ATLANTA — At age 17, Karen Handel fled her home in Maryland after she says her alcoholic mother held a shotgun to her head.
Mother and daughter years later would reconcile, and despite the troubled beginning — or perhaps because of it — Handel has pushed herself to succeed and climbed swiftly up Georgia's political ranks.
Now, as the former secretary of state fights to win an Aug. 10 runoff for the Republican nomination for governor against ex-U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, she faces the ultimate test of her tenacity. A victory would make Handel the first woman on the ballot for governor in the general election.
The 48-year-old from Roswell was always considered a strong contender to make a runoff in a crowded Republican primary field. But her solid first-place finish on primary night — she was 11 percentage points ahead of Deal — caught some political handicappers by surprise.
Like her most famous backer, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Handel has run as a reformer and an outsider. She has assailed the culture of "sex, lies and lobbyists" at the state Capitol, alienating many state legislators she would need to work with if elected.
"We need a next generation leader, ladies and gentleman, who is going to come in and be a bold and tenacious problem solver," Handel said at a recent debate in Dalton. "Who is going to be willing to yes, tell colleagues when they are wrong that they are wrong."
She has also not hesitated to play the gender card to set her apart from the field. One TV ad features lipstick, another a purse.
Handel's base in the voter-rich Atlanta suburbs is an advantage. But it also makes her suspect in rural, conservative pockets of the state where her lack of a Southern drawl is duly noted. Her opponents have tried to paint her as a liberal.
With only a few night college courses and a career that began as a typist, Handel has crafted an unlikely political career from scratch.
Some argue she's created a work of fiction.
"I find it a little hard to believe a person claiming to be an outsider when they've spent four of the last six years either working in the governor's office or as the secretary of state," said House Ethics Committee Chairman Joe Wilkinson of Atlanta, who is backing Deal. Handel served as deputy chief of staff for Gov. Sonny Perdue and is widely seen as his protege in the race. Perdue is term-limited.
Handel has won just two elections and never completed a full four-year term. She quit with one year left as secretary of state to concentrate on the governor's race. Before that she had served just three years of an unexpired term as Fulton County Commission chair.
Still, in an election year buffeted by a strong anti-incumbent mood, her relatively short time in elected office could end up being an asset.
Handel has also touted her role as a fiscally conservative executive. But in her first two years at the helm of the Fulton County Commission, her personal office budget rose by 43 percent, county records show. During her three years as secretary of state, the office's administration budget jumped by about 42 percent, according to state records.
Handel says she slashed the secretary of state's overall budget by 18 percent over three years — although a good chunk of those cuts were across-the-board mandates ordered by the governor as revenues declined. And she notes that while other state agencies were furloughing state employees during the budget crunch, she made the tough decision to eliminate 38 positions, a move that cut costs permanently.
Handel describes herself as pro-life but said abortion should be permitted for victims of incest or rape or if the life of the mother is in jeopardy. She is a staunch opponent of restrictions to in-vitro fertilization, the result of a decade-long struggle to have children that "remains the most painful period in my life." She turned to fertility treatments without success and said the issue remains "raw for me sometimes."
"What I wanted more than anything else was to be a mother, and if Steve and I had had the three kids that we had wanted I would not be doing this (running for governor).
"I would be home raising babies."
Politics was a bug she caught years ago as her career took off in Washington, D.C.
After working as a typist for AARP, Handel answered an ad seeking an administrative assistant for Hallmark's vice president for government affairs, Rae Evans.
"She was anything but a yuppy puppy," Evans recalls, saying she can still remember Handel's bright red fingernails when she came in for an interview. Evans was looking for someone with government experience but Handel's persistence won her over.
"She looked at me and said 'I know you think that I'm not right for this job but I absolutely can do it,'" Evans said.
Handel dealt with mundane issues like correspondence but also volunteered whenever possible to cover hearings on Capitol Hill. Evans would arrive at her office to find that Handel had meticulously highlighted all the relevant stories in The Washington Post.
"I think her college education really took place in those years, she had a real thirst for knowledge," Evans said.
When Evans began working with Marilyn Quayle, the vice president's wife, to start up the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure to benefit breast cancer, Handel was her "aide de camp."
When a job came open in Quayle's office, she offered it to Handel.
She started off answering calls and letters from constituents and worked on health issues. She eventually became deputy chief of staff.
In Washington, she met her husband, who is a technology consultant. Soon after they married in 1992, he was transferred to Georgia and they settled in Atlanta. The couple has reported a net worth of about $750,000.
Handel entered the corporate world, working as manager of government and community relations, for KPMG and the manager of international communication, CIBA Vision. She put the networking skills she had honed in the nation's capital to use, and in 2000, she was named president and chief executive officer of the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce.
Her first run for Fulton County Commission in 2002 fell short. She had better success in a 2003 special election, winning the county chair post as a Republican in a Democratic stronghold.
The county was facing a nearly $100 million budget hole. Handel fought hard to get the cuts needed to avoid a tax hike.
John Sherman, head of the watchdog group Fulton County Taxpayer Foundation, said when he came to Handel with complaints about wrongdoing on the county Board of Assessors, she listened and ordered a full forensic audit. He was impressed.
"She was courageous, a leader," he said. But Sherman also added that Handel sometimes has "a short fuse."
"There were instances where she would blow up at the slightest provocation," he said.
In 2006, she was elected Georgia's first Republican secretary of state after a bitter primary where — in a prelude to the current GOP primary — she was cast as too liberal.
She has pushed a conservative agenda that some complain was too partisan for the office, which oversees voting and elections.
Handel implemented the state law that requires in-person voters to show a valid photo ID. Handel pushed a campaign to educate voters about the new law and to make IDs free to anyone who needed them, efforts that ultimately helped the law win approval from a federal judge.
Democrats have argued the law hurts the poor, elderly and minority voters. Roy Barnes, now the Democratic nominee for governor, handled one of multiple appeals that went on to fail.
Handel also put in place a program to check the citizenship of those registering to vote by running their information against the state driver's license database. The Justice Department assailed the program for disproportionately affecting minority voters.
She supported another law that would require newly registering voters to provide proof of citizenship. It has yet to win federal approval, which is required under the Voting Rights Act.
The measures have helped her appear tough on illegal immigration, a hot topic in this year's GOP race.
Those who knew Handel during her teen years describe her as outgoing and ambitious, even then.
"She was a goodhearted person who was fun to be with and very smart," said Tracy Hane of Laurel, Del., who ran in the same crowd as Handel. "She got along with everyone."
But at home things were difficult. Handel said her mother drank, and one night she held a shotgun to her daughter's head. Handel left, living with a family friend and scrambling to finish high school while holding down a part-time job.
Rumors arose last summer that Handel had not graduated from high school, and had instead earned a GED.
An official with the Prince George's County public school district confirmed to The Associated Press that Karen C. Walker, Handel's maiden name, did graduate from Frederick Douglass High School in 1980.
Handel and her mother eventually reconciled years later when her mother became ill. Before she died in 2000, Handel was at her bedside.
"I'm tough," Handel said. "People have underestimated me my whole life. I'll be the toughest candidate in this race, just watch."
Karen Handel for governor: www.karenhandel.com