Politics & Government

Candidates make pitches at American Legion forum

Ben Wright


Candidates prepare for forum at American Legion on Wednesday in Phenix City.  From left, Judge Walter Gray, Judge Buster Landreau, April Russell, Zack Collins, Jesse Smith and Larry DiChiara. Moderator was Baxley Oswalt at table.
Candidates prepare for forum at American Legion on Wednesday in Phenix City. From left, Judge Walter Gray, Judge Buster Landreau, April Russell, Zack Collins, Jesse Smith and Larry DiChiara. Moderator was Baxley Oswalt at table.

From the Russell County District attorney’s Office to the 3rd Congressional District seat, some incumbents and challengers made pitches to voters Wednesday during a candidates forum at the American Legion Post 135 in Phenix City.

 The race between District Attorney Kenneth Davis and former prosecutor Jamie Graham dominated the forum that attracted more than 80 residents six weeks before the March 1 primary. Candidates running for District Court seats include incumbents Buster Landreau and Walter Gray with opposition from April Logan Russell and Zack Collins. In the 3rd Congressional District, former Phenix City Public Schools Superintendent Larry DiChiara, a Republican, and Democrat Jesse Smith are trying to unseat Republican Mike Rogers.

Davis, district attorney for 32 years, said the biggest challenge facing the office is operating with limited resources. Since 2008, Davis said the state has cut prosecution money by 62 percent. Crime is up every year and violent crimes were up 7 percent in 2015, he said.

 “The Legislature is not going to give anymore revenue to us or anybody else,” he said. “We are going to have to do our job with the money we have or with less money. That is a challenge for me or anybody else. That’s the biggest challenge we face. It’s not tomorrow it’s today.”

After serving 11 years in the district attorney’s office, Graham said he was part of that system and he doesn’t see it changing. He supports hiring a part-time prosecutor.

 “Part-time prosecutors in the office can save money on benefits and other things,” said Graham, an attorney for 18 years. “That would be a major way to tackle funding in the district attorney’s office. You have to have money to run the office and have to be creative in how you spend that money.”

 If elected, Graham said he wants to return to the district attorney’s office to make it a proactive office instead of a reactive office. The office should be involved more in the school system and in the community. He wants to identify children having problems as early as the fifth grade.

 “If we can identify why they’re being moved, why they’re having problems, maybe we can prevent some from ending up in the criminal adult system,” he said.

 Davis noted that he has tried more capital murder cases in the state of Alabama than any other district attorney. He was responsible for getting the community to support a shelter for battered women, and 18 years ago he won support to get a child advocacy center in Russell County.

 In the race for District Court, Landreau said serving as family court judge since December 2013 is a chance to give back to the community. Since taking office, he said juvenile cases have been reduced in the court from 840 to around 450, many of which come from single-parent homes. Using his 35 years in law practice, he sought help from Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Chattahoochee Valley.

 “Last week, we were honored by them as the Community Partner of the Year,” Landreau said.

Landreau said the court is using electronic monitoring or other programs to keep from detaining youth.

 “Return me to the office so we can make more progress that we already started,” he said.

 Russell, an attorney in private practice for 10 years, said she is the first judicial female candidate in the history of Russell County.

 “Women have been left out of the judicial equation for too long and it’s time for that to change,” she said. “Based on life experiences, women think differently, govern differently and make decisions differently. It is just that simple.”

 Appointed to fill a vacant seat a year ago in District Court, Gray said he considers himself a public servant. He has worked to set up a payment plan for people charged with court costs and fines.

 “It’s not being weak on crime,” he said. “These are not violent offenders. They have served time that they’re required to serve. We are simple trying to collect the fees.”

Collins, a native of Columbus and Baker High graduate, said he has always wanted to become a family court judge.

 “I’m running as a true Democrat, not just because it’s my party affiliation, that’s my platform,” he said. “I want to transform Juvenile Court.”

 An attorney for 13 years, Collins said he has represented juveniles and families. He has seen youth locked up for a scuffle at school.

 “We need to provide some alternative,” he said. “We need programs that will keep them from getting to those positions and allow them to grow and move forward. I want to restore your trust in the judicial system.”