Personal Journeys: A new Sunday feature that spotlights the lives of extraordinary individuals and the stories that define our region and connect our community.
For one dark week last winter, a showdown broke out between Susan G. Komen for the Cure and Planned Parenthood, two powerhouse women’s health nonprofits and longtime allies in the fight against breast cancer. On Jan. 31, Komen’s decision to halt $680,000 in annual funds to Planned Parenthood went public.
Before you knew it, the whole country was choosing up sides in a “she said, she said” battle that underscored suspicions this decision was really about the third rail of the American culture wars, abortion. And everyone, it seemed, wanted to know who was responsible for the sudden divorce.
Enter, Karen Handel. The Roswell resident had become Komen’s vice president of public policy the previous April, seven months after ending her oh-so-close campaign for Georgia governor. It was a campaign that had partially — and quite publicly — foundered on the shoals of conservative suspicions about the soundness of her pro-life credentials. Within hours, critics of the Komen decision had ferreted out Handel’s political history as a Republican ex-secretary of state and Fulton Commission chair and begun floating theories that she’d gone to Komen with the specific goal of cutting off Planned Parenthood. Even, perhaps to make herself a more attractive candidate in the future.
Petitions called on Komen to restore Planned Parenthood’s funding and fire Handel, bloggers painted her as a “right-wing nut job,” and the smoking gun, as it were, was discovered in something she’d previously written on her gubernatorial campaign Web site:
“Since I am pro-life, I do not support the mission of Planned Parenthood.”
It was all over but the exit interviewing. Handel, 50, resigned from Komen on Feb. 7, talked to a few reporters, then returned to the same sense-soothing Georgia coast where she’d headed after her quest to become governor had suddenly gone “from 100 to zero.”
This time, though, she never made it to zero. Writing a book was never in her plans, Handel says now. But when a literary agent from the same company that has handled Herman Cain and Mike Huckabee approached her, well, she at least had to consider it.
“I have a really hard time abiding by falsehoods being left in place,” said Handel, whose book, “Planned Bullyhood,” dominated headlines for several days after its release on Sept. 11. “A really hard time.”
She can’t ever forget what she learned in the early 1990s working for Marilyn Quayle, whose husband was then the relentlessly ridiculed vice president of the United States:
“No one gets to define who you are except for you.”
2. ‘In life, sometimes you just lose’
“Planned Bullyhood” is Handel’s latest attempt to live her personal mantra. In the book, she reveals the strengths and foibles that nearly made her Georgia’s first woman governor: a scrappy, driven politician who spoils for a good fight and won’t leave the ring until she’s delivered her last, best punch.
Two years removed from her narrow loss to Gov. Nathan Deal in the GOP primary, Handel couldn’t resist using the book to settle scores and land a few well-chosen barbs at Deal (“one of the most corrupt politicians in Washington”), former Senate majority leader Eric Johnson (described as protective of the Gold Dome’s good ol’ boy culture) and the ethically challenged Legislature as a whole.
Handel even picks the scab of her confrontation with Georgia Right to Life, the influential conservative group that opposed her run for governor because she refused to change her position on abortion. Handel opposes abortion but supports exceptions in cases of rape, incest or the life of the mother.
In the book, Handel makes clear she isn’t changing that view, prompting GRTL to issue a statement that appears to make a future reconciliation unlikely:
“We regret that Mrs. Handel used her book to denounce GRTL for its rock-solid pro-life position,” the statement said. “We stand by our policy of only endorsing candidates who truly commit to protect all innocent human life from the moment of conception until natural death.”
Coy about her future, Handel nonetheless acts like a woman carefully plotting her next move.
Interviews about her life and the book, one in a Midtown law office and another at her Roswell home, were carefully negotiated and included a top gubernatorial campaign aide, Dan McLagan. Even a benign question about her love of football — one of Handel’s passions — was parsed. Handel, who grew up in Maryland, is a Colts fan — but also a devoted Falcons fan, McLagan was sure to point out.
Indeed, Handel’s well-honed political veneer crumbled only once: Her face fell when asked about Peyton Manning, the Colts’ legendary quarterback, who signed with the Denver Broncos in the off season.
