Longtime Fulton DA forced into runoff vs. former chief deputy

PROSECUTION TEAM SPEAKS--APRIL 14, 2015 ATLANTA Fulton County prosecutors Fani Willis and Clint Rucker speak as DA Paul Howard (left) and Dr. Bernice King listen, during a press conference following sentencing for 10 of the 11 defendants convicted of racketeering and other charges in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating trial. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kent D. Johnson, Pool)

Credit: KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC

Credit: KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC

Six-term Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard finds himself in unfamiliar territory as he heads into a runoff two months from now against his former chief deputy prosecutor, Fani Willis.

With 96 percent of precincts reporting, Howard had received 36 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s Democratic primary. Willis topped the three-person field with 42 percent, while Christian Wise Smith, another former Fulton assistant district attorney and political neophyte, was tallying 23 percent of the 142,794 votes cast.

Wise Smith wasn’t ready on Wednesday to concede just yet, telling The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he was proud that his campaign had forced his opponents to address issues they otherwise may have ignored.

With the race narrowing to two, the advantage clearly lies with Willis. She has a more than 2-to-1 fundraising advantage over Howard, who currently faces three civil lawsuits from female employees past and present alleging harassment. Also, the GBI is investigating Howard for use of a nonprofit to supplement his salary.

ExploreOn the ballot: A list of races and candidates in the Tuesday Aug. 11 runoff

» RELATED:  Pointed barbs, questionable accusations mark final D.A. forum

But Howard has shown he won’t go down without a fight, attacking Willis as a pawn of Republican kingmakers and accusing her of promising not to prosecute cops in exchange for the Atlanta Police Union’s endorsement. He supplied no proof in support of those accusations.

Howard blamed his underwhelming performance on the police union, continuing a war of words that began when he criminally charged six Atlanta Police Department officers who violently detained two college students during recent protests downtown.

» MORE: Fulton County DA moves swiftly to charge six APD officers

“Unfortunately, Fulton County and Atlanta have now, for the first time in our histories, joined several urban cities that are seeing police unions take major roles in the outcome of local political races,” Howard said in a statement. “The Atlanta Police Union has endorsed and is funding my opponent along with Republican Mary Norwood. Even though violent crime is down by 70% in Atlanta, Mary Norwood and the Police Union are not satisfied because I have followed my oath as an independent District Attorney who prosecutes police officers when citizens are killed without justification.”

But the veteran prosecutor has also faced criticism for his record of prosecuting police officers.

Monteria Robinson (left) listens as Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard announces the filing of a lawsuit against the United States Department of Justice in the death of her son Jamarion Robinson during a press conference on December 28th, 2018. (Photo by Phil Skinner)

Monteria Robinson, whose son, Jamarion, was shot at 76 times inside his girlfriend’s East Point apartment in 2016 by a fugitive task force made up of local law enforcement and federal authorities, said she no longer trusts Howard.

Jamarion Robinson, 26, who struggled with schizophrenia, was being served a warrant for allegedly firing a gun at officers in a previous encounter.

“Paul Howard has failed my family and has not tried to indict the officers who murdered my son even though he’s been promising me he’s going to take action for nearly four years,” Robinson said. “Now he wants to make people think he’s going to indict the officers who dragged two students out of their car. I do not believe him at all!”

» OPINION: Paul Howard's generational curse isn't biblical, it's political

Willis, who made her former boss’s character a central issue of the campaign, said Howard will do anything to remain in office. She doubts his insistence that he had nothing to do with a campaign flyer accusing Willis of aligning with Norwood and President Donald Trump in an effort to “lynch Paul Howard.”

“The rules don’t apply to him,” she said Wednesday. “It’s never about right or wrong with him. It’s about what’s best for Paul.”

Atlanta lawyer Christian Wise Smith could prove pivotal to the outcome of the runoff election in the Fulton County district attorney’s race. (photo  credit: Facebook)

Wise Smith, whose campaign targeted younger and more progressive voters, could emerge as a pivotal figure in the race. He has not said whether he’ll endorse either candidate, though during the campaign he was often critical of Howard, accusing him of leading by fear.

Staffers are “scared of being reprimanded, afraid of being harassed,” Wise Smith said at a debate in April.

Howard has yet to embrace being the underdog, a role he’s never had to play before. His last serious challenge came in 2000, when he narrowly defeated Republican John Turner. After that, he ran unopposed in every election until this year.

“Please help me prove you cannot purchase the District Attorney’s Office,” he said Wednesday.

In Other News