Thursday, February 16, 2012
Karen Handel spent the week before her resignation as the vice president of public policy of the Susan G. Komen foundation at the epicenter of the controversy around Komen’s decision to withdraw support for Planned Parenthood. Her 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’s 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 those threats were sporadic. 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, this policy 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 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 P.R. prowess, was prepare her sponsoring organization to withstand the ensuing maelstrom. Her letter – both in the content and her choice to release it – shows that helping Komen through this tough time might not have been her priority.
Handel resigned as Georgia’s secretary of state, where she enacted regressive voter I.D. laws that inspired lawsuits, to run for governor of Georgia in 2010, a bitterly fought contest that earned her endorsements from choice flip-flopper Mitt Romney and the staunchly anti-choice Sarah Palin. She lost to Republican Rep. 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. Handel and the Komen lawyers are privy to the conditions under which her severance package was made. If the norm prevails, accepting it would prevent Handel from leveraging her role as the darling of the culture-war crowd. The subtext of the letter screams that Handel feels sacrificed at the altar of political correctness, but that she refused to sacrifice her own integrity.
We’ve not heard the last of Karen Handel. And when she surfaces to tell her story, people should remember: She is not the victim, she is a sophisticated political operator who may have gotten exactly what she wants.
Ilyse Hogue is the former director of political advocacy and communications at MoveOn.org