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HERRIN — The first race for Williamson County state’s attorney in 16 years — though nearly a year away — has the makings of a heated contest, based on comments this week by the first official candidate for the office.

Herrin-based attorney Daniel Kay announced Wednesday his intention to seek the Democratic nomination for the office in 2016.

He will run against current State’s Attorney Brandon Zanotti, who has yet to officially announce, though has said he will run. He's attended at least two fundraisers in support of his would-be campaign.

As much as the nomination bid will be an examination of criminal trial experience, the inner-workings of the political process among Williamson County Democrats could also fall under the public microscope.

Kay believes the public was cheated out of the most qualified chief prosecutor when Zanotti’s predecessor, Charles Garnati, recommended him to finish Garnati’s unexpired term in September, a choice county commissioners adopted with no debate.

The appointment was made after the deadline for scheduling a special election. Garnati was elected to eight straight four-year terms beginning in 1984; running unopposed in the last four.

“I think it is a disservice to the people of the county. I think the people have not been well served,” Kay said before his announcement in reference to Zanotti’s appointment.

Kay said he more so blames the Garnati administration for what he says are problems in Williamson County courtrooms than he does Zanotti. Complimenting Zanotti as being “bright” and who will “go far,” Kay nonetheless argued Zanotti lacks the experience to bring reform to the office.

Zanotti stood by his experience and record prior to and since taking office. He worked at one of the larger law firms in Southern Illinois, Carbondale-based Feirich, Mager, Green and Ryan, where he said he had a diverse case portfolio, including criminal.

In private practice until 2012, Zanotti was appointed by then-Gov. Pat Quinn as an administrative law judge for the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission.

Since becoming state’s attorney, Zanotti secured an involuntary manslaughter conviction – the initial charge was first degree murder – and has secured a number of other convictions involving drugs and more serious cases such as sexual assaults or another manslaughter case.

“I’m going to stand on my experience which I believe is ample,” Zanotti said. “For one, I’m the only one so far in this race that has been a state’s attorney that knows what it is like to run the office of state’s attorney.”

“I do stand by my results and the results we get for the county,” Zanotti added.

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With 11 months to go before the March 15 primary, Zanotti said his focus has been on the office and pending cases, some of which include murder charges, and limited his comments when reached Wednesday. He has attended at least two campaign fundraisers held for him.

Kay pointed to his 18 years in criminal law, including private practice and as an assistant Illinois Attorney General prosecutor and as a Jackson County assistant public defender. He also had served as a trial advocacy instructor and as an officer of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps in Iraq.

Kay said he is calling for a number of reforms to improve courtroom backlog.

One would be to possibly introduce a diversion program for first time offenders of non-violent crimes to free up the docket for more serious cases, including sexual assaults Kay says now takes an average of 16 months to dispose of once charges are filed. He would also look at greater use of grand juries to improve efficiency.

Docket management has been a long-standing problem and remains so today in Williamson County that should have been addressed years ago, Kay said.

“There are problems that need to be addressed that have not been adequately addressed by the administration that is out there,” Kay said.

Kay has been a member of the Williamson Democrat Party for about 14 years, serving for much of that time as a precinct committeeman in Herrin 4. In 2006, he unsuccessfully ran for the Franklin-Williamson Regional School Board though he did help Williamson County Sheriff Bennie Vick win election as his campaign manager, he said.

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Nick Mariano is a reporter for The Southern Illinoisan covering Saline, Franklin and Jefferson counties.

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