Former state representative of District 117, Deborah Gonzalez could achieve several firsts if she wins the election for District Attorney for the Western Judicial Circuit.
If elected, Gonzalez will make history as the first female DA in the Western Judicial Circuit, the first Latina DA in Georgia, as well as the first Puerto Rican DA in the country.
“In one way, it’s sort of bittersweet to think that in 2020, these firsts are still happening,” Gonzalez said.
She believes that electing women to these kinds of seats will encourage more women to run.
“(It is important to) let girls know that you can do anything that you put your mind to, that there is no place that we as women can’t be, that we can do these kinds of jobs,” Gonzalez said.
Women working in law enforcement are often under-represented. A 2014 study showed that women make up 26.5% of total law enforcement employees.
“One of the first questions is, ‘Are you electable?’ This is law enforcement, it should be a man, people want to see men protecting them. They don’t necessarily want to see a woman or they can’t believe a woman can protect them,” Gonzalez said, criticizing the treatment women get compared to men in law enforcement.
Gonzalez was sworn in as Georgia Representative for District 117 on Nov. 27, 2017, serving until Jan. 14, 2019. Gonzalez was the second Latina state representative in Georgia, following Representative Brenda Lopez Romero of District 099.
After taking office, Gonzalez received calls from Latinos all over Georgia.
“They knew my name. They knew that I was a Latina representative. They would reach out to me regardless of who their representative was. They felt that they could reach out to me to get the help they needed,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez thinks that Latino representation in government is essential because it lets people know that they belong. She recalls when a fifth teacher was holding a mock election in his class for the President as well as local seats.
“Some of the kids were like ‘Oh, her name is Gonzalez? Is she Hispanic like us?’ They were so excited to see somebody with a name that is familiar to them. It gave them this sense of ‘Wow, one of us is there, one of us can do it, so maybe I can do it too,’” Gonzalez said.
After losing her bid for reelection as state representative, Gonzalez still wanted to serve her community. She got involved with groups like the Georgia Justice Reform Partnership, the NAACP, and the American Civil Liberties Union.
“I decided that I really like this work. I think there’s an area here that I could serve in. The judge, solicitor general, and the district attorney (elections) were coming up. After learning the power that the district attorney has and how that one position can really move along criminal justice reform, I decided that was the role that I was going to run for,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez believes that she is prepared for this role because of her understanding of it. She sees three distinct functions of the role, all having to do with leadership. The first function is what happens in the courtroom.
“Before we get inside a courtroom for trial, the DA’s office gets to decide who to charge and what to charge them with. We have a lot of influence on the kind of sentence that the person will ultimately be serving because of the crimes we’re charging them with,” Gonzalez said.
The second function is what Gonzalez calls “advocacy and policy.” She says that DAs form a small lobbying group and legislators will ask them to testify about certain proposed bills or pieces of legislation.
“I have a lot of experience in the legislature process because I was a legislator for almost two years. And so I know many of those legislators,” said Gonzalez.
The final and third function is community leadership. To Gonzalez, community leadership means working to build community partnerships to rebuild trust.
Gonzalez acknowledges that she is going to be different and bring changes if elected DA. She has thought about how she will make those changes sustainable through the team she builds around herself.
“You have to make sure that the team also buys into the vision that you have for that office, that they believe the same way that you do that we want to be progressive, we want to be restorative, we just don’t want to punish people and sort of throw away the key and discard our youth. So that’s going to be a big part of making these changes sustainable is the team that I build or hire in that office,” said Gonzalez.
The Western Judicial Circuit includes Clarke County and Oconee County. The runoff between Gonzalez and her opponent James Chafin is today, Dec. 1.
Copy Editor Jackie Wright contributed to the writing and reporting of this story.