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The Evil Brilliance of Komen's Karen Handel | The Nation

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Ilyse Hogue

Ilyse Hogue

Good politics through strong collaborative movements, reproductive freedom and justice for all.

The Evil Brilliance of Komen's Karen Handel


Karen Handel in a Tuesday, August 10, 2010 file photo. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)

This morning, Karen Handel resigned as the vice president of public policy of the Susan G. Komen foundation. Handel had spent the last week at the epicenter of the controversy around Komen’s decision to withdraw support for Planned Parenthood and several progressive groups were circulating petitions to call for her dismissal. Handel’s very public resignation letter shows a political acumen and sophisticated grasp of cultural narrative that seems to have eluded Komen generally and their CEO, Nancy Brinker, through this entire debacle.

Here’s an excerpt from the beautifully crafted letter:

What was a thoughtful and thoroughly reviewed decision—one that would have indeed enabled Komen to deliver even greater community impact—has unfortunately been turned into something about politics.This is entirely untrue. This development should sadden us all greatly.

Handel, with an expert turn of word, moves to recast the characters in this ongoing saga that is helping to set the stage for a showdown over women’s choice in the 2012 election.

Handel is well-documented as a leader in pushing for Komen defunding of Planned Parenthood. According to internal e-mails obtained by the Huffington Post, Handel was constantly hyping the threat of a right-wing backlash against the breast cancer foundation for their grant to Planned Parenthood, even though—at best—those threats were sporadic and low level. The Komen funding to Planned Parenthood was restricted and could be used only for breast cancer screening in the clinics. Since most women who can afford to do that screening at their private doctor’s office do, this policy by definition disproportionately affects low-income and young women.

Handel won her crusade to score political points and impose her radical ideology on the organization, and certainly Nancy Brinker deserves blame both for allowing this to happen and for lying about it later on Andrea Mitchell’s show on MSNBC, when she claimed that Handel had no part in the decision. What Handel failed to do, despite her obvious PR prowess, was prepare her sponsoring organization to withstand the ensuing maelstrom. Her letter today—both in the content and her choice to release it—shows that helping Komen through this tough time might not have been her first priority.

Handel has a long-established political trajectory. She was the deputy chief of staff for Marilyn Quayle when her husband, Dan, served as vice president under George H.W. Bush, and she became the deputy chief of staff for Georgia Governor Sonny Purdue, after she opportunistically switched parties to run as a Republican in 1998. Handel went on to hold political office herself as Georgia’s secretary of state, where she enacted regressive voter ID laws that inspired lawsuits from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF). She resigned from this post to run for governor of Georgia in 2010 in a bitterly fought contest that earned her endorsements from choice flip-flopper Mitt Romney and the staunchly anti-choice Sarah Palin. She lost to Congressman Nathan Deal, who used her earlier affiliation with the Log Cabin Republicans against her. When he did, she denied ever being a member, a claim that caused PolitiFact to give her a “pants on fire” rating. She then went to Komen, presumably to regroup and plan next steps.

The last paragraph of her letter includes the following line:

While I appreciate your raising a possible severance package, I respectfully decline.

Severance packages routinely come with gag orders—stipulations on what the person leaving the organization can and cannot say about the conditions under which they left. While no one outside of Komen, Handel and their lawyers are privy to the conditions under which this offer was made, if the norm prevails, accepting it would prevent Handel from leveraging her new role as the darling of the culture war crowd. This entire subtext of the letter screams that Handel feels sacrificed at the altar of political correctness, but that she refused to sacrifice her own integrity in the process. In an election year already about bishops and birth control, being a spokesperson for the radical anti-woman, anti-choice, anti-equality movement probably plays more to her political nature than going quietly into the night.

The way that this entire saga unfolded points to the work of a political master. While I have no love lost for the Susan G. Komen foundation, if I were their board, I would be angry and sheepish about having my organization used as a political stepping stone and then left as collateral damage for an ambitious self-serving culture crusader. Make no mistake: we’ve not heard the last of Karen Handel. And when she surfaces to tell her story, people should remember: she’s not the victim, she’s a sophisticated political operator who may have gotten exactly what she wants.

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