“You know, Peyton Manning could have picked any other team to go to but the Broncos and it would’ve been OK,” she said mournfully, explaining how the hurt of Denver G.M. John Elway refusing to play for the Colts years ago still lingers. “Any real Colts fan cannot abide the Denver Broncos and John Elway!”
In person, Handel is surprisingly down to earth and seems almost small when measured against her high-profile tenure as Georgia Secretary of State and candidate for governor.
She took up distance running after losing the governor’s race and suspects that’s why her hair is less gray now and her golf handicap has dropped a full stroke to 25. That first part may or may not have been a joke; Handel also comes off more funny in person, as when she unexpectedly posited that the real reason her husband, Steve, had phoned for a date during her Quayle days was to see if she actually worked at the White House.
She was most anxious to talk about “Planned Bullyhood,” of course, and its overarching theme: That, yes, Komen had suffered from its own share of dysfunction and infighting. But what was much worse was how Planned Parenthood had attacked Komen to further its own liberal agenda and help advance a clever Democratic Party scheme to peddle the notion of a conservative “war on women.”
But Handel also seemed to understand that there’s similar interest in her personal story, and she didn’t flinch when the questioning turned to her difficult childhood or the long, unsuccessful struggle with infertility she and her husband went through.
Still, she’s not about to go all Bill Clinton confessional in an interview. “In life, sometimes you just lose,” she said about not being able to have a child. “It’s not that you’re bad or did something bad … you just have to regroup and move on.”
A few days before the book came out, Karen Handel welcomed a reporter and a photographer into the couple’s sundrenched home nestled along a golf course in Roswell. Its bookshelves are filled with thrillers and historical biographies, framed photos (Karen being sworn in as secretary of state, Steve and Karen on their wedding day 20 years ago this November) and golf trophies bespeaking their shared love for the game that practically lives in their backyard.
But nothing could compete with the story of how far Handel had come already. She may be down at times, but she’s never out of the drive to speak for herself — even if it’s just to “shush!” the voices of doubt that could creep into her head. No one gets to define Karen Handel except for Karen Handel, the kid from a bad home who went from not having a college degree to working at the White House and very nearly having her name on the door of the governor’s office. No matter how hard she has to work at it. No matter, even, that it doesn’t always seem to be in her best interest to do so.
3. ‘It was impossible to say no to her.’
No one gets to define who you are except for you.
In truth, she heard it from Ronald Reagan first.
Handel was just trying to get out of high school in one piece when she thought she heard the soon-to-be 40th president of the United States speak to her directly.
Handel grew up in a Maryland home with a mother she describes as a “very, very serious alcoholic,” and where financial and emotional challenges still lingered from the severe medical condition her younger sister had been born with.
“I never knew what a day was going to bring, I really didn’t,” recalls Handel, the oldest of three children who says she took it upon herself to look after her little sister, Jennifer.
Things got so bad mid-way through her senior year of high school that Handel moved out and stayed with another family in the neighborhood until she graduated.
And yes, she stresses, she did graduate. Not acquire a general equivalency degree, as whispers had it during the gubernatorial campaign. It’s a subject Handel herself brings up during the interview and practically the thing she becomes most emotional about.
“That was such an issue with me because I know how hard I worked to be able to keep up with school and make A’s and to be there every day, while at the same time getting my sister off to school, making sure she had a shower or bath that day and that her hair was brushed and her homework was done, that she had breakfast before she left, all of those things,” Handel said all in a rush, before finally pausing for breath. “Again, I guess it’s just one of those things that when there’s a lie out there, I just have a deep need to make sure the truth is told.”
Politics was the farthest thing from her mind then. But not Reagan.
“It’s very trite for people my age” — especially Republicans running for office — to cite Reagan as an important influence in their lives, Handel conceded. Then she proceeded to prove that point by uttering some boilerplate stuff about how Reagan was “a leader who was able to convey to Americans that we can be more and better than we are today.”
But set that statement against the backdrop of a kid moving out of a bad home, with no money to go to college full time and an immediate future as a clerk typist for the American Association of Retired Persons, and suddenly, none of it sounds the least bit boilerplate or trite.
“Think about this,” Handel said. “I’ve just left home and this was an individual who spoke straight to me. Or at least that’s how it felt: That this country can be so much more and our better days are ahead. And if that can be true for a nation, then it had to be true for this young girl.”
