John Williams won the sheriff’s primary in Athens on Tuesday (John Williams’s campaign account/Facebook)

John Williams, who ousted the Athens sheriff, pledged to not assist ICE and not take donations from the bail bond industry to facilitate bail reform. Georgia will host other heated sheriff’s races in the fall.

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Beset by controversy over his past cooperation with ICE, a 20-year sheriff lost in Tuesday’s Democratic primary in Georgia’s Athens-Clarke County.

John Williams, who ousted Sheriff Ira Edwards by two percentage points to secure the Democratic nomination, still faces a general election though he is favored to win in this blue jurisdiction. He has run on a promise to not help ICE and not detain people when the federal agency requests it. 

“I talk about treating people with dignity and respect,” he reiterated in a phone interview on Thursday. “You go against that when you bring in fear of being deported and having your life changed.”

Sheriffs exercise a great deal of discretion when it comes to how they assist ICE, and whether they help ICE take custody of people who are already booked into jail on other grounds.

Edwards, the incumbent, had come under fire from immigrants’ rights advocates for agreeing to honor so-called ICE detainers. These are warrantless requests that a sheriff’s department voluntarily keep people detained in jail beyond their scheduled release to give federal agents more time to come and claim custody. “We got the word out,” recalls Lori Garrett-Hatfield, a member of the Athens Immigrant Rights Coalition. “We started with calls, we wrote letters.” In April 2018, Edwards announced he would no longer honor detainers, a reversal Garrett-Hatfield attributes to “public agitation and anger.”

At the time, advocates told the local press that they did not trust that Edwards would maintain that policy given some of his other statements. And Garrett-Hatfield echoed that sentiment in a phone interview this week. “We saw that as a small victory, but we knew that to really make a change we needed to have someone else run as sheriff,” she said.

Williams, who works as a detective in the Athens police department, met with immigrants’ rights advocates after entering the race, and he said he felt affected by those conversations. “I heard some things where my jaw dropped and I could not say anything,” he said, mentioning Latinx children barred from speaking Spanish in the classroom. “I would not have my family treated that way, so I’m not going to have anyone else’s family treated that way.”

Williams stated during the campaign that he would not honor ICE detainers, calling this one of the reasons he chose to run. 

“What I’ve seen time and time again is that people who are undocumented or underdocumented will not call the police in situations where they could use some help or where there’s violence going on,” he told me. “They’re more concerned with, ‘Is this going to lead to more people in my family being picked up? Will they be deported?’ It’s almost a level of terrorism when people are living in fear to the point that they will not ask for help.”

In November, Williams will face Republican Robert Hare, who used to work in the sheriff’s office. Hare has said he supports contracting into ICE’s 287(g) program, which would considerably amplify and formalize the county’s existing relationship with ICE. Williams opposes joining 287(g).

The 287(g) program, which authorizes and trains deputies to act as federal immigration agents in the jail, is a rare arrangement: Just 6 of Georgia’s 159 sheriff’s departments currently contract into it. And immigrants rights’ advocates hope to cut that number down further this fall. 

They are gearing up to target the program’s presence in Cobb County and Gwinnett County, two very populous jurisdictions in the suburbs of Atlanta.

Cobb and Gwinnett used to be Republican strongholds, and they are still headed by Republican sheriffs who have championed ICE; Cobb County’s Neil Warren even touts himself as “one of America’s Toughest Sheriffs on illegal immigration” on his department’s official website. But both counties have rapidly swung toward Democrats; and both voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. 

These changing politics give Democrats golden opportunities to pick-up the two sheriff’s offices this fall and then cut ties with ICE. Sheriffs have the authority to unilaterally terminate 287(g) contracts.

As of Tuesday, Cobb and Gwinnett counties are both certain to hold a general election between a Republican who wants to stay in 287(g) and a Democrat who wants out. Although the Democratic nominees won’t be selected until August runoffs, all four candidates who advanced on Tuesday (two from each county) favor at least leaving the program. 

Aisha Yaqoob Mahmood, director of the Asian American Advocacy Fund, a group that has fought local partnerships with ICE, stressed that “four years ago, nobody knew what this program did,” whereas today candidates are frequently broaching this issue on the trail. “The last few years of organizing were very important for us to make sure that 287(g) becomes a top issue in this election, and it really has become that way,” she said. “It’s really amazing to see the trajectory.” Mahmood’s organization has focused on Gwinnett County so far; other groups such as the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights are also playing a leading role across the state.

Mahmood stressed that her organization also worked alongside groups involved in criminal justice advocacy to “make sure that we are not just uplifting immigration issues but other issues that are important to communities of color like ending cash bail and conditions in the jail.”

That same confluence of issues also played out in Athens. The primary between Edwards and Williams, who are both African American, came in the midst of the protests against racial inequality and police brutality that have taken place in Athens in recent weeks. 

The Athens Anti Discrimination Movement, a group that organized these rallies, drew attention to racial injustice in the local criminal legal system in recent years. In 2019, it supported a measure that was adopted by the local government to eliminate the use of cash bail for lower-level offenses. 

Williams told me he “firmly supports” this reform, and he pledged during the campaign to not take donations from bail bond agents. By contrast, as of April, the biggest donor to the incumbent’s campaign was the owner of a bail bond company, according to Athens Politics Nerd, a local news website that has interviewed both candidates. Williams did not express an interest in going further than that ordinance in reducing pretrial detention, though.

The Black Male Voter Project, a national outreach organization that is active in Georgia, highlighted the importance of bail reform while contacting African American voters, Mondale Robinson, the group’s founder, told me. “We’ve been duped as a country to care more about national issues than local issues,” he said. “We have to tell the message that district attorneys, sheriffs are more important than has been said.”

Athens was supposed to hold a DA race as well this year; Deborah Gonzalez, a former state representative, was set to carry the reformer mantle. But a series of nondemocratic decisions by local and state officials this spring led that election to be outright cancelled, blocking off policy change in the DA’s office. Gonzalez is now suing to force Georgia to hold this election. The lawsuit is pending, and Gonzalez told me that if it were to fail she would run for DA in 2022.

“I think having John Williams in place for those two years can show people what is possible and why it’s important,” she said, “so we’re not just punitive in terms of our law enforcement but looking at how we resolve those underlying issues.”

Still, the issue of immigration jumps out given that it has injected clear contrasts in sheriff’s races nationwide. Williams’s victory comes just six weeks after a comparable result in Cincinnati, where the sheriff also fell in the Democratic primary against a challenger who vowed to stop honoring ICE detainers, and two years after a wave of similar upsets in races where sheriffs’ cooperation with ICE featured prominently.

Garrett-Hatfield, referring to her experience in Athens, attributes this shift to the rising organizing that has taken place since Donald Trump’s presidential victory in 2016. 

“People started to realize, do we want this community to feel in fear, or do we want a community where people feel welcome and where they are valued as community members?”, she said.