Karen Handel has held public office on and off for the past 11 years, but it’s now, in her bid for the U.S. Senate, that the former Georgia secretary of state believes she’s found her voice.
As Handel, 52, fights for one of the two top spots in Tuesday’s Republican primary, she’s found her past and her positions are selling points.
“Each one of us, we are the sum of all the experiences that we’ve had up until this moment,” Handel said in an interview after a recent campaign rally. “I just, I don’t know, have a greater degree of confidence in who I am and what I believe.”
That confidence has been hard-won.
Georgia voters — especially those paying attention to the Republican U.S. Senate race — are likely familiar with Handel’s back story. Her past is now a staple of her own stump speech, advertisements, media profiles and — in at least one instance — the subject of an opponent’s unscripted dig.
For those who don’t know: Handel left a troubled home in Upper Marlboro, Md., at 17 rather than stay with an alcoholic mother who pulled a gun on her. She graduated from high school and took college courses at night and on weekends but never graduated and later earned an accountant’s license.
What followed was a series of short stints in private and public work. She worked in the government affairs office at Hallmark Cards and then for Marilyn Quayle in the office of the wife of Vice President Dan Quayle. A wedding and a move to Atlanta soon followed.
In 2000, Handel became president and CEO of the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce. A bid for the Fulton County Commission in 2002 failed, but she was hired to be deputy chief of staff to then-Gov. Sonny Perdue.
In 2003, Fulton County Commission Chairman Mike Kenn resigned with three years left on his term, and Handel ran and won, as a Republican in a Democratic county. She was elected secretary of state after successfully leading Fulton through a $100 million budget crisis.
She served in that statewide office for just shy of three years before resigning in late 2009 to run for governor. She made the Republican runoff against Nathan Deal but fell 2,500 votes short of victory.
Eight months later, Handel was in Washington, as vice president of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, and soon to be thrust into the frothing national debate on abortion. In January 2012, Komen announced it would end grants to Planned Parenthood, the women’s health organization that opponents target for performing abortions.
Handel was thrust into the national spotlight, vilified by abortion rights supporters as a Republican plant on Komen’s staff and heralded as as hero on the right. For Handel, who resigned from Komen in February 2012, the situation was bizarre.
During the 2010 gubernatorial race, Georgia Right to Life criticized Handel for not being a strong enough opponent of abortion because she supported legal abortions in the cases of rape, incest or when the mother’s life is in danger. GRTL President Dan Becker even referred to Handel as “barren,” a comment that was particularly hurtful as Handel and her husband, Steve, tried for a decade to have a child.
It’s a terribly personal issue for Handel, yet one that is also terribly important in Republican politics.
“To have to be a woman and address issues of not being able to have a child, something that is still really an intense disappointment for me in my life and then, fast-forward, to the irony of not being pro-life enough for the governor’s race and then made out to be some sort of pro-life zealot during the Planned Parenthood thing,” she said.
Meanwhile, Handel’s lack of a college degree has become a campaign issue, albeit accidentally. David Perdue, a former CEO of Dollar General and Reebok, a front-runner in the Senate race, was caught on video denigrating the “high school graduate in this race.”
Handel seized on the comment, labeled it “demeaning to the thousands of other Georgians who have similar backgrounds, people who are working so hard every single day and did not live a life of privilege but were still able to make something of themselves.”
The backlash against Perdue, a cousin to the former governor who once hired Handel, gave her a bump in the polls.
Again, it shows how Handel’s unique background has come to define her, not just as a person but as a candidate. Her supporters embrace it.
“She’s just a genuine person,” Amy Peil, 54, of Brookhaven said after a campaign rally featuring Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer. “I totally trust her. I know she can win the battles for us.”
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