By Ian Slack
I voted for Deborah Gonzalez in 2020 despite, what I thought at the time, legitimate concerns about her qualifications. I felt that attacks on her were just part of the general hatred that red-state Georgia feels about anything progressive going on in Athens.
In the years since, I've honestly not paid a lot of attention to the noise around her. Like a lot of Americans, I'm turned off by the extreme polarization of our current political environment, and I tend to focus on the only thing I can do about it, and that's vote.
That ended recently when I learned of the plea deal Gonzalez made in the violent death of a former colleague and friend of mine.
Here's what police say happened. Investigators allege Luke Harrison Waldrop hit 67-year-old Jim Jones from behind on Tallassee Road near Westchester Drive around 11 p.m. on March 3, 2022, as Jones was cycling home from his job as a security guard. The speed limit where the crash occurred is just 35 mph, and it's a section of road just outside the perimeter sitting between two traffic lights spaced a little over a thousand feet apart.
Two months later, an Athens grand jury indicted Waldrop on charges of first-degree homicide by vehicle (punishable by 3-15 years in jail), driving under the influence, and reckless driving. The charges seemed appropriate as Jones was known to ride at night with extremely bright LED taillights, and given the low speed limit, there was no reason for Waldrop to fail to see him.
So it was a deep shock for those following the case when Gonzalez dismissed the original charges and let Waldrop plead to the lesser misdemeanor charges of second-degree homicide by vehicle and "improper passing of a bicycle." Even then, Waldrop could have served up to 12 months in jail under Georgia sentencing guidelines, but Judge Lawton Stephens instead gave him two years of probation and a small fine. Because Waldrop was bailed out just hours after his arrest, he's literally never served a day in jail for taking the life of a long-time member of the Athens cycling community and a man known for his intellect and contributions to groups like the Society for Creative Anachronism.
As I tried to wrap my head around what happened, I read more and more about Gonzalez, including coverage of the extreme turmoil in her office because of her inability to keep a large enough staff of assistant DAs combined with procedural missteps and other failures. She's also had to apologize to an alleged rape victim for the way her case was handled.
All the while, Gonzalez has wrapped herself in the progressive cloak and loudly proclaimed that criticism of the job she's doing is just right-wing politics as usual—recent editorials in support of her echo that sentiment.
So, in my opinion, here we have an individual who's profoundly failing in the basic duty of the position she was elected to—seeking justice for the victims of crime—yet there's still a large number of people willing to defend her.
Does that sound familiar at all? Someone who was a disaster in office and yet still enjoys wide support because people like his politics? We're better than this. Judge politicians based on their competence and performance, not just a party label.
Originally from Athens, Ian Slack spent 25 years as a journalist working for television stations around the Southeast before returning to The Classic City to be closer to family and friends in 2020.