Sandra Sidhom was minding her own business early last month when her iPhone beeped and a tweet about a scheduled debate sponsored by the Dunwoody Homeowners Association got her attention.
“Karen won’t show up for debate,” the missive said.
Sidhom, a 24-year-old real estate agent who took her first steps in Roswell and resides in Alpharetta, has lived her entire life in the 6th Congressional District. She considers herself an independent who prefers to vote for the best person rather than party. For that reason, debates offer her the best way to hear a candidate’s message firsthand.
But before drawing any conclusions, Sidhom decided to see what was available on the internet about Karen Handel. She listened to radio interviews and television news stories. She read newspaper articles.
Sidhom, who graduated in 2010 from Roswell High School and holds a bachelor of arts degree in international affairs from the University of North Georgia, said that after all her research, she still couldn’t make heads or tails about Handel.
“I couldn’t really tell where she stands on the issues,” Sidhom said. “I wanted to give her a chance and believed a debate could help clarify her stance on the issues most important to me.”
On May 8, she started a petition to get Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state, to participate in six debates with Democratic opponent Jon Ossoff, a documentary filmmaker and former congressional aide.
Within 72 hours, Sidhom had collected over 1,000 signatures.
Handel did not respond to repeated requests for comment but confirmed she would do four debates — three televised — in a press release Wednesday.
“I look forward to several robust debates on the issues so that the people of the 6th District can be informed about the stark contrast between my record of results, and my opponent’s false claims and flimsy resume,” Handel said in a statement.
Donna Rowe, an east Cobb resident and Handel supporter, believes that as long as the playing field is level and both sides agree to the format, both candidates would agree to debate.
“The flip side is if one candidate wants to control the venue, the panel or the questions, then I don’t think either candidate would agree to a lopsided format such as that,” she said. “I wouldn’t be dropped in that boiling water.”
Rowe said she has seen both Handel and Ossoff in debates, and she has yet to see any fear in either of them. Instead of gathering signatures for a petition, she believes Sidhom needs to “chill out” and turn on the television for next week’s debate.
“I don’t see any reason for a petition,” Rowe said.
Sidhom’s petition coincided with a get out the vote rally where Handel and U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan were scheduled to make an appearance.
On May 15, Sidhom headed to the Atlanta Marriott Perimeter Center to hear more from candidate Handel and to pass on the petition.
“I wanted to make sure she knew how important this was to her constituents,” Sidhom said. “I was also hoping Ryan might apply some pressure for her to consent to a debate.”
During the three-hour event, Sidhom said, Handel spoke only briefly without a word about her accomplishments or her plans for the 6th.
When it was over, Sidhom said, Ryan plucked her out of the crowd for a photo. She smiled, posed for a photo with him and handed him the folder holding the petition. Ryan unwittingly signed before realizing the folder contained signatures from 6th District voters who wanted to see six debates.
Sidhom then exited the crowd and headed toward Handel.
“Mrs. Handel. Mrs. Handel,” she called out. “Can I please take a selfie with you?”
Handel stopped, took the photo and made small talk. Sidhom handed her the petition. When Handel realized what it was, Sidhom said Handel attempted to hand it back, but Sidhom refused the document.
“I understand you had scheduling conflicts in the past, but I want you to know that this is very important to your future constituents,” Sidhom told her.
Handel assured Sidhom she’d already confirmed three debates and walked away.
Both Ossoff and Handel have attended more than a dozen forums and debates in the run-up to the April 18 primary, but there has been no debate yet between the two candidates.
Ossoff’s campaign has agreed to six debates; Handel’s campaign has agreed to four. But that doesn’t necessarily mean there will be that many showdowns. The two campaigns have only mutually confirmed two debates — a prime-time debate hosted by WSB-TV at 8 p.m. June 6 and another hosted by WABE radio on June 8. Negotiations are underway involving the others.
Sidhom was hoping for six debates, but acknowledges that’s unlikely given the election is just weeks away.
No matter the number of debates this time around or who wins the 6th District race, Sidhom plans to work to get legislation passed requiring candidates from both sides to agree to a minimum of six public debates.
“People deserve to be informed,” Sidhom said. “At the end of the day, this is really about accountability and it has to start with the campaign and it can’t end until their term is over.”