Georgia gubernatorial candidate Ray McBerry said Wednesday a Republican rival used her influence with a local political group to keep him away from a Saturday political forum.
"The announcement by the Columbia County Young Republicans that they had made the decision to not invite me to the gubernatorial debate this Saturday in Evans was not a surprise to our campaign," McBerry wrote in an e-mail. "We had already received word that one of my opponents, Karen Handel, had contacted them, asking them to not invite me."
Both Handel's campaign and the Young Republicans denied McBerry's claim.
"That is completely false," said Young Republicans Chairwoman Megan Seda. "The only reason we didn't invite him was because of the allegations made against him, and that another candidate has said they would not go on stage with him."
That candidate is Handel, the former Georgia secretary of state, who announced last week that she would not attend political events where McBerry is present. McBerry calls the allegations, which suggest a relationship years ago with a then-teenage female church member, false. He said a case against him was dismissed by a magistrate judge.
Still, the Young Republicans announced Tuesday that McBerry wouldn't be invited. Seda said the Young Republicans initially invited only "top-tier candidates," which excluded McBerry and state Sen. Jeff Chapman.
"He (McBerry) actually called me yesterday and we had a somewhat confrontational phone call," Seda said Wednesday. "He was upset, saying the Republican Party has to support all candidates. But we're the Young Republicans and he can file a complaint if he wants to."
Young Republicans Vice Chairwoman Sarah Harper Scott said her group has the right to exclude candidates at events they're organizing.
"We feel very strongly that he is not someone we want in this environment," Scott said.
Handel confirmed Wednesday that she will participate in Saturday's 5 p.m. debate at the Jabez Sanford Hardin Performing Arts Center in the Columbia County Library.
"We did have a scheduling conflict, but in light of their decision to do the right thing and exclude Mr. McBerry from their debate, we thought the least we could do is come," said Handel spokesman Dan McLagan.
None of the other Republicans in the gubernatorial primary intend to follow Handel's lead. When contacted Wednesday, each of the campaigns said the candidates will participate to the forums they are invited to.
Nathan Deal, through spokesman Brian Robins:
"This young woman's allegations are heartbreaking and repulsive. We have no desire to inject ourselves into her personal tragedy for political purposes. Nathan respects the opinions and decisions of local GOP parties who host these events, and he looks forward to all opportunities to talk to them about his ideas for creating new jobs, cutting waste and creating a better future for Georgia's families."
Eric Johnson, through spokesman Ben Fry:
"What Ray McBerry has been accused of doing is reprehensible and inexcusable. We would certainly support debate organizers choosing to exclude him from events. Eric is passionate about this state and his plans to put Georgia back to work and there is nobody that's going to keep him from talking directly to the people of Georgia about his vision for the future. If others want to use this as an excuse to duck debates and tough questions, that's fine."
"The voters will decide what they believe. My responsibility is to make myself as available as possible to the people of Georgia."
"I've never met Ray McBerry or Karen Handel. ... It's about the people of Georgia and not about his personal issue or hers."
John Oxendine, through spokesman Stephen Puetz:
Oxendine has another event already scheduled and won't be at the Columbia County debate, but he isn't missing it because of Handel's statement.
"John is committed to getting his message about the important issues to Georgia across to voters, and we're not going to have someone else dictate the setting. We will talk about our positive issues on our own terms and not someone else's."