BY VEENA RAO & JYOTHSNA HEGDE
In our ongoing series, NRI Pulse is interviewing Georgia’s political candidates ahead of the November elections. Republican candidate Karen Handel, who is running for the US House to represent Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, spoke to us recently.
Handel represented Georgia’s 6th Congressional District from 2017 to 2019. She served as Georgia’s Secretary of State from 2007 until 2010. Handel has also served as Chair of Fulton County Board of Commissioners, and President and CEO of North Fulton Chamber of Commerce.
Kartik Bhatt, who currently serves on the Georgia Board of Examiners for the Certification of Water and Wastewater Treatment Plant Operators and Laboratory Analysts facilitated the interview.
You recently tweeted that your district is ready for a leader who’s a problem solver, and focuses on results, rather than politics. Can you elaborate?
I have a strong record of getting things done from my time on the Fulton County Commission, where I came into a $100 million budget deficit. And despite being in the minority on that commission, I was able to plug that deficit without raising taxes and put together the votes I needed to actually do that. And that meant reaching across the aisle. Our state had the photo ID law, but it had been stymied in court. I was able to put together a plan and get a photo ID implemented in a way that was best for all voters across our state. In Congress, I got to work immediately, helping to pass the tax cut bill, passing meaningful legislation to help us have better school security, deal with the opioid crisis, and come after human traffickers, along with many other types of legislation.
My opponent, on the other hand is very political. She spent her time in a hearing with the attorney general, cutting him off, rudely addressing him. At those hearings, I served on the Judiciary Committee. Those hearings are designed to have a Q&A back and forth with the panel in front of you where that person actually gets to answer a question, not just for members to be up on the dais and grandstand on issues. And that’s a very big difference. This community knows me. I’ve been active in the community, and in the business community for over 20 years.
The seven percent per country cap keeps high skilled green card applicants from countries like India and Mexico in a limbo for decades, if not lifetimes. Do you have a plan to fix our broken immigration system?
Yes. In fact, that’s something that I worked very hard on during my time in Congress, when I served on the Judiciary Committee. Unfortunately, we had a group of individuals on the Republican side– despite the President’s support for the bill– that voted against it. And so, the far right and the far left stymied being able to move forward. I believe we need to do and what we attempted to do and what I would work on, if I had the privilege of serving again—is to take away these arbitrary caps.
We need an immigration system that is fair and efficient and really prioritizes the workforce needs that we have here in the United States. Obviously, everyone wants able-bodied Americans to get a job, but the reality is that we have some gaps of skills that we need to fill if we’re going to address all the workforce needs, whether that be technology expertise from India or a workable guest worker program. So, on both of those things, we need to work on. Of course, we need to secure the border because it is fair and right to expect that those who come to our country do so legally and that there are no incentives for those individuals to jump to the head of the line for citizenship.
The overwhelming majority of our Indian workers here in the United States have come here through the legal process, and we should respect that and make sure that means something as we (work) to better our immigration system.
Trump administration has temporarily suspended the H-1B visa program during the pandemic until the end of the year, which is very popular with Indian tech workers. Does the country need more H-1B workers at this time?
Well, right now we’re seeing that unemployment in the US has skyrocketed because of COVID. So, I believe it is temporary suspension, but it was twofold. It was obviously to make sure that we could, as a country, deal with the COVID crisis. It should, I believe, also be an impetus for Congress to modernize our immigration system along the ways that I just talked about, to make sure it is fair and equitable and efficient and that it’s working to meet the workforce needs here in our country.
There were long lines and accusations of voter suppression in Georgia during the primaries. How would you respond to that?
Well, whenever you have an election where there is higher than anticipated turnout, you can have lines. What I will say is that the impact of COVID was very evident when it came to the June primaries. And I think what’s important is looking at what went wrong and addressing that so that it can be better in November. The Secretary of State has put together a task force to do just that here in the 6th Congressional District.
I know that Fulton County put together a task force as well because the lines were not just in areas that affected African-Americans, they were across the county and it was really isolated to certain counties, and it wasn’t a statewide phenomenon. But, with all that said, we are going to see a record turnout in November. And that’s why it is important that we address all of these issues, make sure that everyone’s being creative about recruiting poll workers. Remember, for June poll workers, I understand there were concerns for their health and well-being, and there weren’t enough poll workers, nor were there enough sites to accommodate of all of the voters at one time. And so, I think that is going to be addressed as we come into November.
When I was Secretary of State, by design, we had what I’ll call a three-lane highway for voting– Absentee ballots by mail, Early voting and Election Day. And again, that was by design, because when you have five or six million people come into the system, you need to be able to accommodate that. So, consider for June, you had one of those lines almost taken away and everyone tried to go into the remaining two lines. What happens when you get that? A logjam. People who want to vote by mail, should get their absentee ballots as quickly as possible. I would advise using one of the drop off boxes, if at all possible, and take advantage of early voting.
All of the counties, at least in the 6th District, DeKalb, Fulton and Cobb, are being very creative about looking at sites so that they can make sure there are enough early voting sites as well as enough Election Day sites so that we can keep these lines to a minimum.
So you expect a record turnout.
I think there’s a lot of excitement and enthusiasm for this election. I see it very evidently, across the 6th district. I have seen it within the Indian American community with the engagement from all across the district in different organizations that maybe weren’t engaged before. This election, I believe, is going to set the direction of our country and certainly our state for at least a decade, because the General Assembly is going to do redistricting next year.
Do you think Georgia has responded adequately to the pandemic?
