During the nearly hour-long candidate forum last week organized by The Oconee Enterprise, the three candidates in the special election for District Attorney for the Western Judicial Circuit responded to questions about topics ranging from defunding police to leniency in sentencing.
It was during the opening and closing comments, however, that candidates James Chafin, Deborah Gonzalez and Brian Patterson differentiated themselves most clearly and gave a sense of their approaches to the work of the District Attorney Office.
James Chafin, currently serving as deputy chief assistant district attorney, focused on working within the school system to “show our youths that there is a better course for their lives than falling prey to gangs that recruit them at a very early age.”
Deborah Gonzalez, an Athens attorney and former state representative, said she is “running on a criminal justice reform platform” and “What our community needs and wants is leadership and ways forward. And I have that leadership.”
Brian Patterson, acting District Attorney, focused on his experience, saying in his job “I’ve been responsible for supervising 17 prosecutors, like Mr. Chafin” and “unlike my main opponent, who’s never set foot in a criminal court of law, I don’t need on-the-job training.”
“What happens in our courthouses is not entertainment,” Patterson said. “It is a serious legal job.”
Gonzalez's specialty is entertainment law.
Chafin is running without a party label in the nonprimaried special election to be held on Nov. 3. Gonzalez and Patterson are both running as Democrats.
The election is being held under federal court order after Gov. Brian Kemp refused to appoint a District Attorney to fill the vacancy created when Ken Mauldin retired at the end of February.
Gonzalez filed the suit against Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger that resulted in that court order.
Under the law, Patterson moved from his position as Chief Assistant District Attorney to Acting District Attorney when Mauldin stepped down without a named replacement.
The Western Judicial Circuit consists of Oconee and Clarke counties.
Michael Prochaska, editor of the Enterprise, said in his introductory comments at the beginning of the forum on Oct. 1 that he would not ask about the court action.
He also noted that an error had occurred on some of the absentee ballots mailed to voters that listed Patterson as the Incumbent and Chafin as an Independent.
Prochaska then turned to each of the candidates, starting with Chafin, giving the candidate four minutes for introduction.
Following the introductions, Prochaska asked six questions of the candidates before allowing each candidate two minutes for a closing comment.
Some time before Sept. 18, the vendor for the Secretary of State sent 4,119 absentee ballots to Oconee County voters in the first wave of mailing of those ballots, according to Fran Leathers, director of Elections and Registration for Oconee County.
Those 4,119 ballots listed Patterson as the Incumbent and Chafin as an Independent.
Patterson is the acting District Attorney, so he is not the incumbent, and Chafin qualified without a party label, so none should occur following his name.
At the Board of Elections and Registration meeting on Tuesday, Leathers, chair of that Board, told the other four members that the error had been made by the Secretary of State Office.
Leathers told me in a telephone conversation on Wednesday that her office proofed the ballot before it was mailed out, but, since qualifications were handled for the District Attorney race by the Secretary of State Office, she did not focus on the race or catch the error.
Shortly after she posted the approved sample ballot from the Secretary of State on the county web page, Leathers said, someone saw the error and contacted the Secretary of State Office. The Secretary of State Office contacted her about the error on the 17th, she said.
Subsequent ballots removed the incumbent label for Patterson and the Independent label for Chafin.
Leathers said she discussed the error in a called meeting of her Board on Sept. 28 and the Board decided the Secretary of State should address the problem.
While Clarke County’s Board of Elections decided to send out a notice to the 11,911 voters in that county who had received the mislabeled ballots informing them of the problem, her Board did not.
“We felt like that was going to result in a lot of confusion for voters,” Leathers said. “We decided not to do that.”
Leathers said she put a notice on the Board of Elections and Registration web page to inform voters of the error.
Chafin Introduction, Closing Comments
“I believe that our communities deserve a DA who is qualified, experienced and that has earned the public’s trust,” Chafin said in his introductory comments at the Oct. 1 candidate forum. “Jury trial experience is crucial to this job, and I have that experience.
“You want to know what else is crucial in the courtroom?” Chafin followed. “That we keep politics out of it. And that is why I’m running as a nonpartisan candidate.”
