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A criminal case that generated community and national criticism has convinced some voters to support District Attorney Herbert "Buzz" Franklin's opponent in the coming primary election.
In the Lookout Mountain district attorney's race, public defender Doug Woodruff is challenging Franklin for the top prosecutor's spot in a four-county judicial circuit, and some point to the Tonya Craft trial as their reason for backing Franklin's first challenger in more than 10 years.
Franklin defends the case — in which the former schoolteacher was acquitted on 22 charges that included child molestation -- and believes he has enough support to win a fifth term. He points to his tough stance on crime and a record that shows the judicial circuit has some of Georgia's harshest sentences for criminal offenders as reasons to re-elect him.
Across North Georgia, voters on Tuesday will decide the outcome of many heated races.
Most races will be on the Republican ballot in a predominantly red part of the state.
Election officials say early voting numbers have doubled and tripled in Walker, Catoosa, Dade and Whitfield counties this year, and they credit the large turnout to competitive races for sheriff, magistrate and clerk of court.
Statewide, more than 250,000 Georgia voters cast early ballots in person ahead of Tuesday's primary elections, the secretary of state's office said Friday. Combined with the nearly 76,000 voters who mailed in absentee ballots, a total of 331,461 early votes were cast.
In the Catoosa County sheriff's race, voters will decide who should replace retiring Sheriff Phil Summers, who held the position for 22 years. Meanwhile in Dade County, four candidates are trying to beat GOP incumbent Sheriff Patrick Cannon and face the Democratic former sheriff that Cannon unseated eight years ago.
Other competitive races include the Walker County sole commissioner's race, in which voters will decide between longtime incumbent Bebe Heiskell and Dr. Paul Shaw, who wants to replace the sole commissioner position with a five-person board. No Democrat is running.
In Whitfield County, voters will decide if they want to raise the sales tax from 5 to 6 cents to support an education special purpose local option sales tax to pay off school debt and repair schools.
Perhaps the most controversial question on ballots in North Georgia and across the state will ask voters whether the sales tax should be raised 1 percent in support of a transportation referendum to finance billions of dollars of road projects. The tax would remain in effect for 10 years.
Franklin, who was elected in 1997 during a special election, points to the circuit's strict sentencing record on most major crimes as one of his successes. He also points to his involvement in starting the Lookout Mountain Child Advocacy Center and, in 1999, establishing a child fatality team that investigates every child death in the circuit.
But one Ringgold attorney questions whether Franklin displayed good judgment when his office tried Craft for child molestation in 2010, where his office was portrayed as arrogant and lacking substantial evidence to support the charges.
During her trial, Craft gained hundreds of local and national supporters who questioned the way the three girls in the case were interviewed by authorities and prosecutors' tactics in court.
"Moral legalists and self-righteous people have no business running the judicial system," said Marshall Bandy, who has financially supported Woodruff's campaign because of the Craft case.
After the case, Franklin refused to give public interviews, instead faxing a statement to the media that blamed media reports as the reason his office lost the case. Now Franklin says his office handled the case properly, but the defense used tactics that accused the prosecutors of being unfair.
His Republican opponent, Woodruff, who has worked in the public defender's office since 2005, criticized how Franklin never addressed the public during the case to offer assurance. No Democrat is seeking the post.
If elected, Woodruff said, his goals are to be approachable and make decisions based on the community's best interests.
Five Republicans in Catoosa County with more than a dozen years of experience each are hoping to replace the outgoing Summers.
Former Lookout Mountain Drug Task Force Commander Larry Black said he wants to bring his experience in drug investigations to the office by doubling manpower in the narcotics department and adding more resources to the task force.
With experience in law enforcement and government, County Manager Mike Helton said he has a unique skill set to improve the sheriff's office.
Fort Oglethorpe Police Officer Jeff Holcomb said he wants to be more active in the community and advocate for harsher charges for child abusers and repeat offenders.
As a retired Drug Enforcement Administration agent, Ben Scott said he can bring a higher level of professionalism and experience to the office.
Catoosa County Chief Deputy Gary Sisk said he wants to keep many of the current protocols and programs in place, but focus more resources on putting nonviolent drug offenders into alternative programs and avoid jail time.
In neighboring Dade County, three Republicans are trying to beat out Cannon, criticizing his lack of involvement in the community. But Cannon claims he has been community-oriented and focused on the safety of families.
His challengers are former Chief Deputy Tim McDonald, Rossville Police Officer Nathan Baker, former Deputy Ray Cross and Philip Street, who was sheriff in Dade County for 20 years until Cannon defeated him in 2004.
The winner will face Street, the only Democrat.
In Walker County, Shaw wants to be the last sole commissioner and believes the county leadership needs more accountability.
"The solo commissioner is an outdated process," he said. "[A commissioner's board] puts checks and balances on everything."
But Heiskell, who has been in office for 12 years, said she is able to better represent the public because she has an interest in the entire county, while a board of commissioners is divided into districts, each representing a portion of the public.
"We don't feel like it's backward," she said.
She also boasted of bringing in new jobs and keeping taxes low.
But Shaw, a retired physician, criticizes Heiskell's handling of county spending and budgeting, saying she is wasteful.
Local criticism is mounting against the statewide transportation special purpose local option sales tax — TSPLOST — that would raise the sales tax 1 percent if approved by voters on Tuesday. Critics in Whitfield and Catoosa counties question whether money raised in their counties will be distributed into smaller counties within the district.
The 15-county Northwest Georgia region includes projects from each county, and the sales tax collected in each county would be distributed throughout the area. The tax would be divided — 75 percent toward the listed projects in a region and 25 percent to be dispersed to each local government to use for transportation projects.
Advocates in Walker and Dade county say the sales tax is needed to repair bridges, fix roads and build needed ramps to increase access to the interstate.
Across the state, critics also question the projects that won't be completed within the 10-year life of the tax and whether it will help the economy in the long run.
In Whitfield County, voters will have the option to raise their sales tax another penny, with the money going to Whitfield County and Dalton City school districts. The tax, an ESPLOST that would last for five years, would pay off the school district's $35 million debt to fund already approved projects such as building three schools.
Dalton Mayor David Pennington, who has fought tax increases and the TSPLOST, now says he is for the ESPLOST because of the schools' bleak financial outlook.
"I had a change of heart when I realized there was no way out," he said. "At the end of the day, you've got to be able to pay your bills."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...