The word “disruption” became ubiquitous nationally after the 2016 election. This fall, it’s defining the campaign to elect the next Chatham County District Attorney.
Incumbent Meg Daly Heap, a Republican from Savannah, uses the term with negative connotations. She and her supporters say upheaval is in store for the 289,000 people living between Pooler and Tybee Island if her challenger prevails at the polls on Nov. 3. A Heap loss, they say, would usher in greater crime and chaos on local streets and less support for victims of violent crimes.
Shalena Cook Jones, a Democrat from Savannah, and her proponents see disruption as a positive force. They believe it’s a necessary remedy to a legal status quo that aggravates poverty, breaks up families, incarcerates a disproportionate number of Black people and ultimately makes society less safe.
In the wake of Ahmaud Arbery’s killing outside Brunswick and the wave of police violence and protests across America, both candidates’ messages have found adherents with different local constituencies as well as national political organizations. As Election Day nears, however, mudslinging has eclipsed issues of policy. The two sides have traded accusations of racism and anti-Semitism, radicalism and socialism.
From colleagues to campaign foes
The contours of the race are in part defined by the fact that Heap and Jones are former colleagues at the Chatham County District Attorney’s Office. Both have a shared history of supporting victims of sexual assault and elder abuse. Both attended law school in Georgia and both are mothers. Their previous collegiality, however, has been absent from campaign events in which the two women have laid out their cases to become the top person to prosecute local crime.
At a recent dinner for State Rep. Jesse Petrea, R-166, Heap said she was “concerned” about a Jones victory. She emphasized a quote from her challenger in which Jones allegedly encouraged Black Lives Matters protesters to “riot and burn.” “I know that if she gets in, my good prosecutors are not going to stay, and you’re not going to have people who can prosecute murders,” Heap told a room of mainly white supporters. Fliers distributed by Heap’s campaign and allied organizations echo similar messages.
Jones, meanwhile, has alleged that Heap, in her eight years as district attorney, has overseen a hostile work environment for Black employees. She also claims the office improperly overcharges suspects with multiple crimes to help secure plea agreements on lesser charges, an assessment that some former employees agree with. “I used to work in that office. I know the culture of that office,” said Jones at a public debate hosted by the League of Women Voters. “She does not maintain a culture that supports diversity.”
Heap denies the allegations and points to the diversity of her current office demographics. Jones says that if she wins she would vigorously prosecute violent crimes such as murder.
In a time of U.S. history where civil rights are once again a national issue, local district attorneys are front and center of discussions over how to eradicate racial inequality in the legal system. District attorneys typically review police arrest reports and decide whether and what criminal charges to file. They have immense power to influence an individual’s decision to enter into a plea deal or to take a case to trial. They strongly influence the punishment that those convicted receive.
Changing times bring new money, interest
The emotions over the issues of law enforcement and racial justice have drawn enormous amounts of money to the Chatham County race.
Through Sept. 30, Heap’s campaign had raised $185,450.16, according to state records. In October, she reported at least another $30,100 in campaign donations. The vast majority of those funds were from leading local Republican residents and businesses. But some come from outside the area, including a donation of $2,000 from the election committee for the Newnan, Georgia, district attorney, and $1,000 from a media relations specialist from North Carolina.
In mid-October, a newly registered political action committee called Protect Our Police GA, based in Philadelphia, started a direct mailing campaign to aid Heap. It is unclear how much money the group is spending on Heap’s candidacy, since the group registered in the state came after the last reporting deadline before Election Day. The group, which misspelled Heap’s first name in their press release endorsing her, says they have a $250,000 fund to help elect 40 candidates across the country who are “pro-police and pro-law and order.”
Heap also has garnered high-level political support from Georgia’s Republicans. In addition to Petrea’s campaign offering financial and other campaign support, Heap has spoken at a local event for Gov. Brian Kemp.
In comparison, Jones’s campaign has faced several obstacles. In the Democratic Party primary in the spring, Mayor Van Johnson donated to her opponent. After Jones won the primary, a few senior elected local Democratic Party leaders embraced her. One of them is Alderwoman Kesha Gibson Carter, who endorsed Heap in her first race for district attorney in 2012. In the intervening years, Gibson Carter, who was the longtime executive director of the Rape Crisis Center, has filed a racial discrimination lawsuit about her dismissal, which she blames Heap for. Heap is not a defendant in the case. Gibson Carter is now backing Jones, saying the incumbent has fallen short of her promises to more aggressively prosecute sex crimes. Jones now regularly appears with other Democratic Party candidates at campaign events.
As of Sept. 30 Jones’s campaign reported contributions totaling $40,125.12, according to state records. Separately, an independent political action committee called Justice & Public Safety PAC GA, which is registered in Washington DC, spent $80,191.89 for Jones’s campaign through Sept. 30, the last deadline for public disclosure of spending. Those funds include direct mailing, advertising and polling for the June primary and the Nov. 3 general election.
The main donor of the PAC is billionaire financier George Soros. He and the group support district attorney candidates around the county who favor “progressive prosecution,” a philosophy that believes the criminal legal system is fundamentally broken, and justice is better sought not from tough mandatory sentences and mass incarceration but through a mix of common sense prosecution and social reform. Jones’s campaign is the only one in Georgia that the group is supporting this election year, according to state records.
Heap’s supporters have used the fact that outside money is helping her opponent as a fundraising tool. They claim that support from Soros will open a gateway to militant protests in Savannah like those witnessed in Portland this summer. They allege, without evidence, that Black Lives Matters receives similar funding and that it supports violence.
Jones’s supporters say that these allegations are part of a menu of anti-Semitic slurs and racist dog whistles used by far-right Republican Party ideologues around the country. Soros, who is Jewish, is a frequent political contributor to liberal political causes.
Mayor Johnson declined to comment about the district attorney’s race. The Savannah Police and Chatham County Police departments also declined to comment.
Common issues, differing perspectives
When it comes to the issues, the two candidates aren’t entirely at odds. Both say the job takes management experience as well as legal knowledge and skill in the courtroom. In Chatham County, the office has an $8 million annual budget and employees around 40 prosecutors.
Still, Heap says her experience outweighs her opponent’s when it comes to prosecuting crime. She points to a conviction rate of 90% for major crimes during her tenure, and counts among her successes the revival of the office’s Special Victims Unit and programs instituted to help women and adolescent victims of domestic abuse.
Jones says that she would build on Heap’s work to help victims, and improve them. If elected, she has promised to bring efficiency to the office by recalibrating the priority of prosecutions. She would like to minimize or end the practice of cash bail for certain crimes and incentivize prosecutors to minimize jail time for juvenile offenders.
Heap is a Savannah native who attended Georgia Southern University and then law school at Mercer University. She is the past president of the Georgia District Attorneys Association and has worked on the board of the Chatham County Family Justice Center.
Jones was born and raised in New York City. She attended Spelman College and the University of Georgia School of Law. She worked as an attorney in places where her husband, a Savannah native, was stationed while serving in the military, including the DeKalb County District Attorney’s Office, as a U.S. Attorney in Texas and as a Chatham County Special Victims Prosecutor.