“I have learned that if you work hard, seek truth, and pursue justice you can make a real difference in the lives of victims, their families, and the survivors of violent crimes,” Chafin said.
“Our community is changing and we need to acknowledge that,” he said. “Criminal street gangs have become a problem, and we need to eradicate them.”
“There are some in the public who want to write off young offenders as lifetime criminals,” Chafin said. “That’s not true, and we need to change that kind of idea. We should provide a second chance to young offenders.”
“I want to be proactive in our schools and our community by forming partnerships that positively impact our youths and set them on a course to have a bright future,” Chafin said in his concluding comments.
Gonzalez Introduction, Closing Comments
“I am not a career prosecutor,” Gonzalez said in her introductory comments. “And right now, considering what our country is going through, that’s actually a good thing.”
“When we look at the cases such as Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and even Ahmaud Arbery right here in south Georgia, all of those cases turned on decisions made by DAs, and those DAs were career prosecutors.
“And we are at a point in our country where many people feel there was not justice done in those cases,” she said.
“I’m not offering you what we had,” Gonzalez said. “I’m offering you what we can have, a DA Office based on fair and just prosecution who will hold everyone accountable, not just some, because of the color of their skin, an end to the school-to-prison pipeline, and a commitment to address the systemic racism that underpins and oppresses almost half of the people in our community.”
Gonzalez said the problems were “something that my opponents will not acknowledge. And when you do not acknowledge a problem, you can’t make a commitment to fix it.”
“What is the role of the DA?” Gonzalez asked in her closing comments. “It is to keep our community safe by holding people accountable fairly and justly across the board. My opponent says I have no experience in the community. He obviously hasn’t been out there and seen all that I’ve done.”
Patterson Introduction, Closing Comments
“I’m running to be your next District Attorney because I love our community and I’m committed to keeping it safe,” Patterson said in his introductory comments.
“I’m the only candidate in the race that has the proven experience, leadership and commitment to be our next District Attorney,” he continued.
“As the Chief Assistant District Attorney, I was responsible for prosecuting the most complex, serious criminal cases in our community, including murder, and public corruption and other serious violent felonies,” he said. “I also managed the day-to-day operations of the office.”
“Some people like to talk about criminal justice reform,” Patterson said. “I’ve actually done it.”
“For 18 and a half years,” Patterson said in conclusion, “I’ve devoted my professional career to helping people in our community, to giving a voice to crime victims, to fairly, and justly, and even-handedly enforcing the rule of law, protecting the rights and liberties of our citizens and treating all persons with compassion, dignity, and respect.
“I would respectively submit that I’m the only candidate in the race that has the proven experience, leadership and commitment to be your next District Attorney,” he said.
Prochaska asked six questions, listed below (and annotated in the video at the bottom of this post).
Question 1: “If elected to the office of District Attorney, how would you describe your relationship with the following professionals: sheriff, police chief, defense attorneys, and victims?
Question 2: “What are your thoughts on the concept of defunding the police and how would you handle a case pertaining to an officer-involved shooting?”
Question 3: “There has been some criticism about the difference in the way criminal cases are prosecuted between Athens-Clarke County and Oconee County. Is this a legitimate concern? If no, why, and if yes, how would you address this concern?”
Question 4: “In what situations would you advocate for leniency and in what situations would you advocate for a maximum sentence, including the death penalty?”
Question 5: “Are there criminal statutes that you personally disagree with in state law, and, if so, does that affect your job or influence your job in any way?”
Question 6: “As lawyers, what qualities do you bring that make you an effective District Attorney?”
The Enterprise forum was to be live streamed, but technical problems made that impossible.
Prochaska had invited Sarah Bell to attend the session live and record a video, and she did so.
The video Bell recorded is below.
Chafin made his introductory comments at 4:01 in the video.
Gonzalez made her introductory comments at Gonzalez 7:09.
Patterson made his introductory comments at Patterson 11:14.
Prochaska posted Question 1 at 15:29.
Question 2 is at 20:31.
Question 3 is at 26:20.
Question 4 is at 31:11.
Question 5 is at 37:39.
Question 6 is at 43:05.
Closing comments are at 49:05.