Abortion Issue Looms Large In Georgia House Race

May 13, 2017
Originally published on May 22, 2017 3:07 pm
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Women are playing a big role in a closely watched special election in the suburbs of Atlanta. Many are organizing for a Democrat named Jon Ossoff. He is running against Republican named Karen Handel, and she would be the first woman to represent this district. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben was in Georgia this week ahead of next month's race.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Jon Ossoff stopped at a field office in Chamblee last weekend to thank campaign volunteers for turning out.

JON OSSOFF: I think we had probably about 400 people out yesterday.

KURTZLEBEN: He only spoke for four minutes, but he devoted a chunk of that speech to one particular group of supporters.

OSSOFF: And so much of it, as you know, is being led by strong and determined women in this community who have been organizing and active, who recognize that we can't go back in time.

KURTZLEBEN: Three hours later and 20 miles away, Republican Karen Handel celebrated the opening of a new field office this way.

KAREN HANDEL: We're going to get this done. And on June 20, what are we going to do? Kick some Ossoff.

KURTZLEBEN: Handel didn't mention women in her brief speech. But supporter Johsira Ezammudeen responded to Ossoff's comments about gender.

JOHSIRA EZAMMUDEEN: You know, so he can talk a lot about woman. You know what? I'm not here as a woman. I am here as a citizen - American citizen.

KURTZLEBEN: In more than a few ways, this closely watched election is a microcosm of national gender politics right now. Many liberal women see themselves as fueling what they call the resistance to President Trump and the Republican agenda. And on both sides, abortion and Planned Parenthood loom large. Rebecca Grant, who came out to volunteer for Ossoff, explained.

REBECCA GRANT: The Planned Parenthood cause is also close to my heart. And I think we need more people out there fighting for maintaining women's rights and their access to fair and equal care.

KURTZLEBEN: Handel's candidacy amplifies the issue. She landed in the middle of a national controversy in 2012 as a vice president at the Komen Foundation, a breast cancer nonprofit. She pushed to end the group's funding to Planned Parenthood. That effort sparked an outcry, and Handel resigned.

It's not something she talks about much in this campaign. And when NPR made multiple requests for an interview, her campaign said she was unavailable. But her history of opposing abortion has made her a hero to Republicans like Elaine Watson, president of the Floyd County Republican Women.

ELAINE WATSON: Women can get health issues taken care of other places than Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood is an abortion mill.

KURTZLEBEN: That kind of staunchly conservative ideology is common in this district and that made Elizabeth Murphy feel isolated when she moved here.

ELIZABETH MURPHY: When I first moved here I was like, oh, my god, I am the only one, you know? And it makes you want to be quiet. And it, like, gives you this false sense that you should hide, and you should be closeted.

KURTZLEBEN: Murphy was out door knocking for Ossoff on a blazing hot afternoon as part of the local Democratic women's group, Pave It Blue.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hi.

MURPHY: Hi there. Are you Megan?

KURTZLEBEN: For Murphy, groups like Pave It Blue give liberal women a sense of community. The next morning in the suburb of Milton, a Handel stronghold, moms started streaming into a local coffee shop around 9:30 after dropping off kids at local schools. One of those moms was Joy Derrer.

JOY DERRER: I have six children. I am a stay-at-home mom, yes.

KURTZLEBEN: She said she's "pro-life," but that she's also drawn to Handel's traditional values.

DERRER: I like that she's conservative and that she upholds the standards that are, to me, true to what has made America great.

KURTZLEBEN: Later that morning, at a GOP phone bank, 20-year-old Ansley Schoen said gender is a part - but small - of why she supports Handel.

ANSLEY SCHOEN: I'm personally a woman trying to go into politics, so it's - you know, there aren't as many women Republicans up in Congress, and so be great to have Karen Handel for that.

KURTZLEBEN: Schoen went back to making calls, trying to get a Handel elected. But Ossoff is the one relying on women to put him over the finish line. And this race here in Georgia may be an early test of whether the energy progressive women have shown so far in the Trump presidency can bring Democrats back to power in Washington. Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News, Roswell, Ga.

[POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: The description of Joy Derrer as "pro-life" was Derrer's own term.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.