In this economy, most people need a job in order to thrive. But not Karen Handel. The former Republican candidate for governor may have revived her political career by quitting hers.
As a public relations disaster, the week’s aborted attempt – the phrasing is intentional — by Susan G. Komen for the Cure to sever ties with Planned Parenthood will quickly become a case study in business schools around the country.
The nation’s largest breast cancer charity first announced it would shut off most money to the family planning organization – whose abortion services have long made it a target of pro-life forces. Then, in the face of an unexpected wall of protests, largely Internet-driven, Komen reversed itself.
As the senior vice president of public policy hired to help turn Komen into a Planned Parenthood-free zone, Handel had been hung out to dry. She resigned on Tuesday, to no one’s surprise. Komen badly needed Handel to depart, as proof to pro-choice forces that the charity’s turnabout was sincere. And Handel just as badly needed to jump into a lifeboat and cast herself adrift – to demonstrate her own sincerity.
But Handel also needed to look good doing it. The chaos of a mass news conference, with its shouted questions, might have come across as grandstanding. Also, like most unemployed people, Handel now had to think about her budget – and renting the required hall would have been expensive.
So selected journalists and a large Fox News satellite truck were summoned to the wilds of northern Atlanta, where — at the private home of her one-time campaign spokesman Dan McLagan — Handel conducted a series of quiet, one-on-one conversations. She had nothing but good to say about her former employer, unless one read between the lines.
By giving Planned Parenthood advance notice of the split, and the loss of $680,000 in grants, Handel said Komen had allowed the family planning organization to organize a “shakedown.” All invective was reserved for the GOP villain.
“Komen is a breast cancer organization. It’s not an organization that knows guerrilla campaigning and guerrilla tactics like Planned Parenthood unleashed,” Handel said.
Handel and Komen have — or had — more in common than an employment contract. Both have deep Republican roots. Komen founder and CEO Nancy Brinker served as U.S. ambassador to Hungary during the George W. Bush administration. Both the charity and the former candidate for governor have had to cope with hardening GOP attitudes toward abortion.
Komen’s problem boiled down to efforts by anti-abortion activists, even Catholic dioceses, to cast a cloud on the charity’s pink-ribbon brand. “I was tasked with identifying options that would allow us to move to neutral ground around this,” Handel said. “I embrace the fact that I led the process.”
There was no neutral ground for Handel in 2010, when the former secretary of state sought to replace Gov. Sonny Perdue. In a GOP primary runoff, rival and ultimate victor Nathan Deal criticized Handel for approving — as a Fulton County commissioner — the direction of $400,000 in federal grant money to Planned Parenthood. Told that the cash went to cervical cancer detection, Deal responded that this only freed up more money for abortions.
On a state level, Handel opposed restrictions on in-vitro fertilization. She opposed abortion — except in cases of rape and incest. Both positions put her at odds with Georgia Right to Life, the state’s leading anti-abortion group, which declared her insufficiently pro-life. GRTL president Dan Becker noted Handel’s childless status, calling her “barren.”
After this week, Handel now has pro-life bona fides that would be hard to challenge, should she decide to run for office again. She dodged the question on Tuesday. “I learned a long time ago, don’t try to predict the future,” Handel said.
Asked whether she thought she would now be accepted by pro-life forces in Georgia, Handel was circumspect. “With Dan Becker? Are you kidding me? It does not change my relationship with that one individual one bit,” she said.
But Becker himself said he was impressed by Handel’s decision to quit. “We commend Karen Handel for being instrumental in exposing the link between Planned Parenthood and Susan G. Komen,” he said.
As I was typing these final paragraphs, the phone rang. The Christian Broadcasting Network — Pat Robertson’s outfit — was on the line. They’d read Handel’s comments on ajc.com, and wanted to put a camera in front of her.
The pro-life movement may have just found a new hero. The irony doesn’t escape Handel — or anyone else.
To read more on the topic, check out the AJC’s Atlanta Forward section.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider