Karen Handel leaving office to run for governor

ATLANTA -- Karen Handel said Tuesday that she will step down as secretary of state to focus full time on her bid to become Georgia's first female governor.

"I am 100 percent 'all in' for the governor's race," Handel, a Republican, said in an interview Tuesday at her state Capitol office.

Handel said she would resign from her $130,690-a-year post by the end of the year, allowing Gov. Sonny Perdue -- the man she hopes to succeed -- to appoint someone to fill out the remaining year of her term. Handel has served as Georgia's top election official since 2007.

Perdue is prevented by term limits from running again, which has thrown the contest for governor wide open.

Handel, a former aide to Perdue and the former chairwoman of the Fulton County Commission, is one of seven Republicans vying for the job. There are also four Democrats in the race.

Handel's decision allows her to raise money during the legislative session, which begins Jan. 11. Had she remained in office, she would have been prevented by state law from taking any campaign cash for the roughly three months legislators are meeting in Atlanta.

Handel has lagged behind some of her GOP competitors in early campaign finance filings.

She raised about $430,000 during the first six months of 2009, trailing U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal and former state Sen. Eric Johnson, who raked in close to $1 million apiece for the same reporting period.

Johnson, of Savannah, is the only other candidate for governor who has left elected office to campaign full time.

Handel said Tuesday that she expects ethics to be a key issue in her campaign in the wake of the lobbyist sex scandal that drove House Speaker Glenn Richardson from office. She was the first and only Republican candidate for governor to call for Richardson's resignation.

Her decision to leave her post overseeing elections will free her up from even the appearance of a conflict of interest, she said.

"I don't want to give anybody the opportunity to say this is politics not policy," she said.

Handel's office is embroiled in a lawsuit over Georgia's system of using Social Security numbers and driver's license data to check whether prospective voters are U.S. citizens. The Justice Department in June rejected the state's voter verification program saying it had a "discriminatory effect" on minority voters.

Perdue spokesman Bert Brantley said Tuesday that the governor was working with Handel "so there is a seamless transition" at the office in advance of the 2010 primary and general elections.

He said it was unclear when a replacement will be named.