What to Know About Karen Handle, Georgia’s First Republican Congresswoman
Karen Handel made history June 20 when she defeated Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff in a closely-watched special election, becoming the first Republican woman in Georgia to serve in Congress. The race, which became the most expensive electoral contest in the history of the House of Representatives, captured national attention because it was seen as a referendum on President Donald Trump.
Handel’s seat, in Georgia’s 6th congressional district, was previously held by Tom Price. It was left vacant when Price left Congress to join the Trump administration as Secretary of Health and Human Services.
“I am honored to represent this great district in the United States House of Representatives. I will ensure the conservative legacy and leadership of Tom Price, Johnny Isakson and Newt Gingrich will continue,” said Handel after her victory.
Here’s what you need to know about Handel.
She has a history in Georgia politics (and runoff elections)
Although relatively unknown on the national stage, Handel is a familiar name in Georgia. She served as Chairman of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners from 2003 to 2007, and as Georgia’s Secretary of State from 2007 to 2010. (She was the first Republican elected to serve as Georgia’s Secretary of State). In 2010, Handel resigned from her position as Secretary of State to run for Governor. She advanced to a primary runoff election in that race, but lost to Nathan Deal, who still serves as Governor.
In 2013, Handel mounted a campaign to run for the U.S. Senate to replace Saxby Chambliss, who was not seeking reelection, but did not win the Republican primary.
Former Alaska Governor and 2008 Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin endorsed Handel in her pursuits for both Governor and Senator.
Handel toed a fine line on Trump during the race
Although Trump took partial credit for Handel advancing to the runoff — “glad to be of help!,” he tweeted — she rarely mentioned him during her campaign, according to the Associated Press.
Handel told Fortune in an earlier interview that, if she won the election, her allegiance would be with the constituents in her district.
“I think if I have the privilege of being the next congressman for the 6th District, my responsibilities are to represent the 6th District,” Handel said. “Are there areas where that aligns with the president and his agenda? Absolutely. But I am also extremely independent minded and have an issue of standing up for things I believe in.”
Handel told Fortune that Trump was very gracious in their phone call, and their conversation gave her an opportunity to express her appreciation for his help getting out the vote.
She was involved in Planned Parenthood funding controversy
In 2011, Handel was named Senior Vice President of Public Policy at Susan G. Komen for the Cure, one of the leading organizations fighting breast cancer. In January of 2012, the foundation announced it was suspending its funding of Planned Parenthood. A month later, the foundation reversed that decision following a public backlash. The Huffington Post reported at the time that Handel was the primary force in the decision to pull funding, citing internal e-mails and an inside source.
In February 2012, Handel resigned from her position at Susan G. Komen, but denied she had a role in the decision not to renew funding for Planned Parenthood. “The only place for politics in all of this came from Planned Parenthood — when they launched this vicious, vicious attack on a great organization and perpetrated what was nothing short of a shakedown to coerce a private entity to give them grants,” she told CNN affiliate WXIA in 2012.
Handel published a book about her experience, Planned Bullyhood: The Truth Behind the Headlines about the Planned Parenthood Funding Battle with Susan G. Komen for the Cure, in November 2014.
Like Trump, Handel had a business career before entering politics
Handel has been involved in politics for over two decades, serving in roles ranging from Deputy Chief of Staff to former Georgia Governor Sunny Perdue, to Deputy Chief of Staff for then-Vice President Dan Qayle’s wife Marilyn during the first Bush Administration. But she also has a career in business as a public relations executive. She served as Director of Public Relations for the Southeast for the major accounting firm KPMG from 1994 to 1996; as the head of Global Communications and Public Affairs for the eyewear company CIBA Vision from 1997 to 2001; and as President/CEO of the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce from 2001 to 2003.