Georgia congressional candidates get testy in debate on finances, guns

The only televised debate in the 6th Congressional District contest quickly got personal Tuesday after U.S. Rep. Karen Handel confronted her Democratic opponent Lucy McBath, saying she was “misleading” voters about her family’s tax bills and the details of a move to Tennessee.

The Roswell Republican said McBath broke the law when her husband received a homestead exemption on a house in Marietta while the couple lived together in Tennessee in 2016 and 2017. McBath, a gun control advocate and first-time candidate for office, said she had “no idea” what Handel was talking about and framed her opponent as a career politician willing to do whatever it takes to win re-election.

The cutting exchange was one of several during the 30-minute Atlanta Press Club debate, which will air Wednesday evening on Georgia Public Broadcasting. McBath and Handel also tangled over border security, the #MeToo movement and gun laws.

The candidates for a nearby suburban Atlanta House seat, Republican U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall and Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux, also went head to head on the same stage earlier Tuesday. But the big fireworks came during the debate for the 6th District seat, which represents voters in Cobb, DeKalb and Fulton counties.

Handel zeroed in on McBath's past admission that she had briefly moved to Tennessee ahead of the 2016 presidential election. During that time, McBath and her husband received a homestead exemption from Cobb County, according to local property records.

“There’s nothing illegal about running for Congress in a district that you don’t live, but it is illegal to take a homestead exemption when you don’t deserve it,” Handel said, in a wink to one of the biggest issues that dogged Jon Ossoff, her Democratic opponent in last year’s special election who lived outside the district. “This is about honesty and transparency, and it is about paying your fair share of taxes just like the rest of the voters in the 6th District and the state of Georgia.”

McBath did not directly address some of Handel’s specific comments, including which state her cars are registered in and whether Cobb recently revoked her family’s homestead exemption. She said she had moved to Tennessee in 2016 to help her husband work through family issues and that she had switched her residency back to Georgia the following year.

McBath emphasized her long-standing ties to the region. She said she has lived in Georgia since 1990, buried her teenage son in Marietta after his death in 2012 and insisted that she has “diligently paid taxes in Georgia for every year that I have lived here.”

“You have run for five different seats five different times, and this is your first bid for re-election,” McBath told Handel. “But what I have understood about you and what I do know is that you’ll do or say anything in your continued pursuit of your own personal power.”

Under state law, a family can only claim one homestead exemption, on its primary residence. McBath’s husband has been registered to vote in Tennessee since 1991, according to Blount County records, and in 2017 he had two vehicles registered in the state. But he had been claiming a homestead exemption on the couple’s Cobb house since 2000. The blog All On Georgia reported Tuesday that McBath’s husband recently received a letter from Cobb County saying he no longer qualified for a homestead exemption on his house there.

‘Turn a blind eye’

Another fiery exchange came when the pair was asked about gun control and universal background checks.

McBath, who worked for Everytown for Gun Safety following her son's death, said she decided to run for Congress after it became clear that the Trump administration and the GOP Congress were continuing to "turn a blind eye" to gun control proposals such as required background checks for all firearms purchases and "red flag" laws, which would allow police or family members to seek court orders temporarily restricting people from obtaining guns if they show they are a danger to themselves or others.

Handel, McBath said, “got her seat” because of money and support from gun rights groups such as the National Rifle Association.

Handel highlighted votes she had taken to boost information sharing between federal agencies through the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System and open the door for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct research into the causes behind gun violence.

Handel in 2017 received an “A” rating from the NRA’s Political Victory fund, and the group this year donated $5,000 to the Republican’s campaign. A far bigger player in this year’s contest has been Everytown, which has spent roughly $3.7 million in pro-McBath ads this year.

Firearms also came up in the 7th District debate between Woodall and Bourdeaux.

The two candidates agreed they did not support teachers carrying guns in school, a policy that was floated after the shootings at a Parkland, Fla., high school earlier this year. Woodall said he would rather leave it up to trained guards to defend students.

“The law already forbids felons from purchasing guns. We can make it even more illegal than it already is, but it’s already illegal,” said Woodall, who is running for a fifth term representing the Gwinnett and Forsyth-based district. He added, “what we can’t do is let folks disguise their anti-gun policy agenda under the guise of protecting our children.”

Bourdeaux said “commonsense reforms” to gun laws were required, including banning military-style assault rifles, high-capacity magazines and bump stocks.

Handel and Woodall both defended President Donald Trump’s trade strategy, saying they thought the short-term pain of tariffs would be worth it for the long-term benefits of more favorable trade agreements.

“There’s only one nation on the planet that can take China on when it comes to unfair trade practices,” Woodall said. “That responsibility falls to the United States of America.”

Handel, who had previously raised alarm about the tariffs, said Trump so far has struck successful deals with Mexico and China.

Bourdeaux said it’s not clear the White House has a “clear strategy” on trade and said she was concerned about the rising costs of goods such as construction materials.

“I think we need a Congress that stands up to the president and holds him accountable for these kinds of things,” Bourdeaux said.


The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s election reporting is focused upon providing you with a deep understanding of the candidates, the key issues and what’s motivating Georgia voters. We are covering each race from all angles, giving equal weight to the candidates as you prepare to choose.

We are 13 days away from the Nov. 6 election.