Karen Handel aims for governor's chair

ABOUT KAREN HANDEL* Age: 48* Experience: First Republican secretary of state in Georgia. Former chief of staff for Marilyn Quayle, wife of Vice President Dan Quayle, and deputy chief of staff for Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue. Worked for KPMG and led Fulton County Chamber of Commerce.* Personal: She and her husband, Steve, live in Roswell, Ga.

By Aaron Gould Sheinin


ATLANTA -- Karen Handel is a planner, the kind of person who wants to know that before she takes the first step, the second and third are already mapped out.

Like when she refused to buy a condo with her then fiance, Steve.

"Frankly, I didn't want to sign the papers before we actually walked down the aisle," said Handel, the former Fulton County Commission chairwoman, former secretary of state and current Republican gubernatorial hopeful.

They did get married, and they did buy that condo -- in that order. That kind of careful plotting is a product, she said, of a troubled childhood that saw her leave home in Upper Marlboro, Md., at 17 rather than stay with an alcoholic mother who pulled a gun on her.

"When you come from instability, you're always thinking a couple of steps ahead," she said.

Much of this background has become campaign legend -- and caused controversy.

Handel doesn't hide the fact that she struggled to finish high school and never graduated from college. Political foes have floated rumors that she earned a general equivalency diploma in high school, something she strongly denies.

"I graduated from Frederick Douglass High in 1980, and the graduation was held at the University of Maryland and I walked across the stage with the rest of my classmates," she said.

She started taking college courses at night and on weekends. She had discovered she could take accounting classes and sit for the accountant's exam without graduating.

"Remember the context of my life," she said. "I'm on my own at 17. My first job was at AARP. I think I made $9,050 a year. The idea I could go to college at night, get enough credits in accounting and sit for the CPA, I was like, 'Wow, I can have a real life.'"

She never got that far. She landed a job in the government affairs office at Hallmark Cards and never looked back. Soon, she was working for Marilyn Quayle in the office of the wife of Vice President Dan Quayle. She rose to deputy chief of staff, met Steve and eventually moved into that condo.

Later they moved to Georgia, where she continued to work in corporate America and, in 2000, was named president and CEO of the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce.

She ran for a seat on the Fulton County Commission in 2002 and lost. She quickly rebounded and was named deputy chief of staff to Gov. Sonny Perdue.

In 2003, when Fulton County Commission Chairman Mike Kenn resigned with three years left on his term, Handel jumped into the race, a Republican in a Democratic county. This time she won and immediately discovered the county budget was a wreck, nearly $100 million in the red.

"I happen to know several steak dinners were bet that there was no way we wouldn't have a tax increase," she said.

Instead of seeking a full term on the commission, in 2006 she won election as Georgia's first Republican secretary of state. But she left a lasting impression on Art Geter, a community activist in the Cascade Knolls neighborhood of south Fulton. A Democrat, Geter said last week that Handel was a pleasant surprise.

"She was reasonable for me to work with on issues I'm dealing with," he said. "I'm the kind of guy like this, I don't agree with everything nobody does, including my wife of 49 years. Just because I disagree with you doesn't mean we can't be open and respectful. Karen did some things to help me out with the Fulton County government."

But another episode from her time as a candidate for the commission continues to dog her. The former head of the Log Cabin Republicans, a group of gay and lesbian GOP voters, last week released e-mails from 2002 and 2003, all sent from Handel's e-mail address, that indicate Handel supported granting benefits to county employees in same-sex domestic partnerships, something she has since denied often.

But her campaign said last week that even though the e-mail is signed "Fondly, Karen" she didn't write it. It was her campaign manager in her failed 2002 race.

The only thing that matters, Handel said, is that when she was elected to the County Commission, she voted against a proposal to extend benefits to domestic partners.

Handel's time as secretary of state -- she served until late 2009, when she resigned to run for governor -- was marked by her successful effort to implement the controversial Voter ID program, which requires every voter to produce official photo identification before being allowed to cast a ballot. State Democrats challenged the law for years in the courts but lost nearly every step of the way.

She also cut the agency's budget by 15 percent without cutting workers.

Handel also created another controversial voting measure that checks the citizenship of people when they register to vote. The Justice Department criticized that program as unfairly targeting minorities. It is now in the courts.

But in a Republican primary, Handel has used the Justice Department's rejection as a rallying cry.

"Allowing non-Americans to vote is simply un-American," Handel said.

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