In “Planned Bullyhood,” Handel dispenses with those first few post-high school years in a single paragraph — she went from AARP to a law firm while taking night college courses in accounting — and says that “on a whim” she applied for a job with Rae Forker Evans, then Hallmark Cards’ vice president of national affairs.
“She came in and after some pleasantries she said directly, ’I know my resume doesn’t immediately suggest I can do the job. Tell me what you’re looking for,’” Evans recalls. “I remember thinking, I can’t believe she just did that to me. That’s pretty direct.”
Handel had long red fingernails and Evans wondered, could she type? “She said ‘115 words per minute.’ So I said, ‘Taking dictation’s also required.’ And she said ‘I’ve been jotting down notes as we’ve been talking. Would you like me to read them back to you?’”
“I think it was impossible to say no to her,” Evans concluded.
Moving to Quayle’s office a few years later, Handel wrote speeches, handled constituent services and was a liaison to breast cancer groups like the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, as it was then known. Quayle’s support was a driving force behind Komen’s First National Race for the Cure, which Evans chaired and Handel worked on. That may be when she caught the political bug.
“We were all caught up in the enormity of pulling off this emotional event in D.C,” said Evans, a longtime Komen consultant and self-described pro-choice Republican. “It was almost like the Kennedy call to action for young people: ‘We can make a difference.’”
Early in 1994, a job promotion for Steve Handel brought the couple to metro Atlanta. For much of the next decade, Karen focused on the business world — at KPMG, Ciba Vision and finally, running the North Fulton Chamber of Commerce — while pursuing her ultimate goal of becoming a mother. But it was not to be. “We crossed the bridge together” to a life without children of their own, Handel writes in her book, explaining how she and Steve ultimately put their trust in God that “a new path was being prepared for us.”
4. ‘Did I want to be governor? Obviously.’
In 2002, Handel was recruited to run for a county commission seat. She lost, but won the chairmanship when it unexpectedly opened up in 2003. Three years later, she was elected secretary of state.
Handel resigned that job a year early to concentrate full time on winning the Republican gubernatorial primary (and to be able to raise money while the General Assembly was in session, which she couldn’t do as an elected official). She quickly set about defining herself as the candidate of ethics reform and job growth.
And yet it was virtually impossible for voters and the media not to focus on the fact that she was the only woman in the seven-candidate Republican field.
Impossible, in part, because Handel made it that way.
There was her “Sex, Lies and Lobbyists” speech at a “Women for Handel” fund-raiser the first week after she left office. She couldn’t have picked a bigger, more testosterone-soaked target. The General Assembly was just coming back into session after months of unflattering revelations about its supposed “frat house” culture, highlighted by then-House Speaker Glenn Richardson’s affair with a lobbyist.
A few months later, when a Republican candidate forum included longshot Ray McBerry, who’d denied accusations of a past inappropriate relationship with a teenage girl, Handel announced she wouldn’t share a stage with him in the future. And made good on that pledge.
Yet arguably, the most memorable moment came during a runoff debate. That’s when Handel told ex-congressman Deal that it was “time to put the big boy pants on” and stop “squealing” about her campaign ads that described him as a “corrupt relic of Washington, D.C.”
It was the sort of “No, she did-n’t!” moment that made Handel’s candidacy even harder to ignore. In the end, however, Handel’s attempt to define Deal was drowned out by a much bigger effort to define her. The whisper campaign grew to a roar.
Karen Handel doesn’t finish what she starts. Karen Handel can’t make up her mind — or is it that she just can’t tell the truth? — about giving rights to gays or government money to Planned Parenthood. Karen’s not conservative enough. Karen’s not a “real” Christian. Don’t vote for Karen.
In the end, about 2,500 people were the margin of difference. The final tally reconfirmed for about the millionth time since cavemen started running for office and accusing each other of being too pro- or anti-dinosaur how hard it is not to get defined by others when you’re in the public eye.
It’s a lesson that gets pounded into politicians particularly hard. Female ones even harder than that.
“There’s a fine line between being [seen as] a strong, forceful, effective leader as a woman and some people thinking, ‘Oh, she’s just mean, nasty or the “B” word,’” said Rob Simms, who served as her deputy chief of staff in the secretary of state’s office. “That is usually never the case with male candidates. You don’t hear, ‘Oh, he’s too strong a leader,’ or ‘Oh, he’s so serious.’”
