Opinion: A ‘uniquely American’ story finds its next chapter in Congress

June 20, 2017, Atlanta: Karen Handel makes a early appearance to thank her supporters after the first returns came in during her election night party in the 6th District race with Jon Ossoff on Tuesday, June 20, 2017, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.co
Caption
June 20, 2017, Atlanta: Karen Handel makes a early appearance to thank her supporters after the first returns came in during her election night party in the 6th District race with Jon Ossoff on Tuesday, June 20, 2017, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.co

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Georgia’s 6th Congressional District has been dissected and analyzed every which way over the past four months. It’s the land of the educated, the affluent, the fiscally conservative but socially moderate. The labels were attempts to divine which candidate was best-positioned to win over voters in a close-fought special election.

But we the pundits left out one important characteristic: The 6th is also the land of not just second, but third political chances.

Before Karen Handel, who on Tuesday night became the district’s new congresswoman, there was Johnny Isakson: Lost a race for governor. Lost another for the U.S. Senate. Got one more crack at it in the 6th — his was a special election, too — and finally broke through.

Still, despite the example of Isakson, who now is one of the most beloved figures in Georgia politics and fittingly contributed an endorsement broadcast on Atlanta’s airwaves in recent weeks, surely there were moments when Handel thought this day, this victory, would never come for her?

"I really, after the (2014) Senate race, I was moving on," she said in a late-Tuesday phone call. But, "in life, opportunities come, and you have to evaluate them when they're in front of you."

(Our conversation had to be put on hold in between those sentences of hers. Some fellow named Donald Trump was on the other line offering congratulations.)

“I can’t help but think,” she went on, “that as intense as this race became, the money, the scrutiny … that those other races, the other steps in my life, helped me to be prepared in this race.”

Such experience isn’t always deemed an asset in elections. Her opponent branded her a “career politician.” Others called her worse, some of it unprintable, but one of the labels they tried to pin on her was: loser. Keeps running, keeps losing.

Personally, I never saw Handel’s persistence in stepping into the arena as an unseemly inability to get the message that she wasn’t wanted. Rather, it seemed like the right kind of ambition: the kind born of knowing one has much to contribute, and has overcome long odds before.

Handel’s life story is well-known by now: left an abusive home at 17; finished high school; tried to balance college with supporting herself but, not uncommonly for the time, wound up choosing the latter; went on to success both in the public sector and the corporate world. It’s a story that merits our admiration, and more.

“Obviously, it’s a better feeling to be on the side of winning,” she reflected, “but I really … feel like it’s bigger than me. It’s not lost on me, the responsibility that comes with being the first Republican woman in Congress from the state. But equally, it is a message — a story, really, of resilience and ability to achieve by not letting the circumstances in which you grow up determine your future.

“That, I hope for a lot of people, can give them optimism. Because it really is uniquely American, that someone like me could be in this position; that could only happen in this country. So I understand how a person out there who’s struggling will look at this.”

That kind of story, of long odds overcome and second or third chances seized, is one both sides of the political aisle tell ourselves to celebrate. For once, we’re both right.