Trump Georgia judge, Fani Willis face challengers in reelection races

The judge and district attorney involved in former President Trump’s Georgia election racketeering criminal case this week drew challengers in their reelection contests.

Though both Judge Scott McAfee and Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis (D) remain heavy favorites, their challengers raise the possibility that either could be taken out of office before Trump heads to trial in the historic case.

Both Fulton County officials face challenges from the left, and Willis also faces a Republican challenger. It comes at a precarious point in the prosecution, as McAfee weighs whether to disqualify Willis and her office from Trump’s case over her past romance with Nathan Wade, a top prosecutor overseeing it.

A ruling from McAfee is expected in the coming days, well before his nonpartisan election scheduled for May 21. Willis’s Democratic primary is also scheduled for that day, though she must subsequently face voters in November’s general election.

Candidates could qualify for Georgia’s May primary this week, and the deadline was Friday at noon

McAfee, a former Fulton County and federal prosecutor, was appointed to the bench by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) in 2022. He’s seeking a four-year term, running on issues like clearing the state’s COVID-19 case backlog, holding violent offenders accountable and maintaining transparency.

On his campaign website, the judge pointed to his YouTube channel — where the proceedings he oversees, including Trump’s, have been livestreamed — as proof of his effort to be “fully transparent with all public matters that come before him.” He has not explicitly mentioned Trump’s case.

McAfee faces two challengers so far. The May 21 election is officially nonpartisan, and a runoff will be held June 18 if necessary.

The first challenger is Robert Patillo, an attorney and civil rights activist who is executive director of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition’s Peachtree Street Project. Established in 1999, the project is charged with researching equal opportunity in the American Southeast and is a subsidiary of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Citizenship Education Fund.

Unlike McAfee, who has ties to the conservative Federalist Society and has earned high praise from defense attorneys for being even-handed in Trump’s case, Patillo is an outspoken critic of the former president online. His social media is flooded with memes poking fun at Trump’s legal woes, mental acuity and campaign — including Trump’s gilded sneaker line.

“Yall these judgements got #Trump so broke he’s selling Chinese bootleg Uptowns,” Patillo wrote in one Facebook post, sharing an image describing the sneakers as “Air Treasons.”

Though Trump has attacked many of the judges involved in his legal woes, he has not shown the same ill-will toward McAfee. Steve Sadow, Trump’s lead Georgia attorney, has publicly expressed confidence in the judge as Patillo’s challenge surfaced.

“In our democracy, anyone can choose to run for public office. But does anyone following the Willis-Wade Fulton County fiasco really believe it is a coincidence that this particular gentleman has (been) chosen to run against Judge McAfee? I don’t,” Sadow wrote on LinkedIn.

“And, if choosing this particular judicial candidate is intended by the pro-Willis faction to put political pressure on the court to rule in her favor, I truly believe they completely underestimate the character of Judge McAfee,” he continued.

In a later post on X, formerly known as Twitter, Sadow wrote, “Mr. Patillo, President Trump’s Fulton County defense team is not afraid of you. We are only sorry your obvious pro-Willis bias and motive for running makes a mockery of your candidacy.”

Tiffani Johnson, a staff attorney for another judge in McAfee’s court, is also challenging McAfee this spring. Johnson — who previously served as a Fulton County solicitor general, according to her campaign website — describes herself as a “champion for fairness, equity and accountability” in the judicial system.

Willis, meanwhile, is set to face challengers in the primary and general election.

In November, Willis’s Republican challenger is Courtney Kramer, a self-described “MAGA attorney” who worked in Trump’s White House counsel’s office and later for his 2020 presidential campaign on “election integrity matters,” according to her LinkedIn.

Kramer’s LinkedIn shows she also worked for Smith & Liss LLC — the law firm at which Ray S. Smith III, a co-defendant of Trump in the 2020 election interference case, is a partner.

Kramer has vocally opposed Willis on social media, sharing posts that describe the district attorney as a “disgrace to the legal community” and urging she be “held criminally liable” for failing to disclose vacations paid for by Wade, the special prosecutor with whom Willis had a relationship.

But before going on to the general election, Willis first faces a challenge from her own party: Christian Wise Smith, a former prosecutor and father of four who founded a nonprofit aimed at ending police brutality.

In 2020, Smith unsuccessfully ran against Willis in a three-way primary, landing in last place with just less than 23 percent of the vote. Willis that year ousted six-term incumbent Paul Howard, Willis’s longtime mentor who was implicated in multiple scandals.

After losing to Willis, Smith published a children’s book titled “WISEUP Adventure Series: Chris and Key Go Vote!” that he said was inspired by his run for Fulton County district attorney and people who “believed their vote didn’t matter.” Smith wrote on his website that he was the first in his family to graduate from college after a police officer “took interest in helping him break free of the low expectations inherent” in his upbringing.

Smith later unsuccessfully ran for Georgia attorney general, earning a little more than 22 percent of the vote in the race’s 2022 Democratic primary.

The weeks-long detour in the Trump case into Willis’s personal relationship with Wade, the special prosecutor, could make her more vulnerable to a challenge to her role.

Defense attorneys contend Willis hired her romantic partner to prosecute Trump and has since benefitted from his large salary in the form of lavish vacations. Willis and Wade have maintained that they began dating in early 2022 — after Wade was hired to the team.

McAfee previously said that the allegations against Willis and Wade “could result” in their disqualification if evidence shows an “actual conflict of interest or the appearance of one.”

This story was updated at 3:15 p.m.

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