Fani Willis unseats 6-term Fulton DA Paul Howard

ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Fani Willis declared victory Tuesday night in her bid for Fulton County District Attorney, soundly defeating her former boss, Paul Howard.

“Y’all we made herstory,” said Willis, who is poised to become the first woman to serve as Fulton’s first DA. “You have my word, during my tenure as district attorney in Fulton County, we will be a beacon for justice and ethics in Georgia and across the nation.”

Howard, seeking his seventh term in office, conceded defeat shortly before 11 p.m., telling reporters, “I came in with pride and I’m leaving with pride.”

With nearly all precincts reporting, Willis dominated with a commanding 73 percent of the vote. Speaking to supporters outside her Midtown campaign headquarters, the 49-year-old mother of two vowed to bring “transparency and accountability” to the DA’s office.

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AJC photo: Christian Boone
AJC photo: Christian Boone

She discussed her quest for office during a recent interview.

“I have gotten calls from South Fulton, North Fulton, Buckhead just begging me to run,” she said.The office under Howard’s leadership is broken, she said. “I believe I’m the right person to fix it.”

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.

Howard, the first African-American to win election as a district attorney in Georgia, had not faced a serious challenger since 2000. When Willis formalized her candidacy in March, she made it clear that Howard’s conduct in office would be a major issue.

Howard faces federal lawsuits alleging discrimination or sexual harassment by subordinates past and present. The GBI is investigating his use of a nonprofit to funnel almost $200,000 of city of Atlanta funds into his personal bank account.

Last week, he agreed to pay a $6,500 state ethics fine for failing to disclose his role as CEO of two non-profits, one of which netted him $195,000 in city grant money. Howard was accused of 14 violations, which he admitted to in the consent agreement.

Howard charged Atlanta police officer Garrett Rolfe, since fired, with 11 criminal counts, including felony murder, following the June 12 shooting of Rayshard Brooks. Officer Devin Brosnan faces charges of aggravated assault and violating his oath of office. Both are free on bond.

Critics accuse 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.

Willis was the top vote-getter in the June primary but fell short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff. Howard took on a more aggressive posture ahead of the runoff, singling out her endorsements by two-time mayoral candidate Mary Norwood, a political Independent, and the Atlanta Police Union.

“I don’t see how you can serve as the gatekeeper to criminal justice in our community when you have made a deal with the union not to prosecute police officers,” Howard said at a June debate.

Willis’ response: “I’m dealing with a very desperate man who know he’s losing.”