The debate over whether Republican Karen Handel changed her positions on gay rights issues as she shifted from local to statewide politics flared anew Tuesday with the release of e-mails that appear to show her support for domestic partner benefits.
At 9 p.m. July 29, 2002, in an e-mail to Marc Yeager, who is a past president of the Georgia Log Cabin Republicans, someone using Handel's e-mail address made it clear that "I do support domestic partner benefits, and confirm my position here."
The e-mail is signed, "Fondly, Karen." But a spokesman for Handel's campaign for the GOP nomination for governor said Tuesday that Handel didn't write the e-mail and that she does not now and did not then support extending benefits to same-sex couples. Instead, the campaign said, her campaign manager in the race for the Fulton County Commission wrote it for her.
That campaign manager, Matt Montgomery, said Tuesday that he did not remember typing "Fondly, Karen," but he did say he wrote the message.
"I was going back and forth with Marc Yeager at the time," Montgomery said.
Yeager, who is no longer on the board of the Log Cabin Republicans, a group for gay and lesbian Republicans, questioned the Handel camp's claim.
"Clearly, in all the e-mails I have between myself and Karen, there was never, ever any thought I was e-mailing to anybody other than Karen," Yeager said. "I had her personal cellphone number. I was able to reach Karen directly. There was never any thought I had at the time. And I still don't now."
Yeager also said Handel was a dues-payingmember of the Georgia Log Cabin Republicans from 2002 to 2004, something Handel also denies.
Yeager released two other e-mails from 2002 and 2003 between himself and who he believed was Handel. Dan McLagan, Handel's campaign spokesman, says he can't verify the authenticity of those messages because Handel doesn't have records from that far back.
"We have no idea if they're real or imagined," he said.
But in the message that Montgomery said he wrote on Handel's behalf, he sent Yeager a draft response to a questionnaire that Handel was to submit to Georgia Equality, a nonpartisan gay rights organization. In a recent interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in May, Handel denied knowing anything about the questionnaire.
"I don't know who wrote it," she said. "It certainly wasn't written by me."
Asked in the same interview whether she ever supported domestic partner benefits, Handel said, "no, no, absolutely not."
Montgomery wrote the answers to the questionnaire, answers that expressed Handel's support for domestic partner benefits, a top issue to gay voters in the county at the time. Despite being Handel's campaign manager, McLagan said, Montgomery did not know her position on the issue, which he said was not an important one across the county electorate.
"Not only was that not a top five issue, it wasn't a top 100 issue, and clearly, Matt didn't know her position on it," McLagan said. "When he showed her the questionnaire she clearly told him that wasn't her position."
How could Montgomery have shown Handel the questionnaire if Handel said she hadn't seen it and didn't know who wrote it? McLagan isn't sure but said they could have discussed it instead. Handel's campaign would not make the candidate available for questions for this story.
The question of Handel's position on gay rights issues has dogged her for years, even as she continued to rack up electoral victories. After losing her 2002 bid for the Fulton County Commission, she won election as the commission's chairwoman in 2003. She then survived a brutal 2006 Republican primary for secretary of state and won again that November to become the first Republican to hold that office.
In her primary that year, then state Sen. Bill Stephens (R-Canton) tried to paint Handel as a gay rights supporter who also supported abortion rights. In her current race, primary opponent Nathan Deal, a former Republican congressman, accused Handel of supporting gay adoption while running for the Fulton County Commission. She denies it.
Just last week, Handel was bashed by an anti-abortion group because she did not sign on to its belief that abortion should be outlawed except to save the life of the mother and that limits should be put on in vitro fertilization.
Handel also supports legalized abortion for cases of rape and incest and said she opposes "severely limiting fertility treatments." She also accused the head of Georgia Right to Life of fabricating a quote from her.
The issues are important as they play to the base of the Republican Party, many of whose members oppose extending legal benefits to gay and lesbian couples. It also illustrates the difference in a race for local office in Fulton County, home to a large contingent of gay voters, and a statewide contest in a conservative Republican primary.
"That's such a tough thing for Republicans to tread on," said Kerwin Swint, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University. "Here, being a Fulton County politico and the going statewide, that's a really different electorate."
The dust-up now isn't going to help Handel, he said.
"It looks bad whenever you have a candidate in her position having to defend something that does matter to a lot of GOP voters in Georgia," Swint said. "It looks bad. Her campaign can continue to say it's a he-said-she-said thing, and yet there is a lot there that a lot of voters are really going to question."
Handel's campaign can deny she supported domestic partnerships, or that she said she did, but Yeager said he heard it directly from her.
"There were several conversations with myself and Karen, Mansell McCord, who was [former] chapter president at the time, that was a conversation that was fully vetted," Yeager said. "There was no question as to where she stood."
The current head of the Georgia Log Cabin Republicans, however, said he believes Yeager is mistaken. Jamie Enslee said membership rolls he has from the period in question don't show Handel as having been a member and that he doesn't remember her saying she supported domestic partner benefits.
But Enslee admitted he wasn't on the group's board at the time.
Regardless, Handel’s campaign said, there was no confusion about her stance on the issues, a fact proven when, after winning her 2003 election, she voted not to extend benefits to county employees’ domestic partners.
"It's clear that people did not believe she supported domestic benefits because when she voted against them nobody said a word," McLagan said. "They knew that was her position."