OPINION: Fani Willis is ready for the fire

The bulk of what most Americans know about Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis (it’s pronounced “FAH-nee, by the way) is what former President Donald Trump has angrily said about her from the podium at his campaign rallies. Namely, Trump’s said she’s a “racist,” “lunatic,” “Marxist” district attorney, so crazed with political delusions that she’s coming after him over a “perfect phone call” to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

Coming from a thrice-indicted presidential candidate who really ought to have better things to do with his time than publicly insult her, Willis should take Trump’s nonsense as a compliment, and she probably does.

But what Trump will soon learn about Willis, and the rest of the world will, too, if she decides to file criminal charges against him and his associates involving election interference in Georgia, is that the Fulton County DA is well known in the state as a methodical, often ferocious prosecutor, not a “lunatic” anything.

She argued more than 100 murder cases to conviction during her 17-plus years as a staff lawyer in the Fulton County DA’s office before she ran to replace her boss, Paul Howard, in 2020.

She has also used Georgia’s racketeering statute to put everyone from schoolteachers to “gangbangers” behind bars. If the former president is indeed in her sights, she’s likely to use the multipronged strategy that’s worked for her plenty of times before.

Facing a “lunatic” lawyer would be the best-case scenario for Trump in Georgia, but Willis is anything but.

Along with not being unhinged, Willis is also far from being a Marxist, as Trump often calls her. In fact she quickly found common ground with Republican lawmakers during her first term in office once it became clear they shared a focus on going after violent criminal offenders.

“I’m not into polite conversations. I’m into telling you the truth,” Willis told a packed state Senate committee room last year.

At that hearing, she detailed the 3,783 uncharged drug cases, yearslong rape kit backlog and chronic delays in ballistics testing in Fulton County, and then she blamed Republican senators for chronically underfunding the state crime lab that processes them all.

“This. Is. A. State. Problem,” she said.

Republicans greenlit the funding she said was needed, and the GOP chairman later praised her for her “passion, integrity and candor.”

Months earlier, Willis had literally begged for money she said her office needed to work through a crippling backlog of murder, rape, gang and trafficking cases exacerbated by COVID-19 court closures.

“People act like I’m talking about library books,” she told me at the time. “I’m talking about lives.”

Although Fulton County commissioners were slow to put up the funding at first, she eventually got the money she asked for then, too.

Willis’ sugarcoat-nothing approach hasn’t always made her friends in political circles. County commissioners have accused Willis of grandstanding. She also clashed with Republicans this year when Gov. Brian Kemp pushed a bill to give a GOP-appointed panel oversight of locally elected DAs, legislation Willis said was racially motivated.

She’s also made mistakes in the Trump investigation, including hosting a campaign fundraiser for the opponent of one the targets of her investigation.

But on the big things so far in the Trump case — the timing, the pace, the locked-down secrecy from inside her team when it’s shared only what it wanted the public to know — she’s largely gotten it right.

If Willis does move forward with indictments against Trump and his associates this month, the political effects for her aren’t clear, but they are important. That’s because she, like Trump, is running for reelection in 2024.

Although Fulton is unquestionably Democratic and Joe Biden won the county by a landslide, Willis has been asked from the start whether pursuing Trump isn’t a distraction from the murders, rapes and gang trials her office needs to handle, too.

The cost to taxpayers is also unknown, as is the ultimate result. Can she get a conviction of the former president if she pursues it?

Also, if Willis does decide to indict Trump, she’s widely expected to also charge other Republicans in the state for their role in the potential conspiracy to overturn the 2020 elections.

Should a small-town election official really face hard time for going along with a sitting president if he insisted the election was stolen? She’ll have to make that case, but she’s already shown she’s willing to go after both small-time crooks and big-time felons.

The final thing that Trump will soon learn about Fani Willis is that, while other people he’s harassed before have gone away quietly, Willis is unlikely to be one of them. She’s shown over and over that leaving the scene is not her thing. Willis is here for the long haul.

When I spoke with her nearly two years ago about her Trump investigation — then in its early stages — she said everyone, including Trump, would need to be patient, that she wanted to make sure her office did everything right.

“I really do believe Lady Justice is blind,” she said. “It should not matter how affluent you are or how impoverished you are, you deserve the same quality of work, both if you’re the person being looked at or if you’re the citizens where possibly someone attempted to deprive you of your right to vote.”

It’s clear now that Willis is finally ready to move forward. We’ll know soon what she’s decided to do.

“The work is accomplished,” she told 11Alive over the weekend. “We’ve been working for 2 1/2 years. We’re ready to go.”

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