You know, a lot of difficult decisions had to be made at the very beginning in March when very little information was available, and then on through. And one thing we know about contagions is that they spread. And so, I applaud Governor Kemp for trying to keep our state as safe as possible, urging people to be responsible and wearing a mask, social distancing when they’re out in public, but then at the same time getting our economy back on track and reopening, because we do have to ensure that we are fighting COVID on this lane, but also making sure that people can maintain their livelihoods as well. And so that’s a dual track approach to things.
The original estimates were that our state was going to have a $1 billion budget deficit because of the shutdown, but because Georgia had a responsible reopening, that $1 billion deficit has been shrunk to around 200 million. And that’s the difference between being able to deliver the various programs that the state has always done, whether it be through Hope Scholarship, or supporting seniors in our state, or Peach Care.
We have to continue to work to instill confidence into the workforce, as well as for employers, but we’re beginning to do that and learning how to navigate through the best we possibly can and working aggressively to get the tests out, to find a vaccine. And again, making sure that people are responsible with mask and social distancing.
What are your thoughts about schools reopening?
We have great school boards all across our state and the country, and certainly in the 6th district, those individuals are closest to the people. I will tell you what I hear. I was door knocking over the weekend and every single parent said, “Reopen the schools, be safe and responsible about it. But our children need to be educated. Test the teachers. Have everyone wear masks. If you need to fit desks with plexiglass, please do that. But let’s get our schools back open and keep our kids and our teachers as safe as possible, but educate our children.”
Where the federal government can help is with funding to be sure that schools have every resource they need to open safely and responsibly.
Georgia is one of the 14 states that did not expand Medicaid. House Minority Leader Bob Trammell urged governor Kemp to use his increased public health emergency powers to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. What is your stance on this issue?
Well, as you know, that’s a state issue. So, I’m going to let Gov. Kemp and the state legislature address that issue.
What I believe has to happen from a federal level is:
1. We need to put in law codify in statute protections for those with pre-existing conditions, to make sure that they are not priced out, or left out when it comes to affordable quality health care.
2. Find a way to decouple insurance plans from the employer, so that if you leave your job, you can actually take your plan with you if you would like to.
3. On Medicaid, I would like to give states more flexibility with block grants so that for Georgia, we can build out a program that best meets the health needs of Georgians.
4. Lastly, we have such an asset in our community health centers across the state and country. They are the healthcare front door for those who are may fall in the gap. Maybe they don’t qualify for Medicaid, but don’t get enough in substance subsidies on the ACA. So, to really invest more money, I was proud to support greater investments in our community health centers. We’ve got a fantastic state of the art health center in Chamblee that does amazing healthcare work on the ground. And I think that is one area we can leverage more, because it can help us get such better healthcare access, as well as affordability, and then ultimately better healthcare for everyone.
More and more Indian Americans who have never been politically inclined are now coming up and joining your campaign. So, what do you know about these people?
When I was Secretary of State, often if there were delegations from other countries, including India, if the governor wasn’t able to host that delegation, he would call upon me to do that. And then in Congress, and now, just really working hard to get to know the Indian American community, doing Diwali celebrations and joining the Consul General for the Republic Day celebration earlier this year.
Just two weekends ago, (I attended) India’s Independence Day celebrations at City Center in Sandy Springs. What I know about the Indian American community is they are such hard workers. Incredible entrepreneurialism, and amazingly dedicated and smart, whether it be from the laboratories to the hospitals, from science and medicine to technology to education. They are an incredible asset to our communities. And then you add the cultural aspect.
At the Republic Day celebration, community groups from across the region came in to do cultural dances for all of us. The pageantry, beauty, skills, and poignant meaning… After each song, the host graciously let those of us who don’t speak the language, in on what the actual meaning of the song was– about the courage and bravery of the freedom fighters in India who never gave up for the fight for independence, and for democracy.
Despite Indian American students doing extremely well in academics and extracurricular activities, and Indian American doctors making headway in the medical field, it is a known fact that they are discriminated against when it comes to admissions in Ivy League schools and medical schools. So how would you address this problem?
Well, there was a court ruling recently that began to address this issue and I think lays it out very succinctly that it has been a problem and it must be addressed and I think sometimes for the university system– for example, here in Georgia– that falls to the Board of Regents to really ensure that the admissions process is fair and equitable. And that should be the case across the country. And if there needs to be legislation for that, I’m open to looking at it. But I’m encouraged with what we saw with Yale– that legal decision is now going to drive some changes in the process across the Ivy League schools in particular.
Why should the community vote for you?
Well, I have been a resident, with my husband, Steve, of the 6th district for nearly 30 years. I am a problem solver. I come to the table with one mission in mind, and that’s the people of the 6th district. And I’m going to work hard to make sure that we get our economy going again, make sure that we have affordable healthcare, protect those with pre-existing conditions, and we keep our communities safe. As I’ve been out, talking with members of the Indian Americans– community safety has been a top issue on their mind. With peaceful protests being taken over by looters and rioters, we need our local police officers more than ever before and need to stand by them.
Most importantly, I will be a champion and an advocate in Congress for the people of India and for Indians in the 6th district. We have so many opportunities for a strong relationship between the United States and India. We need to hold China accountable, and who is a natural strategic partner in helping us in that region of the world– India. And we’ve already built such a strong foundation. President Trump and Prime Minister Modi have forged an amazing friendship. We are bound by our united focus and commitment to independence and freedom. So, I will be an ally for the community.
I look forward to working for everyone in the 6th district. I am going to be a hard worker to earn those buttons. If I’m elected, I’d also love to do a quarterly sit-down with you.