Jan. 6 rioter in US House runoff storms off Atlanta debate stage

‘It’s pure political theater,’ his GOP opponent says. ‘He walked out of his job interview.’

A Republican U.S. House candidate who served prison time for taking part in the Jan. 6, 2021, riot that mobbed the U.S. Capitol stormed off the stage Sunday minutes into an Atlanta Press Club debate.

But Chuck Hand didn’t bolt from the 2nd District Congressional debate because he was upset at a question over his role in the violent attack, which he’s embraced throughout his longshot campaign.

Instead, Hand told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution the pre-planned walkout was over his opponent Wayne Johnson’s attempt to highlight other criminal charges against Hand and his wife Mandy ahead of the June 18 runoff.

“The choice is yours. It’s the dollar versus the change,” Hand said before leaving the set of the Atlanta studio after an initial question about farm policy. “And this is where I get back in the truck and head back to southwest Georgia because I got two races to win.”

Johnson called it “pure political theater” and said in an interview that he hasn’t tried to bring more attention to his opponent’s wife.

“He did a tremendous disservice to the voters by not being prepared to man up and stand tall to whatever questions he thought were coming,” said Johnson, a former federal student aid official. “He walked out of his job interview.”

It was the latest flashpoint in a Republican race to take on Democratic U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, a 16-term lawmaker who is heavily favored to win in November. Hand and Johnson were the top finishers in the four-candidate primary in May.

Hand, a construction worker and first-time candidate, opened his remarks saying that he’s “not interested in debating the issues of the 2nd District with a man who doesn’t even reside in it, especially one who orchestrates attacks on my wife.”

Georgia Republican Chuck Hand walks out of a debate sponsored by the Atlanta Press Club with Republican Wayne Johnson on Sunday, June 9, 2024, in Atlanta. Both candidates for Georgia's 2nd Congressional District are competing in a June 18 runoff for the GOP nomination. (J. Glenn/Pool via AP)

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(Johnson said he lives a few hundred yards outside the southwest Georgia district; U.S. House candidates aren’t required to live in their districts to run for congressional office.)

Hand said after the debate that his remarks were a reference to a recent press conference held by Michael Nixon, the third-place finisher in the May primary who endorsed Johnson.

Nixon invoked charges in 2005 and 2010 against Hand that were later dismissed. He also used the platform to highlight a drug conviction involving Hand’s wife Mandy in 2008, before the two were married. She spent a year in jail and nine years in probation after she was convicted of a felony oxycodone charge.

After he walked off stage, Hand said he expected to be attacked for his personal history.

“But to come out and publicly attack my wife -- that’s a completely different situation,” Hand said. “My wife had paid her debt to society long before I ever met her.”

Johnson told the AJC that he had no role in Nixon’s press conference, which he said came as a surprise to him.

Georgia Republican Wayne Johnson speaks during a debate sponsored by the Atlanta Press Club with Republican Chuck Hand on Sunday, June 9, 2024, in Atlanta. Both candidates for Georgia's 2nd Congressional District are competing in a June 18 runoff for the GOP nomination. (J. Glenn/Pool via AP)

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The walkout caught the debate organizers off guard as Hand abruptly stalked off camera after one question. Moderator Donna Lowry asked: “You’re not staying, sir? You’re leaving?”

The camera then panned to Johnson: “Wow, I don’t even know how to react.”

Both Republicans have little shot of defeating Bishop, who scared off more formidable contenders after a dominating 2022 reelection. But Johnson framed himself as a more palatable alternative to Hand, whose Jan. 6 history has drawn more attention to the race.

Hand and his wife were arrested in 2022 after a plethora of evidence and closed-caption footage presented at court led authorities to the Taylor County couple.

The two pleaded guilty in 2022 to a misdemeanor charge of illegally demonstrating in the U.S. Capitol. They were sentenced to 20 days in federal prison and six months of probation. Since then, Hand has been unapologetic about his role as he runs for office.

Surveillance cameras caught these still images of Chuck Hand, now a candidate in the Republican primary in southwest Georgia's 2nd Congressional District, and his wife, Mandy Robinson-Hand, inside the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6, 2021 riot. The two pleaded guilty in 2022 to a misdemeanor charge of illegally demonstrating in the U.S. Capitol. They were sentenced to 20 days in federal prison and six months of probation. (Chris Joyner/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

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