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'We Made Herstory': Fani Willis Poised To Become First Woman DA in Georgia County

Fani Willis is poised to become the next Fulton County District Attorney after winning a runoff election against her former boss on Tuesday. Willis is seen here in 2014 during the trial of 12 former Atlanta Public Schools educators accused in a conspiracy to inflate state test scores. (Kent D. Johnson/AP)
Fani Willis is poised to become the next Fulton County District Attorney after winning a runoff election against her former boss on Tuesday. Willis is seen here in 2014 during the trial of 12 former Atlanta Public Schools educators accused in a conspiracy to inflate state test scores. (Kent D. Johnson/AP)

The longtime Fulton County, Ga., District Attorney, who in recent weeks gained national attention for leading the prosecution of white police officers in the killing of Rayshard Brooks, was trounced in primary runoff on Tuesday by his former employee.

Paul Howard, who became the first Black district attorney in Georgia when he assumed office in 1997, was crushed by Fani Willis who secured more than 73% of the vote.

Howard came in second during the June primary behind Willis, but a runoff was triggered when neither surpassed 50% of the vote.

"Y'all we made herstory," said Willis, who is Black, to a group of supporters gathered outside her Midtown Atlanta-area campaign headquarters.

There is no Republican qualified for the general election, effectively making Willis the next Fulton County District Attorney. She is poised to become the first woman to lead the district attorney's office.

"My staff and I will do what's right, every time and all the time, whether the news cameras are on us or we're handling a case that no one knows but us and that family," Willis said.

"That's what you have the right to respect and that's what I will do."

Willis was hired by Howard and worked in his office for 16 years, eventually being placed in the Major Case and Cold Case Divisions from 2004 to 2012 and was subsequently named deputy district attorney of the Complex Trial Division, according to her campaign website. In 2018, she left the DA's office and opened her own practice.

Willis was the lead prosecutor in the trial of 12 Atlanta educators who were charged in a widespread cheating scandal where students' standardized test scores were inflated.

All but one of those educators was found guilty of racketeering, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports.

The paper also notes Howard, who had been seeking his seventh term, had been dogged in recent weeks by a number of scandals, including several investigations into his conduct in office. The AJC adds:

"Howard faces federal lawsuits alleging discrimination or sexual harassment by subordinates past and present. The [Georgia Bureau of Investigation] 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 also is facing scrutiny for his handling of the Rayshard Brooks case, where Garrett Rolfe, the now-fired Atlanta police officer shot and killed Brooks on the night of June 12 in a Wendy's restaurant parking lot.

Howard charged Rolfe with felony murder and 10 other counts five days after the shooting. The former officer faces a possible life sentence without parole if convicted.

Rolfe is out on bond, as is officer Devin Brosnan, who is facing aggravated assault and other lesser charges. He remains with the Atlanta Police Department.

Critics, including Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga, who is himself in a tight contest in November for a U.S. Senate seat, have accused Howard of being driven by "political pressure" when his office filed charges against the officers, both of whom are white.

Collins last month formally asked Attorney General William Barr to launch a probe into "the egregious abuse of power" by Howard in the case.

Soon after Collins' request, GBI reportedly expanded its investigation of Howard's conduct in office to include why the Fulton County District Attorney's office issued grand jury subpoenas connected to the Brooks' shooting but did not impanel a grand jury.

"I was so humbled to get this job in the first place," Howard said in remarks to reporters Tuesday night after conceding the race. "I came with pride and I'm leaving with pride."

For her part, Willis promised to bring compassion, transparency and integrity to the office.

"You have my word that during my tenure as district attorney in Fulton County, we will be a beacon ... for justice and ethics in Georgia and in this nation," Willis said.

She gave a nod to another woman who made history Tuesday, Sen. Kamala Harris of California who was named by presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden to be his running mate.

Harris is the first Black and first Asian American to be nominated as a vice presidential nominee by a major U.S. political party.

Both women attended a historically black university in Washington, D.C.

"And let me say one more thing," Willis said. "Ain't it good to be an alumni of Howard University" which drew cheers from her supporters.

Copyright NPR 2020.

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