It is a political office that has rarely been on the radar of most Atlanta voters, but that has changed dramatically in this May 24th election campaign to replace longtime Fulton County Solicitor General Carmen Smith, who is not seeking reelection.
The spirited duel between veteran Fulton prosecutor Clint Rucker and assistant Clayton County Solicitor Keith Gammage has emerged as a “near top of the ticket” race, following just behind the contentious Fulton Sherriff’s election in interest and intensity. Attorney Teri Walker is also a capable and competitive candidate seeking the post, but the buzz and the bulk of the cash raised has been shared by Gammage and Rucker.
“Public safety and gun violence are at the top of every citizen’s agenda,” says civic leader and political activist Hattie Dorsey. “I have never before supported someone for elective office at this level, except for Atlanta City Council races, but our criminal justice system is in chaos. Both of them are capable young men and each brings a set of qualities to the table, so I haven’t decided yet.”
The Solicitor General’s office handles some 100,000 misdemeanor and traffic cases every year, but until now it has been a largely obscure operation. “Most people have no clue, and most people have no idea who the current Solicitor General is although she has been in office for 20 years,” says Rucker.
Rucker has been District Attorney Paul Howard’s ace criminal prosecutor for the past 20 years with successful convictions in some of the county’s most celebrated cases under his belt, some critics wonder why he would want stoop down to mere misdemeanors such as traffic offenses, DUI’s and petty crimes that are rarely the sort of headline grabbing cases he has become accustomed to trying in court.
“I don’t think it is a drop down, I really think it is a step-up because that office is really the largest prosecutorial office in the state of Georgia because of the volume of cases that they handle,” says Rucker. “They have the largest impact on the community because the kinds of crimes that they deal with are the cases that really touch the majority of us in a real quality of life kind of way.”
Keith Gammage is the fresh faced, 45-year old Clayton County Chief Assistant Solicitor General bent on bringing “restorative” justice to the Fulton Solicitor’s office, while passionately pledging to curb the “school to prison pipeline.”
“Too often prosecutors are simply hard- nosed folks focused on moving cases through the system without a whole lot of compassion and focused attention on the individual lives impacted,” Gammage says. “I mean victims, witnesses, law enforcement officers and those that are accused. I believe we must slow down and look at holistic approaches to the criminal justice system. I don’t fancy myself at all though I understand the moniker. I believe in servant leadership.”
Rucker, 51, has handled several high profile murder trials such as the infamous Fulton County Courthouse shooting case against Brian Nichols, and most recently led the prosecution team for the longest courtroom drama in Georgia’s history—the Atlanta Public Schools Cheating scandal.
“It’s the thing that left me saying what’s next for me to impact the community in a much larger way,” he recalls after the teacher convictions. I’ve stood in the fire under the lens and glaring lights of public scrutiny. It’s not easy, but without bragging, I am pretty good at what I do. I just don’t know that there is a lot for people to pick at. There is a huge distinction between me and my opponents. I have the fundament political and courthouse relationships to bring about real change and bring my vision to fruition.”
“This is not a new job to me, Gammage counters. “I’ve managed a budget of two million dollars for the last eight years. I’ve managed five divisions of state court. I’ve managed and set up our abandonment court process whereby we prosecute and effectively manage cases usually involving single parent females where the father has abandoned the child.”
Teri Walker is a career prosecutor with over 12 years of experience as well as several years as a defense attorney.
Walker has worked in three Solicitor’s offices: City of Atlanta, Fulton County, and DeKalb County as a Senior Assistant Solicitor-General – giving her more and diverse experience than any of her competitors. She has reportedly prosecuted over 5,000 cases including hundreds of domestic violence and DUI cases, according to her campaign video.
“I am running for Fulton County Solicitor General because I am passionate about keeping our community safe,” she says. “I have the knowledge, experience and vision to revitalize the Solicitor General’s office. I intend to be smart on crime and even smarter on crime prevention.”
Robert Patillo is a politically active criminal attorney and radio talk show host who says the Solicitor’s office is “critically important” and calls this contest “a crucial race” because petty offenses can create career criminals.
“My favorite would be Keith Gammage,” Patillo says. “He knows how to handle situations without trying to increase conviction rates for the county. That’s not being soft on crime that is just a smarter approach to it.”
Another attorney, who requested anonymity, urged voters to be discerning because political neophytes often “campaign with poetry but then govern with prose.”
All three lawyers vying for this open political seat fashion themselves as concerned and compassionate crime-fighters who want to save our children from becoming felons and societal misfits and outlaws.
“I started my career as a Fulton County public defender in Superior Court representing folks charged with rape, murder, armed robbery, drug trafficking and some of the heinous of crimes,” Gammage says. “Many of them were in their 20’s, high school dropouts and came from broken homes. Their first misstep; their first foray into the criminal justice system was in fact, a misdemeanor. That tells me we have to focus attention at an early point on folks committing misdemeanors. We have a chance to redirect them.”
“Education is such a part of public safety,” says Rucker, the father of two sons age 20 and 17 respectively. When I look at these young men that I have convicted for murder, and I analyze their criminal histories, what I see is this escalation of criminal activity that starts with these misdemeanors that come through the Solicitors office. When people talk about recidivism that is kind of how it starts. That revolving door starts at a very early stage. If I can do something to stem the tide from the very beginning than I believe I can really have an impact down the line. I want to give some of these kids a second chance.”
Rucker has been criticized for allegedly “getting a free ride” to campaign and still collect a pay check. Critics also carp that his wife of 10 years, Fulton County TV news personality Shaunya Chavis-Rucker, is being paid while openly campaigning with and for her husband. Both bristle at the broadsides.
“I’m on a leave of absence,” Rucker says with disdain, “but truthfully the D.A. does have that discretion. That’s what they are doing in DeKalb. Robert James has six or seven people from his staff running for office.”
Shaunya says she has accrued “tons of vacation and personal time” over the past 15 years as Division Chief for the Office of Broadcast and Cable at Fulton County.
“We are very, very careful about what we do and when we do it,” adds Clint Rucker. “We’ve got a team in place to manage the campaign, and what Shaunya does is more akin to a figurehead. She is very, very astute. She understands how these things go and anticipated this from the very beginning.”
Rucker calls Gammage “an outsider” but says he offered him a deal to come work for him after he is elected Solicitor.
“I said how about we work this out,” Rucker recalls. “If you didn’t run and I became Solicitor, and I brought you from Clayton to Fulton as my chief and I would let you manage the office here in Fulton County. And, we kind of did it collectively together.”
Gammage says he never received such an offer nor would he have considered it. “Why would I want to be his chief deputy,” he argues. “I am the most qualified candidate but the voters will decide if it is my time or his.”
To that end, Hattie Dorsey an Old Fourth Ward politico, is hosting a fundraiser and meet & greet for both Gammage and Rucker.
“Many of us need to hear from them in a private setting and space with community leaders who are concerned about our criminal justice system,” she says. “The state of our Black youth is of utmost concern because there goes our future.”
Story by: Maynard Eaton