Handel says her run wasn’t about defining herself as the only female candidate in the race. Rather, as the one with real backbone.
“Not a single male candidate on that podium, several of whom had daughters of their own, had the courage to say anything,” Handel said of the McBerry situation “And what was worse, they piled on [me].”
Yet the conversation on abortion and other social issues was much more difficult for her to control. Deal painted her as overly friendly with Atlanta’s politically active gay community, and suddenly Handel was backpedaling. Even, some charged, throwing potential gay supporters under her bandwagon during a conservative statewide primary. Her campaign denied she’d joined the Georgia Log Cabin Republicans around the time of her commission runs even after the group’s former president said Handel had indeed been a “dues-paying member” from 2002 to 2004. He showed the AJC’s PolitiFact Georgia a March 2003 email with an attached membership mailing list including Handel’s name and contact information.
The episode dented Handel’s carefully constructed reputation as that rare politician who tells it like it is.
Candidate Handel was even less unmovable on abortion, making clear she believed life begins at conception, but also that she supported exceptions.
“I’ll be candid, there have been people in both my secretary of state race and the governor’s race who literally were just, ‘Karen, just check the [endorsement questionnaire] boxes. No one will ever know,’” said Handel, who failed to win GRTL’s endorsement both times. “But I would know.”
She also opposed severely limiting fertility treatments, including in-vitro fertilization.
Yet Georgia Right to Life strongly disagreed. “Someone’s desperate right to parenthood — because they’re infertile, they’re barren, whatever term you want to use — is an emotionally fraught subject that has our highest sympathy,” GRTL president Dan Becker said in an interview at the time. “But it should never be attempted to be addressed where a life is taken in the process.”
Again, Handel pushed back, calling on Becker and another top GRTL official to resign for that and subsequent remarks. But many political observers also thought the public spat with GRTL helped pound another nail in her electoral coffin.
Still, Handel hasn’t changed her mind.
“Did I want to be governor? Obviously,” Handel said. “But I wasn’t going to be governor over dishonesty and I certainly wasn’t going to be governor by looking at husbands and wives who are blessed with children through fertility [treatments] and somehow tell them that they were immoral and that their child was immoral. I’m not doing it.
“And if the price was the governor’s race, I’m more than happy to have paid that.”
5. ‘I’m not going to try to be a prognosticator.’
What she’s not happy about — what she can’t keep quiet about right now — is what she says really went down at Komen.
After losing the gubernatorial runoff, Handel packed up her dogs, put away her best-laid plans and headed for the beach. For nearly two weeks, she’d hung around Sea Island, decompressing.
“Everything is so intense, so action-packed and high-stakes … So, to go from that level of intensity to nothing — to go from 100 to zero — you need time to decompress.”
Eventually, Handel went home to Roswell and — still not quite sure what she would do next or when — got serious about that other kind of running. The one where she could pound a loop through her neighborhood, her own “eclectic” music tastes (J.Lo, Donny Osmond) playing in her ears.
“I don’t really run to race, I don’t do it for that reason,” Handel said. “It’s a terrific way to clear your mind.”
So much so that when Evans called a few months later to say, “The Komen folks can really use your help,” it seemed to make sense. Handel had history with Komen. And they needed someone like her. Komen feared recession-slammed states would start plugging their budget holes by slashing matching funds for mammograms. As a former elected official, Handel understood budgets and how to work with state and local legislative bodies.
“There’s nothing political about breast cancer, or at least there shouldn’t be,” Handel says now, even after everything that’s happened. What she thought then: “It was about as far away as I could get from the abortion/pro-life debate,” she writes.
In the end, though, she’d run right back to where she’d started.
Part of her job at Komen was figuring out how to “disengage” the breast cancer nonprofit from Planned Parenthood. Komen had been contemplating this for more than a decade, she writes.
But three days of outrage wore the leadership down. On Friday, Feb. 3, Planned Parenthood’s funding was restored.
Handel, who had counseled patience at least through the weekend, flew home to Atlanta already knowing she’d probably have to resign.
“You could tell it wasn’t going to work out,”said Carol Williams, who plays golf with Handel and describes her as a reliably “straight down the middle” player on and off the course. “She simply did not have the authority to get the groups together. So I think it was very stressful for her.”
