Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard was handily defeated in a closely-watched Democratic runoff election on Tuesday by his former chief deputy prosecutor, Fani Willis (pronounced “FAWN-ee”), after over 2 decades in office. As of predawn on Wednesday morning, unofficial election results released by the Georgia Secretary of State showed Willis leading her former boss by a massive 46-point margin, 73% to Howard’s 27%, with 90% of the expected votes counted. The runoff election was required to take place between the top two finishers in the June primary election after no candidate earned more than 50% of the vote.
Howard, who became Atlanta’s top prosecutor in 1996, is the first black District Attorney in the history of the state of Georgia. He has rarely faced serious opposition in his re-election campaigns. His closest re-election was his bid for a second term in 2000. But his long career came to a screeching halt on Tuesday night as he faced criminal investigations, ethics fines and accusations of sexual harassment. He also gained national attention after he swiftly filed murder charges against the police officer who killed Rayshard Brooks at a Wendy’s drive-thru. Critics accused him of playing politics with the case, highlighting the fact that he was facing a contentious re-election campaign.
Willis is all but guaranteed to win the general election in November, as no Republican will be on the ballot for the office. She will become the county’s first female District Attorney. In choosing Willis, Fulton County Democrats chose an experienced prosecutor and a former judge. As Howard’s chief deputy prosecutor, she helped prosecute some of the county’s most high-profile cases. She was one of the lead prosecutors in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal, when a group of a dozen teachers and administrators were accused of falsifying standardized test scores. She secured convictions for 11 of the 12 defendants.
There was a lot of mudslinging throughout the campaign. Howard accused Willis of distorting his record for political gain, noting that she used to work in his office and has spoken highly of him in the past. He has also criticized her for accepting donations from local police unions. Willis dismissed the investigations into Howard as “distractions” and issued a dire prediction that he could be criminally prosecuted before the end of the year. She accused Howard of politicizing the office and was critical of his swift decision to charge the officer who killed Brooks.
“There is no glass ceiling. It’s time to shatter it,” a victorious Willis told jubilant supporters on Tuesday night. She said that she would be a District Attorney who brings justice to everyone in Fulton County, “whether you are rich or poor. Prominent or private. Black, white, Hispanic, Asian. Whether you’re from the north side or the south side.”
A somber Howard delivered his concession remarks outside of a Chicago-style deep dish pizza restaurant late Tuesday night. He said that he would work with Willis to ensure a smooth transition into her new role and maintained that he leaves office with no regrets. “My hope has always been that we could have one system of justice — that it would be the same system for the police as it is with any defendants and I’m hoping that Ms. Willis will continue that tradition,” Howard told FOX 5 Atlanta in his concession remarks. He remained tight-lipped about any of his future plans but said that he came into the District Attorney’s office with pride and that he is leaving the office that same way.