“I have come to the realization that the right thing to do for my community is to withdraw from the race. I will do so today,” Melissa Howard, the candidate, told ABC7.
Howard’s exit comes after a week of swirling questions around her academic credentials. On the Florida candidate’s campaign website, she claimed to be a graduate of Miami University in Ohio.
FLA News Online, a conservative news website, first published the revelations last week that an educational database actually “certified that Howard didn’t have a degree as she claimed on her campaign website.”
The story gained national attention, forcing Howard to respond by posting photos on Twitter of herself seated on a couch with what she claimed to be her framed degree. She also provided media with what she claimed to be a college transcript.
Miami University finally confirmed that Howard never graduated in 1996—as she had originally claimed—and that the diploma in the photograph was inconsistent with a real one.
Howard called the reports “fake news,” and quickly deleted the photographs. Her Twitter account has since been changed to private.
But by Monday, the Florida businesswoman and first-time politician admitted she had lied.
“I would like to apologize to my family and my supporters for this situation,” Howard said in a statement. “It was not my intent to deceive or mislead anyone. I made a mistake in saying that I completed my degree. What I did was wrong and set a bad example for someone seeking public service. I am staying in the race and intend to win and lead by example from now on.”
Her statement continued: “I will continue to serve my community and the various causes and charities that I've always supported. I will continue to work to improve the lives of other people. I made a terrible error in judgment. I am thankful for everyone who gave me so much toward my success, and I am deeply sorry.”
Her decision to drop out of the race comes just two weeks before Florida’s 73rd district primary election, for which thousands of voters have already submitted their ballots.
“I think she did the right thing for the community,” said Sarasota GOP chairman Joe Gruters, who is vacating the seat Howard ran for. “I think it saved a lot of people a lot of grief and I hope that she finds whatever peace that she needs and moves forward and has a lot of success. But we’re glad she’s out of the race and we’re focused on winning in November.”
But political embarrassment might not be the only problem Howard faces going forward.
Her Republican primary opponent, Air Force veteran Tommy Gregory, believes that Howard should be condemned not only for lying but also for breaking the law.
“Melissa Howard has lied, broken the law, and refused to apologize,” Gregory said in a statement Monday to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. “In the military, she would be discharged dishonorably. We now have a clear distinction for the voters, and I will be making my case that I have the courage and integrity to fight the establishment and clean up the corruption that has caused conservatives to lose faith in our elected officials.”