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Komen controversy puts Maryland native in spotlight

As the funding controversy swirled around Susan G. Komen for the Cure this week, much of the criticism was directed not at the group's chief executive but at a Maryland native who serves as a senior policy adviser.

Karen Handel, who faced a hard-luck childhood in Prince George's County, has been painted in the media as an architect of the group's decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood, and many critics took aim at her background as a candidate for Georgia governor in 2010. In the Republican primary race — in which she was endorsed by both Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin — she showcased her anti-abortion philosophy and promised to cut state grants to Planned Parenthood.

Komen's founder and CEO, Nancy G. Brinker, in an interview with MSNBC, denied that Handel drove the organization's decision.

Still, some critics pointed to a comment Handel, Komen's vice president for public policy, made on the social media site Twitter.

After the Planned Parenthood news erupted, Handel, though not the original author, sent this message to her Twitter followers: "Just like a pro-abortion group to turn a cancer orgs decision into a political bomb to throw. Cry me a freaking river."

She later deleted the comment, but it was captured as a screen grab and widely circulated.

The spotlight of politics and the Komen debate seem an unlikely twist for Handel, 49, who has described a rough upbringing — which led Palin to call her a "self-made, strong woman who pulled herself up by her bootstraps."

During the 2010 campaign, Handel told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she left her family home in Upper Marlboro when she was 17 years old to get away from her mother, whom she described as an alcoholic who had pulled a gun on her.

Handel, whose maiden name was Karen Walker, graduated in 1980 from Frederick Douglass High School in Prince George's County. She then worked, taking college courses at nights and on weekends. She said she took the certified public accountant's exam without earning a degree.

"Remember the context of my life," she told the newspaper in 2010. "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.'"

Neither Handel nor the Komen organization responded to a request from The Baltimore Sun for comment. Handel has not been quoted in the major media since the Planned Parenthood controversy began.

Handel attended Prince George's Community College and the University of Maryland, according to the Journal-Constitution.

Rob Simms, a close friend who aided Handel's political career, said she relocated from the Washington metropolitan area to Georgia when her husband, Steve, accepted a job offer. The Handels have been married for about 20 years and have no children.

"I think Karen, as long as I've known her, felt a calling to serve and be an active participant in her community and her state," Simms said Friday. "Karen is a very driven, smart, independent person. I think those qualities and traits were certainly, in part, developed as she was growing up and dealing with what was not the best or ideal family situation."

After Handel lost the 2010 GOP primary to Nathan Deal, who went on to become governor, she weighed her options and found the breast cancer advocacy group to be a good fit, Simms said. Handel had worked as deputy chief of staff to Marilyn Quayle, wife of former Vice President Dan Quayle, as part of her breast cancer awareness outreach efforts.

That program, according to Handel's Facebook page, eventually led to the founding of Komen's Race for the Cure.

Simms said Handel now splits her time between Atlanta and Washington for her job with Komen.

He said that Georgia is home to Handel, but she still has family in the Washington region. And he noted that her Maryland upbringing helped shape who she is today, including her love for the National Football League's Colts, who were based in Baltimore before moving to Indianapolis.

Simms and Handel met about 12 years ago when they worked in Fulton County, Ga., the county in which Atlanta lies. He worked on her campaigns and served as her deputy after she was elected Georgia's secretary of state. Simms is now chief of staff to Rep. Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican.

Handel moved to Georgia in the 1990s, and got her political start as chairwoman of the Fulton County Commission before becoming the state's first Republican secretary of state since the Civil War.

Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, said Handel is "quite conservative" and moved even further to the right when she became a statewide candidate.

Officials at Planned Parenthood in Georgia were taken aback by Handel's criticism as a gubernatorial candidate. Until then, she had been supportive of the organization's mission, said Leola Reis, vice president of external affairs for Planned Parenthood Southeast.

Reis and others had previously applauded Handel, who had defended Georgia's funding of Fulton County breast cancer screenings and family-planning services when other lawmakers proposed cutting it.

"She had previously indicated an appreciation and an understanding of the work that Planned Parenthood does," Reis said. "Then she turned around and used it as a battle cry in her campaign."

Handel often spoke of her opposition of abortion except in the cases of rape, incest or when the mother's life was at risk. Even so, she came under fire from Georgia Right to Life, whose leadership did not find her to be "pro-life enough," according to the Journal-Constitution.

During the campaign, Handel also found herself embroiled in a controversy over her association with a group of gay and lesbian voters, known as the Log Cabin Republicans, according to the Journal-Constitution.

The former head of the GOP group released emails from 2002 and 2003 from Handel's address, while she was a candidate for Fulton County commissioner, that indicate she supported granting benefits to county employees in same-sex domestic partnerships, the newspaper reported.

Handel denied supporting same-sex partnerships and said that while on the commission she voted against a plan to extend benefits to domestic partners.

Bullock said the flap damaged her candidacy but wasn't a death knell.

If Handel takes the fall for the Planned Parenthood controversy, Bullock said, she could end up gaining. Conservatives might see her a "sacrificial lamb" and be eager to sign her up for a Republican cause.

Handel said in an April 12 statement, when she accepted the vice president's job, that the mission of Susan G. Komen for the Cure was extremely important, given the federal government's budget constraints.

According to the statement on the organization's website, she said: "It is imperative that Komen leads the charge with policymakers to help ensure access to crucial breast cancer screening and treatment programs for the millions of women around the country who need them,"

ywenger@baltsun.com

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jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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