With his election as Fulton County District Attorney in 1996, then-Solicitor General Paul Howard, Jr. made history when he became the first black District Attorney in Georgia history. Since being elected, he has mostly faced minimal — if any, opposition in his re-election campaigns. His closest race for re-election was his bid for a second term in 2000. But his long political career is on the verge of coming to an end next Tuesday, at the hands of his former chief deputy prosecutor.
Howard’s Recent Headlines
Paul Howard has made local and national news in recent months, though not for the best reasons. In late 2019, a Fulton County administrator filed a complaint accusing Howard of inappropriate comments and unwelcome physical contact. She also says that he demoted her after she denied his advances. We also learned recently that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), the top law enforcement agency in the state, opened a criminal investigation into Howard after he allegedly misused funds for a nonprofit to supplement his salary. He gained national recognition recently over his handling of the case against two officers who killed Rayshard Brooks at an Atlanta Wendy’s. Following Brooks’ death, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms called for the officers to be terminated and police chief Erika Shields abruptly stepped down. A few days later, Howard announced that he was filing murder charges against both officers. His swift action drew criticism from some who believed that he should not have pressed charges until an investigation could be completed. Others, including attorneys for the officers, have questioned whether his swift action was politically motivated, saying that he is facing a competitive primary and is only using the case for political capital. Mayor Bottoms herself has also noted that there are several cases of excessive force against Atlanta police officers that Howard’s office has not acted on. There have been calls for him to step aside and let an independent prosecutor take over the investigation, though Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr says that he does not have the power to remove a District Attorney from an investigation without a court order. It was also announced this week that Howard is facing a $6,500 fine by the state ethics board for failing to disclose his role as CEO of two non-profit organizations.
Howard’s opponent in next week’s Democratic runoff is Fani Willis (pronounced “FAWN-ee”). She used to work in Howard’s office, serving as his chief deputy prosecutor for 16 years. In this role, she helped Howard prosecute some of the county’s most high-profile cases. She played a leading role in the Atlanta cheating scandal, when a group of a dozen teachers and administrators in Atlanta Public Schools were accused of falsifying scores on a statewide standardized test. Willis served as one of the prosecutors during the trial and scored convictions for 11 of the 12 defendants. From the New York Times: “In a lengthy opening statement, peppered with both slangy Southernisms and pointed indignation, Fani Willis, an assistant district attorney in Fulton County, argued that the dozen educators in the courtroom […] had violated Georgia’s RICO statute, by using the ‘legitimate enterprise’ of the school system to carry out the illegitimate act of cheating.”
In her campaign against her former boss, Willis has said that it is time for change in the District Attorney’s office and that there have been too many problems within the office on Howard’s watch. She cited heavy staff turnover within the office and has called Howard’s personal problems as a “distraction.” In the Democratic runoff in June, Willis finished first with 42% of the vote to Howard’s 35%. Because no candidate received more than 50% of the vote, a runoff election is now on the calendar between the top two finishers. “What you will overwhelmingly see, is that the people of Fulton County, Georgia, they desperately want a change,” Willis told WSB-TV. Howard has continued to defend his record as Atlanta’s top prosecutor and has called the state investigation into his office an “administrative matter.” He says that he expects to be cleared of any wrongdoing once the investigation is completed. He has said that Willis has distorted his record, highlighting the fact that she used to work in his office and has praised him and his work in previous years. Howard has also hammered Willis for accepting contributions from police unions.
A poll this week from WSB-TV and Landmark Communications found Willis with a double-digit lead over Howard — 47% to Howard’s 31%. 22% of voters remain undecided ahead of next week’s vote. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the crosstabs reveal an interesting racial breakdown. Willis has an overwhelming lead among white voters, earning 63% to Howard’s 18%. Among black voters, Howard leads with 40% to Willis’ 38%. This suggests to me that there will be a huge regional divide in next week’s runoff. Those who know the geography of Fulton County well know that North Fulton is dominated by upscale whites, while South Fulton is dominated by African Americans. I expect Willis to be strongest in North Fulton and Howard to be strongest in South Fulton. Unfortunately for Howard, runoff electorates tend to skew heavily towards white voters. Willis’ huge lead among white voters may just be enough for her to secure a victory on Tuesday.
Howard is a very clear underdog in next Tuesday’s runoff, and I would be very surprised if he emerged as the victor. He is trailing in the polls by double digits and has name has been associated with some unflattering news headlines over the last year. Willis’ huge lead among white voters will also be difficult for him to overcome, given that the electorate in the runoff will not be as diverse as the electorate in the June primary.
Niles Francis (@NilesGApol) is a contributor to Decision Desk HQ.