Story updated at 8:40 p.m.
U.S. Rep. Karen Handel is reviving one of her most stinging attacks from last year's special election to hit Lucy McBath, the Democrat vying for her 6th District seat this fall.
The Roswell Republican relentlessly swung at Democratic opponent Jon Ossoff last year for living outside of the congressional district, a "he's not one of us" argument she credits with helping punch her ticket to Washington.
Handel debuted a similar line of attack against McBath this weekend, framing the gun control advocate as an occasional 6th District resident with murky personal finances and a spotty voting history.
At a GOP breakfast in Marietta on Saturday, Handel recalled comments McBath made at a May pre-primary debate, in which the former flight attendant revealed she moved briefly to Tennessee in 2016. McBath said her husband was a permanent resident of the Volunteer State and that she relocated to help him handle some family issues before she moved back to the 6th District in 2017.
Handel used that admission to raise questions about whether McBath was dodging taxes since her husband Curtis has claimed the homestead exemption for their Cobb County home for years.
“Now y’all, I’m just a former county commission chairman,” said Handel, referring to her stint as head of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners in the mid-2000s. “But I thought taking a homestead exemption here while claiming permanent residency there was a pretty big no-no.”
Handel also hit McBath for not voting in the 2017 special election and her work as a Hillary Clinton surrogate the year prior.
“Luuuuucy, I think you’ve got some explaining to do,” Handel crescendoed, borrowing Ricky Ricardo’s catchphrase from “I Love Lucy” as she received laughs and applause from the friendly crowd.
The McBath campaign called Handel’s attacks “baseless” and emphasized her longstanding ties to the 6th District.
“It is not surprising that a career politician like Karen Handel is making baseless attacks, but these accusations are a new low,” said campaign spokesman Jake Orvis. “This is last year’s playbook written by a consultant somewhere in DC.”
Cobb County allows families to apply for a homestead exemption to reduce their property taxes on a home they claim as their "primary residence on Jan. 1." Once a person secures such an exemption, it is automatically renewed each year unless there is a "change in ownership, residence or you wish to qualify for a higher exemption."
The McBaths’ living situation is unconventional. Curtis is a flight attendant and owns or co-owns three parcels of land in Tennessee, according to Blount County property records.
A married couple can claim an exemption on only one home, no matter what state it’s in, according to the Cobb County Tax Commissioner’s office.
Cobb County records show Curtis has claimed the homestead exemption on his Northeast Marietta home – where two of Lucy’s charities are also registered – since 2000. His Tennessee forms do not mention such an exemption – Blount County does not offer them – and they also list his Marietta house as the mailing address.
However, Lucy McBath's May federal financial disclosure lists as assets two cars owned by her husband that are located in Tennessee, raising questions about whether he resides there or in Georgia.
Cobb County’s tax website states that for a person to claim the homestead exemption, cars must be registered in the county and a person must be a permanent legal resident of the state.
The McBath campaign declined to comment on the record about whether Curtis is a permanent resident of Tennessee or Georgia or if he qualified for the exemption as the longtime owner of the Marietta home.
He is not registered to vote in Cobb, according to the county board of elections.
Mitchell Graham, an attorney specializing in property tax law, said issues could arise if a tax assessor determines that McBath’s husband cannot claim Cobb as his primary residence.
“If it’s in his name and he stays in the other one primarily, then there could be a problem with the homestead exemption here in Atlanta,” said Graham, who works for the firm G. Roger Land & Associates.
If the county receives a complaint, there could be an investigation to determine where Curtis McBath spends most of his time.
“The car registration alone: I don’t think that would necessarily be determining,” Graham said. “The county would look for other evidence. Maybe part of the evidence is, yes, they are married and if she spends the majority of her time in Atlanta so might he.”
Both Handel and McBath have gone out of their way in recent months to emphasize their respective roots in the region.
McBath's recently-released television ad highlights her work for Atlanta-based Delta, and in an earlier statement to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Orvis underscored that McBath has lived in Georgia for nearly three decades.
“The facts are that Lucy moved to Georgia in 1990, while Karen Handel was still living in Washington,” he said. “Lucy raised her son, Jordan, in the sixth district. He attended Marietta High School. Lucy has lived in her home in Marietta in the Sixth District since 2008.”
Orvis said McBath “briefly” changed her residency to Tennessee during the 2016 presidential cycle, “when Lucy was traveling extensively and for family matters,” but that she is now registered to vote in Marietta.
“Because of her ties to her Marietta neighborhood, she chose to return her residency back to Marietta and renewed her voter registration. Lucy voted for herself on May 22, July 24, and will do so on November 6th as well,” he said.
Meanwhile, the bio that appears at the bottom of all of Handel’s press releases mentions that she and her husband Steve have lived in the district, which includes portions of Cobb, Fulton and DeKalb counties, for nearly a quarter-century.
This story was reported with help from staff writer Tia Mitchell, Ashley Soriano and the Georgia News Lab, a journalism partnership between Georgia universities, the AJC and WSB-TV.
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