ATLANTA — Karen Handel is a planner, the kind of person who wants to know that before she takes the first step, the second and third are already mapped out.
Like when she refused to buy a condo with her then fiance, Steve.
"Frankly, I didn't want to sign the papers before we actually walked down the aisle," said Handel, the former Fulton County Commission chairwoman, former secretary of state and current Republican gubernatorial hopeful.
They did get married, and they did buy that condo — but in that order. That kind of careful plotting is a product, she said, of a troubled childhood that saw her leave home in Upper Marlboro, Md., at 17 rather than stay with an alcoholic mother who pulled a gun on her.
"When you come from instability, you're always thinking a couple of steps ahead," she said.
By now, much of this background has become campaign legend — and caused controversy.
Handel doesn't hide the fact that she struggled to finish high school and never graduated from college. Political opponents have floated rumors that she earned a general equivalency diploma in high school, something she strongly denies.
"I graduated from Frederick Douglass High in 1980 and the graduation was held at the University of Maryland and I walked across the stage with the rest of my classmates," Handel said, adding that she earned the same diploma as the other students. "I got a 'B' maybe that year in gymnastics and maybe basketball."
She started taking college courses at night and on weekends at Prince Georges Community College and a satellite campus of the University of Maryland. She had discovered that she could take accounting classes and sit for the accountant's exam without graduating.
"Remember the context of my life," she said. "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.' "
She never got that far. She landed a job in the government affairs office at Hallmark Cards and never looked back. Soon, she was working for Marilyn Quayle in the office of the wife of Vice President Dan Quayle. She rose to deputy chief of staff, met her future husband and eventually moved into that condo.
Later, however, the Handels rented out the Rockville, Md., condo. In February 1995, their tenant, Stephen Kuznetsov, sued the Handels in Montgomery County, Md., for failing to refund his security deposit when he moved out. The Handels never responded to the lawsuit, and Kuznetsov won a judgment against them for more than $1,500 that has never been paid.
"Maybe that couple does better now," Kuznetsov said in an interview. "Maybe they're more honest now. I feel like they're not acting in a forthright and honest fashion."
Handel said she knows nothing about the lawsuit and doesn't remember ever being served with the paperwork. She said Kuznetsov "trashed" the condo and they were charged for cleanup by the management company. Kuznetsov said he left the condo "spic and span clean."
By the time the suit was filed, she and her husband had moved to Georgia, where Handel continued to work in corporate America and, in 2000, was named president and CEO of the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce.
She ran for a seat on the Fulton County Commission in 2002 and lost. She quickly rebounded and was named deputy chief of staff to newly elected Gov. Sonny Perdue, where she oversaw his operations in the Capitol and at the Governor's Mansion.
She took a leave of absence from Perdue's office in 2003 when Fulton County Commission Chairman Mike Kenn resigned with three years left on his term. Handel jumped into the race, a Republican in a Democratic county. This time she won and immediately discovered the county budget was a wreck, nearly $100 million in the red.
"I happen to know several steak dinners were bet that there was no way we wouldn't have a tax increase," Handel said. "Many people assumed I would throw out some wacky, get-people-riled-up, massive-cuts kind of budget and get outvoted by the majority and hang my hat on the fact I tried."
Instead, she said, she worked with Democrats and Republicans to find the cuts they needed.
"Part of what needs to happen in government is get past this whole turf mentality," she said.
Instead of seeking a full term on the commission, in 2006 she ran and won election as Georgia's first Republican secretary of state. But she left a lasting impression on Art Geter, a community activist in the Cascade Knolls neighborhood of south Fulton. A Democrat and self-described straight shooter, Geter said last week that Handel was a pleasant surprise.
"We had a good relationship," Geter said. "She was reasonable for me to work with on issues I'm dealing with. I'm the kind of guy like this, I don't agree with everything nobody does, including my wife of 49 years. Just because I disagree with you doesn't mean we can't be open and respectful. Karen did some things to help me out with the Fulton County government."
But another episode from her time as a candidate for the commission continues to dog her campaign for governor. The former head of the Log Cabin Republicans, a group of gay and lesbian GOP voters, have released e-mails from 2002 and 2003, all sent from Handel's e-mail address, that indicate Handel supported granting benefits to county employees in same-sex domestic partnerships, something she has since denied often.
But her campaign said that even though the e-mail is signed "Fondly, Karen" she didn't write it. It was her campaign manager in her failed 2002 race. The gubernatorial campaign also says she never filled out the questionnaire for another gay rights group, Georgia Equality, that showed her also approving of domestic partner benefits, even though it's on her campaign letterhead.
The only thing that matters, Handel said, is that when she was elected to the County Commission, she voted against a proposal to extend benefits to domestic partners.
"I voted no," she said. "Did I attend the debate? Absolutely. Because I was running countywide. It's important if you're going to be in a leadership role that you're willing to engage in dialogue with those who you disagree."
Handel's time as secretary of state — she served until late 2009, when she resigned to run for governor — was marked by her successful effort to implement the controversial voter ID program, which requires every voter to produce official photo identification before being allowed to cast a ballot. State Democrats challenged the law for years in the courts but lost nearly every step of the way.
She cut the agency's budget by 15 percent without cutting employees and created an anti-fraud unit that she names among her proudest achievements.
Handel also created and implemented another controversial voting measure that checks the citizenship of people when they register to vote. That program was criticized by the Justice Department as unfairly targeting minorities and is also now in the courts.
"The state needs to aggressively, aggressively pursue the voter verification program," she said.
Her work on voter ID and the citizenship checks made her a hero to many on the right, despite the Justice Department's findings that Handel's system "does not produce accurate and reliable information and that thousands of citizens who are in fact eligible to vote under Georgia law have been flagged."
But in a Republican primary, Handel has used the Justice Department's rejection as a rallying cry.
"Allowing non-Americans to vote is simply un-American," Handel said.