DA challenger holds commanding lead in bid to unseat her former boss

Fani Willis came in first in the primary, leads Paul Howard heading into the runoff
Fani Willis said she had considered running against her former boss to become the next Fulton County district attorney for a long time. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Fani Willis said she had considered running against her former boss to become the next Fulton County district attorney for a long time. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Challenger Fani Willis holds a commanding lead over incumbent Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard, her former boss, heading in to the Aug. 11 runoff.

Willis attracted 47.1% of the would-be votes, while Howard collected 30.8%, a WSB Channel 2 Action News/Landmark Communications poll conducted over the weekend of 500 likely voters found. If she prevails, Willis would be the first woman to serve as Fulton’s district attorney.

Leading up to Democratic primary on June 9, the race had largely been a referendum on Howard’s 24 years in office, particularly the last year. The six-term incumbent faces federal lawsuits alleging discrimination or sexual harassment by subordinates past and present. The state ethics commission accuses him of numerous violations. The GBI is investigating his use of a nonprofit to funnel almost $200,000 of city of Atlanta funds into his personal bank account.

Willis scored a decisive victory over Howard and challenger Christian Wise Smith in the primary.

She had been considering the run for a long time, she said.

“I have gotten calls from South Fulton, North Fulton, Buckhead just begging me to run,” Willis said during an interview. The office under Howard’s leadership is broken, she said.

“I believe I’m the right person to fix it,” said Willis, citing her years of experience as a prosecutor.

An Emory Law School graduate, Willis was hired by Howard and worked for 16 years in the Fulton District Attorney’s Office. During that time she was promoted to to the Major Case Division and later named Deputy District Attorney of the Complex Trial Division.

Willis served as the lead prosecutor in the trial of 12 Atlanta Public School teachers accused of correcting standardized test answers by their students. All but one of the defendants was found guilty of racketeering.

Wise Smith often invoked the case during the primary, accusing Howard and Willis of being “bullies.” He would later endorse Howard after the DA tried to broker a deal for the educators that would have allowed them to escape prison time.

Willis has steadfastly refused to be a part of any such deal unless the teachers apologized for harming the schoolchildren and admitting their guilt.

“If, in my obituary, it says she believed in and loved Black children, then I’m OK with that,” said Willis, framing the case as a betrayal of African-American students by their teachers. “Cases won’t be for sale under my administration. Not for an endorsement, not for money, not for anything.”

Charlie Bailey, a former Fulton prosecutor, said Willis’ stand, when contrasted with Howard’s decision, reveals a lot about both candidates.

“It shows a difference in integrity,” said Bailey, the Democratic nominee for attorney general in 2018. He noted that, before the primary vote, Howard was unapologetic about the way the APS case was handled.

The teachers trial had been a focus of the race for district attorney until three days after the primary, when the fatal shooting of Rayshard Brooks by Atlanta police officer Garrett Rolfe transformed the dynamics.

Within a week, Howard would charge Rolfe with 11 criminal counts, including felony murder. Devin Brosnan, the APD officer who first encountered Brooks that night after he fell asleep in the drive-through lane at a downtown Wendy’s, was charged with aggravated assault and violating his oath of office. Both are free on bond.

Critics accused Howard of politicizing the case, noting that he had 43 prior police shooting cases on his desk that have yet to be adjudicated. The GBI has expanded its investigation and is now conducting a new probe into whether the DA’s office could legally issue grand jury subpoenas to get information about Rolfe.

Atlanta Democratic strategist Howard Franklin said it was no surprise the Brooks case became a prominent element of the race.

“Paul Howard definitely leaned into the moment, clearly taking to heart the well-worn adage that you should never let a crisis go to waste,” Franklin said. “I don’t think we’ll know whether or not it helped or hurt the incumbent until after all the votes have been counted, and even then, I expect plenty of debate about whether swiftly charging the officers helped or hurt DA Howard.”

Howard’s quick decision to to prosecute was popular with many who believe officers are rarely held accountable for killing Black civilians. To some, Willis’ calls to follow process — she said she believes Howard should have waited for the GBI to release its investigation, still pending — showed she lacked the necessary urgency in demanding police accountability.

“Her criticism of the Rayshard Brooks indictments has been disappointing,” said Sam Starks, an Atlanta defense attorney who, as part of a group of progressive lawyers, recently met with Willis. “There’s nothing to indicate she intends to take the DA’s office in a different direction when it comes to some of the key issues.”

Starks said he was troubled by some of Willis’ endorsers, namely the Atlanta police union and former mayoral candidate and councilwoman Mary Norwood .

“I’m dealing with a very desperate man who knows he’s losing,” responded Willis, a 49-year-old mother of two daughters. “For them to say I’m a Republican or that I’m bought and paid for shows they have nothing on me.”

Attorney Fani Willis speaks at her law firm office in Midtown Atlanta on Tuesday, August 4, 2020. Willis hopes to win a runoff election against Fulton County District Attorney Paul L. Howard. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)


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“I’m the daughter of a Black Panther who went to an HBCU who lives in the Blackest city in the United States (South Fulton),” she said. “They can try whatever they want, but they’re not going to take away my Black card.”

Willis’ parents divorced when she was young. Her father, a defense lawyer active with the Black Panthers, lived in California, her mother, in Washington, D.C.

She said she declared her intentions to be an attorney when she 8 years old.

Atlanta entrepreneur Robin Bryant met Willis when they were in college. Willis, said Bryant, “always wanted to do the right thing.”

Her decision to run for district attorney was not a surprise, Bryant said.

“This was the time for her to do it,” she said. “I knew it was something she wanted to do, and when she decides she’s going to do something, there’s no stopping her.”