Ryan Lee

Ryan Lee: Why I take Karen Handel’s lying personally

One of the harshest backhanded compliments I ever received was from a staffer for Nathan Deal, who in 2010 used my past reporting to discredit the conservative bonafides of Deal’s opponent in the Republican primary runoff for governor, Karen Handel. Deal had just edged Handel by less than a single percentage point to win the GOP nomination, and when I called Deal’s spokesperson, Brian Robinson, about the role that LGBT issues would play in the general election, Robinson began our conversation with kudos and thanks.

“That was some solid reporting,” Robinson said of the Southern Voice articles his opposition research had unearthed about Handel, which Deal’s campaign used to show that the archconservative Handel had espoused LGBT-friendly views when she ran for the Fulton County Commission a few years earlier. “They were like … real articles.”

“Well,” I said, dumbfounded, but trying not to sabotage what I hoped would be a fruitful interview with the likely incoming gubernatorial administration, “We liked to consider ourselves real journalists at Southern Voice.”

I did an internship at the predecessor to Georgia Voice during my final semester of college, then was hired as a full-time reporter when I graduated. Though I knew Southern Voice wasn’t The New York Times, I didn’t plan to throw away four years of journalism education for which I hadn’t even started repaying loans.

With my biases self-evident – a raging liberal working for a newspaper that advocates for LGBT rights – the cultivation of conservative sources has been one of the most rewarding parts of my career in LGBT media. In my first few months of reporting, the Georgia Legislature debated the constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, and the city of Atlanta was attempting to sanction a prestigious golf club that didn’t extend marital benefits to same-sex couples.

Former state Sen. Mike Crotts, a Republican, was the figurehead behind the anti-gay constitutional amendment, and we spoke several times a week while the Legislature debated the ban. Any typical SoVo reader who read my articles would have seen Crotts as a buffoon, as he had a way of reducing his arguments to a simplicity that made you wonder whether his brain was still sophisticated enough to regulate his bowel movements.

But after every story, I would see the congenial senator and he would thank me for reflecting his words accurately, and offer insight into the next phase of his strategy (although it hardly takes strategy to successfully marshal bigotry through the Georgia Legislature).

My early coverage of Atlanta’s dispute with Druid Hills Golf Club included interviews with the club’s attorney, and so the consistency of those conversations are probably a reflection of his legal strategy more than my impartiality. But soon, my interview requests were routed to the golf club’s president, Joe Cahoon, who eventually told me that, to his surprise, I was the only newspaper reporter he was continuing to speak with, as the mainstream outlets reduced the conflict to Gays vs. Homophobes, while SoVo reported the dispute with more nuance and fairness.

I developed a similar rapport with Handel when she was courting LGBT Fulton County voters by promising to be a moderating influence among Georgia’s anti-gay Republican Party – a professional, respectful relationship that spanned several months and produced the articles that haunted Handel when she became a born-again, far-right candidate for secretary of state and governor.

“The Southern Voice is going to say all kinds of wacky stuff,” Handel’s gubernatorial campaign spokesperson Dan McLagan told the AJC’s Politifact in 2010. “The fact a retraction was not asked for is not proof of the assertion. She probably wasn’t sitting around reading a gay tabloid.”

Politifact rated Handel’s overall claim that she wasn’t once pro-LGBT as a “pants on fire” untruth.

I’m not the least surprised that a politician would be a conniving liar, but with Handel, it’s personal.