OPINION: Fulton DA Fani Willis finds GOP partners, despite Trump investigation

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks during a news conference in the District Attorney's office at the Fulton County Courthouse in downtown Atlanta, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks during a news conference in the District Attorney's office at the Fulton County Courthouse in downtown Atlanta, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is best known nationwide for leading the investigation into former President Donald Trump for possible criminal interference in the 2020 election.

But she is better known at the GOP-led Georgia state Capitol for testifying at legislative hearings on crime and public safety and cutting to the chase.

“I’m not into polite conversations. I’m into telling you the truth,” Willis told a packed state Senate committee room in November. “And the truth is we’re a state in trouble right now.”

The DA delivered a similar dire message to the Fulton County Commission last year, which increased county funding for additional staff and resources for her office.

At the state level, Willis has met with lawmakers four times recently to outline the funding increases and changes to the Georgia code she says she needs to prosecute the same lawmakers want to stop. She needs their support, she tells them. In many cases, they’re ready to help.

Willis was at the Capitol in November as a part of a full-frontal assault by state leaders to highlight, and in some cases, shame, the City of Atlanta and Fulton County for a violent crime rate that had spiked upward and intensified during COVID.

But instead of clashing with Willis during the hearing, Republicans leaned in as she told them the many ways the state was falling short in helping district attorneys across Georgia keep repeat violent offenders off the streets, starting with funding state crime labs, which she said are excellent but need more staff.

“This. Is. A. State. Problem,” Willis said as she detailed the 3,783 uncharged drug cases, the years-long rape kit backlog, and chronic delays in ballistics testing in Fulton County that all resulted from underfunding the state labs in charge of processing evidence for trials.

And it’s not just her. Other DA’s around the state have the same challenges, she said.

Local prosecutors are often told to choose a single drug to test in drug trial cases, even if several drugs may have been involved. If a gun crime needs to be charged quickly, DA’s have been advised to hire private testing labs for a faster turnaround.

The result of evidence not being processed, she said, is suspected gang members, murderers and rapists being arrested, released, and allowed to continue without facing charges.

“We need these resources to do our jobs.”

The result of Willis’ truth bombs has been something to see — a recently elected Democratic DA and Donald Trump nemesis finding common ground with lawmakers in both parties, all looking to curtail the violent crime in their communities that they agree is a crisis.

That a Fulton County district attorney is working with Republicans in the Capitol at all is a change of pace for state Sen. John Albers.

The north Fulton Republican chairs both the Senate panel that funds much of the state’s law enforcement activities, as well as the committee that writes the state laws for criminal prosecutions.

He said in an interview he had no relationship with Willis’ predecessor, former Fulton District Attorney Paul Howard, even though state resources are often crucial for local prosecutors to do their jobs. But Albers has worked extensively with the Fulton DA’s office this year, along with the governor’s office and state law endorsement officials, on a bill to focus on statewide criminal prosecutions.

In the course of that work, he’s publicly praised Willis for her “passion, integrity and candor.”

“Our working relationship with DA Willis and her office is excellent,” Albers told me. “We have the same goals and objectives and what this is all about is teamwork.”

And Willis had praise for Albers after a hearing last week, too.

“I am so proud of this Republican senator — as I stand here as a Democratic DA — (he) is making a move to protect society,” she said. “And that’s what we need to remember. We’re all in this fight together.”

Along with increased funding, Willis has told lawmakers that prosecutors also need changes to the law to better handle gang crimes, gun crimes, and crimes against vulnerable populations like children and the elderly.

Gov. Brian Kemp has prioritized many of the same law enforcement requests in his budget, especially for efforts to strengthen gang prosecutions. Albers echoed the similar priorities in our interview and included them in his “Safe and Secure Georgia Act,” the bill up for consideration in the Senate that Willis supports.

Albers said he also anticipates more funding for equipment and GBI staff for the kind of testing Willis said her office needs. Whether it’s enough to wipe out huge local backlogs and delays will be a matter of debate and possibly more money down the road.

When I asked Willis if her investigation into the Trump election case has affected her interactions with Republicans at the Capitol , she said she has never mentioned it to lawmakers and they have never discussed it with her.

“What we are talking about is violent crime and trying to get a bill passed that I believe is going to be very helpful,” she said.

Albers said the Trump case and Willis investigation have never been a factor in their work together.

“What I have learned is that you have to learn how to switch gears real quick when you serve an elected office,” he said. You might disagree with someone on one issue, but then agree on another 10 minutes later.

“I don’t care what party it is, if you’re willing to lock arms with me and work together to protect our families and our state, then let’s go.”