Suburban Atlanta — specifically its northern roof of Cobb, north Fulton and Gwinnett counties — may finally be on the cusp of true political clout in Georgia.
The governor and the attorney general are the most powerful administrators in state government. The Republican nominations for both jobs are up for grabs in runoff elections now only 12 days away.
In each case, the leading candidate is the former head of a county government in metro Atlanta.
In the race for governor, Karen Handel, before she served as secretary of state, was chairman of the Fulton County Commission. Sam Olens, a candidate for attorney general, is the immediate past chairman of the Cobb County Commission.
Both, like many of you, are non-native Georgians. Though she now lives in Roswell, Handel was born in Maryland. Olens is from New Jersey.
In the Aug. 10 runoffs, both Handel and Olens face multigenerational natives of the state with political bases in North Georgia. Both their opponents have careers that grew out of the General Assembly.
Nathan Deal of Gainesville, Handel’s opponent in the runoff for governor, was a state senator before he won his seat in Congress. Preston Smith of Rome, Olens’ opponent in the runoff for attorney general, is a current member of the state Senate and former chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
Both contests are up for grabs. And the suburban roots of Olens and Handel may seem like a trivial point. But in fact, their backgrounds — should either make it through November — could prove revolutionary.
“We’re now seeing the ascendancy of the large urban-suburban counties. And no, we haven’t seen it before,” said Chuck Clay of Marietta, a former state lawmaker and a past chairman of the state GOP.
In the July 20 balloting for attorney general, Smith edged out Olens in votes cast outside the nine largest counties of the metro area. But suburban Atlanta gave Olens a 55,000-vote boost into first place.
Handel won seven of those same nine metro Atlanta counties, which gave her a 48,000-vote tailwind.
Historically, local government has never been a reliable pathway to higher office. On Wednesday, the Association County Commissioners of Georgia could come up with no instance in which a former head of a county government has won a major statewide office.
As mentioned above, Handel went from her county post to secretary of state in ‘06. But think Vernon Jones, the former CEO of DeKalb County, and his ‘08 bid for U.S. Senate.
The most reliable path to power in Georgia has been the General Assembly. The last governor elected without prior service in the body was Lester Maddox in 1966.
Some 30 years later, Roy Barnes of Mableton — a Democrat — became the first suburban governor of Georgia. But Barnes’ roots were in the rural-dominated Legislature.
And when he attempted to tackle the concerns of metro Atlanta — education, transportation and a Confederate battle emblem on the state flag — both suburban Republicans and rural Democrats revolted.
An alliance of the two factions has brought eight years of GOP rule to Georgia — but Republicans in suburban Atlanta still see themselves as the junior partners, especially when it comes to issues such as transportation and water.
Rural Georgia has continued to set the agenda — right down to Gov. Sonny Perdue’s fish ponds.
One glimpse of how suburban roots might change the approach to state policy came last week during a forum attended by both candidates for attorney general.
Both Smith and Olens were asked whether they were satisfied with the level of involvement by Attorney General Thurbert Baker, a Democrat, in negotiations with Alabama and Florida over water. Both said no.
“There’s no reason the state’s top lawyer should be sitting on the bench during perhaps the most important legal negotiation we’ve had in a generation,” Smith said.
But Olens cited his more wonkish experience with the water issue as a commission chairman and as chairman of the policymaking Atlanta Regional Commission.
“I [would] walk into this job on Jan. 10 knowing more about water and our water wars than our current attorney general does now,” Olens said.
During the first round of the race for governor, Handel was the only GOP candidate for governor who consistently included commuter rail when speaking of solutions for metro Atlanta’s traffic nightmare.
However, the lines between Handel and Deal blur on other issues. Deal has declared he wants to see the 50-cent toll on Ga. 400 disappear.
And the former congressman is well-versed when it comes to the issue of metro Atlanta’s access to drinking water from Lake Lanier — part of which is in the 9th District.
Deal also won Hall County in the primary by a large margin. It is where he lives, and it is one of the many places where suburban and rural Republicans merge in Georgia.