired to handle the racketeering case against Trump and his allies.

In the days after Trump codefendant Michael Roman filed the legal claim alleging misconduct, which Willis later forcefully denied, key Democrats held their fire rather than rush to Willis’ defense. Some Willis allies who spoke out simply called for patience.

But many Democrats aren’t so reluctant to back Willis anymore. Senior party leaders and their allies started to rally around Willis during the extraordinary two-day evidentiary hearing on Roman’s claims, which included hours of Willis’ raw, emotional testimony.

State Sen. Elena Parent of Atlanta, one of the chamber’s top Democrats, said the legal back-and-forth “produced nothing that shows the case was brought for any reason other than its merits.”

And state Rep. Sam Park, a senior party leader in the House, said the proceedings only confirmed that the accusations against Willis were “nothing more than a scheme to mislead and distract the American public.”

Bailey, a longtime Willis confidante whose wife serves on her communications staff, isn’t surprised to see the circling of the wagons.

“People saw in this hearing Fani’s grace, determination and genuineness — the very same qualities voters saw when they elected her the district attorney.”

And many other Democrats expressed confidence that Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee would reject the motion by defense attorneys to disqualify Willis from prosecuting the case on grounds that the district attorney’s romantic relationship with Wade is a conflict of interest.

Fred Hicks, a veteran Democratic strategist, said the hearings feel to many like “smoke and mirrors designed to distract” attention from the case against Trump.

“This does not mean Democrats condone the relationship, but, to this point, it feels as if she has had to give more of an account than Trump has,” he said. “And that bothers many people.”

‘Red herring’

Republicans also found reason to cheer the hearing, which could prove to be a make-or-break moment in the election interference case. McAfee said he would schedule another hearing as soon as Friday, leaving the case in limbo for another week.

Sitting not far from Dickens and other Democrats was Vernon Jones, a Trump loyalist who launched failed campaigns for governor and U.S. House in 2022.

Former Georgia GOP chair David Shafer, charged in the racketeering case, was at one point scolded by the judge for loudly laughing at Wade’s testimony from the counsel’s table.

And watching from afar was Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, who could yet face charges for serving as a Trump elector. He touted the Georgia Senate’s vote to empower a committee to investigate Willis, saying the testimony left “even more questions” that need to be addressed.

Many Willis allies, meanwhile, echoed remarks the district attorney made when she angrily accused defense attorneys of spreading lies about her personal life: “I’m not on trial, no matter how hard you try to put me on trial,” she said from the witness stand.

Gerald Griggs, the president of the Georgia NAACP, said one reason he watched the court hearing in person was in hopes of training attention on “relevant issues” involving Trump’s attempt to undermine the election – and not on Willis’ private life.

“My hope is that the trial will return to the ultimate legal question of whether there was an attempt to criminally interfere in the 2020 Georgia election,” he said.

That doesn’t mean key Democrats are absolving Willis of blame for engaging in a romantic relationship with Wade.

Jen Jordan, the Democratic nominee for attorney general in 2022, conceded the relationship with Wade could be a “political problem” for Willis when she stands for another term in November. Democrats, she added, aren’t “saying any of this looks good, or is OK, or is proper.”

“But at the end of the day, this is for the Fulton County voters to determine whether or not they’re happy with what Fani Willis has done on the job,” Jordan told the Politically Georgia podcast.

“Not who she’s dating. Not what she’s doing when she’s off the job. But what she’s done as the district attorney.”

Jen Jordan is a former state senator who was the Democratic nominee for attorney general in 2022. (Christina Matacotta for the AJC)

Credit: Christina Matacotta for the AJC

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Credit: Christina Matacotta for the AJC