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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

A False Attack on a Palin-backed “Mama Grizzly”

One of Sarah Palin’s annointed "Mama Grizzlies" is under attack in Georgia — for not being conservative enough to suit Republican primary voters. But we find the attack is misleading and makes false claims.

In the race to be governor of Georgia, the Palin-backed candidate is Secretary of State Karen Handel. One of her main opponents in the July 20 GOP primary is Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine. His ad claims that as a Fulton County commissioner Handel presided over spending that "skyrocketed," supported federal tax dollars to an "abortion provider" and "supported taxpayer benefits for gay couples.” All of these fall short of the truth.

The ad, disingenuously titled “The Real Plan,” began running July 12.

Big Spender?

Questioning Handel’s fiscal restraint, the announcer notes that “under her leadership, Fulton County’s budget skyrocketed.” That appears to be backed up by a quote that appears on screen, attributed to the Atlanta Journal Constitution of Jan. 29, 2004. "Fulton government spending has skyrocketed," it says. The quote is accurate, but its use is deceitful. The newspaper was referring to spending going back more than half a dozen years before Handel took office.

The full quote from the newspaper is: "Fulton government spending has skyrocketed in recent years, with the rate of growth of government spending outpacing inflation and population growth since 1997." But Handel had only been on the board a few weeks when that article appeared. She was elected for the first time a mere three months earlier, in November, 2003, to fill a vacant seat. 

Furthermore, the article describes Handel as pushing to restrain spending.

Atlanta Journal Constitution: One faction on the county Board of Commissioners, led by new GOP Chairwoman Karen Handel, says the county’s spending is out of control and must be reined in before disaster strikes

The article is not available online at the newspaper’s website, but the Handel campaign reprinted it in full on her own site. We checked it against the original via the Nexis news database, which requires a paid subscription, and verified that it’s an accurate copy.

Abortion Provider

The ad also misleads viewers when it charges that “she gave almost a half million tax dollars to an abortion provider.” That’s deeply deceptive. Not a penny went to pay for abortions. It all went for family planning services at a downtown Atlanta health center that has never performed abortions. Handel describes herself as "staunchly and unequivocally pro-life."

The ad refers to a 2005 vote Handel cast as Fulton County Commissioner, approving a contract with Planned Parenthood. It’s true that Planned Parenthood provides abortions at some locations around the country.  Its annual report for 2008 lists 305,310 abortion procedures performed nationwide during 2007, for example. But the $425,568 that the county agreed to pay Planned Parenthood was not for abortions, which Planned Parenthood says make up only about 3 percent of its total services nationwide.

The contract in question called for expanding "family planning services" to an additional 5,000 men and women at Planned Parenthood’s health center in downtown Atlanta. According to Kay Scott, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Southeast (which covers Georgia, Alabama and Mississipi), the organization has had contracts to provide those services for 35 years. And she told us, via telephone and email, that the contract language specifying "family planning" actually covers a wide range of health services including cancer screenings — but not abortions.

Kay Scott: The contract has always been directed to the Downtown Health center, where abortion services are prohibited and have never been provided. The medical standard of care includes basic reproductive health care similar to what is provided in an OB/GYN office. Cancer screenings which includes breast exams, pap smears, pelvic exams as well as screening for sexually transmitted diseases including HIV are standard for women’s care. Additionally, methods of birth control are provided.

Furthermore, according to Scott (and Handel), the funds came from federal block grant monies that, by federal law, cannot be used to finance abortion services. Approval of the contract was a routine matter. According to the official minutes of the March 16 meeting of the county commission, the contract was approved without any discussion by a unanimous vote of 7 to 0, along with three other unrelated contracts.

For the record, Handel called the "abortion provider" attack misleading and posted a lengthy statement on her campaign website reiterating her long-held position against all abortions, excepting only those in cases of rape, incest or threat to the life of the mother.

Handel: I am staunchly and unequivocally pro-life. I believe in the sanctity and inherent dignity of human life, and I will be a pro-life governor who will work tirelessly to promote a culture of life in Georgia. . . . I believe that each and every unborn child has inherent dignity, that every abortion is a tragedy, and that government has a role, along with the faith community, in encouraging women to choose life in even the most difficult of circumstances.

Taxpayer benefits for gay couples?

The negative portion of the ad ends with this charge: “[Handel] supported taxpayer benefits for gay couples.” The fact is that Handel voted against a measure that would have required the county’s pension program to pay death benefits to domestic partners. The matter came to a vote Aug. 16, 2006; See vote #06-0558, page 25 in the minutes of that meeting.

Questions persist because of a series of leaked e-mails between Handel’s campaign in 2002 and the former president of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay and lesbian organization. One e-mail from Handel’s account says “I do support domestic partner benefits,” but Handel denies that it came from her. Her campaign manager at the time, Matt Montgomery, has taken responsibility for writing the e-mail without consulting the candidate, as reported by the Atlanta Journal Constitution back in June.

Marc Yeager, the former Log Cabin president who released the e-mails he received, insists that he also heard Handel voice support for domestic partnerships directly back in 2002. "There were several conversations," the Constitution quoted him as saying. "There was no question as to where she stood." Yeager has even said that Handel was once a dues-paying member of the Log Cabin Republicans from 2002 to 2004. Handel denies that as well, but our friends at Politifact.com turned up "numerous articles" in The Southern Voice, a now-defunct newspaper that catered to the gay community, that "repeatedly identified [Handel] as a member of the Georgia Log Cabin Republicans." Handel never asked the newspaper for a correction or retraction, Politifact reported.

So it may well be that Handel told gay and lesbian voters that she supported their cause when she ran for office in heavily urban Fulton County, and then switched when she ran for office statewide and needed to appeal to a more socially conservative constituency. But Handel’s recorded vote against domestic partner benefits in 2006 is the only undisputed evidence of her position on that issue.

Other candidates in the July 20 primary include former Rep. Nathan Deal (backed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich) and State Sen. Jeff Chapman. If no candidate wins a majority, a run-off is set for Aug. 10.

-by Michael Morse