Handel decided to go and not ask for anything in return. Taking severance from a nonprofit would feel wrong, she explained. So would the implied message “that somehow I had done something inappropriate.”
She did bounce her thinking off of Mike Bowers, a friend and Georgia’s former attorney general.
“I said, ‘Well, Karen, you’ve got chutzpah, darling, just to walk off with nothing,’” Bowers recalled. “That’s courage, just to say, ‘The hell with you damn folks, I’m leaving. I don’t want a damn thing you’ve got.’”
No one gets to define who you are except for you.
Of course, it’s also possible that by accepting a severance deal, she would’ve been barred from writing what is, in essence, a tell-all book. Handel said she has “no idea” if that would’ve been the case.
She wrote “Planned Bullyhood” at breakneck speed on a laptop at home. Earlier this month, she sat at the same table where she’d pounded out her side of the story, pre-signing copies for friends and supporters. Then she headed off for a weekly women’s golf competition in which the players are separated into “Belles” and “Divas,” according to their handicaps. (“I would like to point out that I am not a Diva,” Handel quipped before hitting the driving range.)
A few days later, “Planned Bullyhood” was released and the poker face was back as Handel made a round of national radio and TV interviews. The book quickly made waves.
Johnson, her former gubernatorial rival, responded forcefully on Twitter:
“Only Karen Handel could make Susan G. Komen a villain and turn Planned Parenthood into a victim. She’s like Obama. It’s all about her.”
In response, Steve Handel, who declined to be interviewed for this article, linked to a National Right to Life review of his wife’s book:
“With great personal courage and strength of character, Karen Handel is now telling the inside story,” began the highly laudatory piece, which went on to describe Handel as “the sacrificial lamb led to the slaughter.”
But is that enough?
The question’s hovered over Handel ever since the Komen crisis publicly associated her with a move to deny money to the country’s leading abortion provider. Surely she wants to run for something again, right?
Meanwhile, you don’t have to buy into the wilder conspiracy theories about Handel having purposely used Komen to shore up her anti-abortion credentials to see that it may have accidentally had that effect anyway.
“I think Karen has mended that image with what she’s done publicly,” said Martha Zoller, a Georgia Right to Life endorsee who recently lost a GOP runoff in Georgia’s 9th congressional district. “She stood up for life. It doesn’t matter how you got to that position.”
Of course, all of this matters only if Handel’s made up her mind to run for office again. Which she swears she hasn’t.
“I have no idea, I really have no idea, I promise I have no idea!” Handel laughed hard. “Look, if I’ve learned nothing off of my life in the past couple of years, it’s that I’m not going to try to be a prognosticator.”
In other words, don’t you dare try to define her. That’s her job.
“I try not to look back on my life and be regretful,” Handel said. “I think for every phase of your life you take something out of it, you learn from it, you grow from it. You just have to try to take what you can from it and then move on to the next phase of your life to be better.”
Jill Vejnoska is a features writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where her assignments over the past 20 years have taken her into the worlds of sports, politics, pop culture and more. She’s pulled off the rare tandem of having covered both Hillary Clinton’s first Senate campaign and Olympic synchronized swimming. A New Jersey native, she lives near Piedmont Park in Atlanta.
Bita Honarvar has been a photojournalist and photo editor at the AJC for 13 years. She was born in Detroit, Mich., but spent most of her childhood in Atlanta, save three years in Shiraz, Iran. She is a graduate of Boston University, and has been a photographer at the Cherokee Tribune in Canton, Ga., and a freelancer for the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, and papers around Boston. “I feel honored to have people allow me into their lives, sometimes at very emotional moments, to document and tell their stories,” Honarvar says.
How We got the story
Karen Handel’s near miss at becoming Georgia’s first female governor made her a compelling figure even before she made national news in the dispute between Susan G. Komen for the Cure and Planned Parenthood. The AJC obtained an advance copy of “Planned Bullyhood” from the publisher. Handel sat for an extensive on-the-record interview and invited Vejnoska and Honarvar to her Roswell home. Vejnoska spoke to more than a dozen friends, former colleagues and political observers in connection with the story.
Coming next week: Natasha Trethewey mines poetry to explore the pain and struggle of her past.