With only the smallest notation of the fact, Republican Sam Olens broke through one of the oldest barriers in Georgia politics last week.
The man who will be our next attorney general is also the first Jewish candidate to win a statewide, partisan race in Georgia.
Olens did it the hard way, some — not him — would say, as a member of a party whose Christian conservative base hasn’t always been tolerant of religious nonconformity.
The former chairman of the Cobb County Commission would just as soon see his accomplishment pass unnoticed. And in an interview at the state Capitol, before a meeting with Democrat Thurbert Baker, whom he will replace in January, Olens declared that geography worried him more than his faith during the campaign.
“There were four things against me,” Olens said. Yes, he was Jewish. But he was also a Florida native raised in New Jersey. He wasn’t part of the state Capitol crowd whose networks usually produce statewide candidates. Plus, he was from metro Atlanta.
“I think it is clear the Atlanta card was by far a bigger issue for me than any of the others,” Olens said. “I think we should take great pride in this state, in how little my religion played a part in the campaign.”
There were incidents, of course.
“There were whisper campaigns — big-time in the primary. I would walk into rooms and people would overtly comment about my religion to me,” Olens said. “But I think the nice thing is the number of folks who did that was very, very few.”
Reference to his New Jersey upbringing became “a code word,” he said.
Olens also had a dust-up with primary opponent Max Wood, a former federal prosecutor from Macon, over a TV ad in which the former Cobb chairman touted his defense of prayers that opened County Commission meetings.
Wood vociferously denied that he was attempting to draw attention to Olens’ religion. “He used an invocation, which is supposed to be a holy moment, as a political tool to ingratiate himself,” Wood said back in July.
Heath Garrett, who directed much of Olens’ campaign, acknowledged on Friday that the 30-second spot was intended to underline the “core values” that Olens shared with Christian voters in Georgia.
Olens, who endorsed Ralph Reed in his 2006 bid for lieutenant governor, also credited conservative Christians in South Georgia with his victory. Specifically, he singled out Tommie Williams of Lyons, the Senate president pro tem, and GOP activist Pat Tippett of Baxley.
Olens’ entry in the political record books must be couched. Debra Bernes, who died of cancer in July, won a statewide contest for a nonpartisan seat on the state Court of Appeals in 2004.
Then there’s the blurry figure of David Emanuel, president of the Georgia state Senate in 1801. When the sitting governor named himself to the U.S. Senate, Emanuel advanced to the governorship, where he served one year. He didn’t seek re-election.
Details are thin. According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, Emanuel was Jewish, but he may not have practiced his faith openly — and later in life he became a Presbyterian. Even so, authorities accept Emanuel, a Revolutionary War veteran, as “the first Jew elected to public office in the South and the first Jewish governor of any U.S. state.”
Emanuel County, with its county seat of Swainsboro, bears his name.
Two hundred and nine years later, the significance of Olens’ election may be as part of a small but significant trend.
“You’re beginning to see a core of mostly men — and mostly in their 30s to 40s — who are emerging as the new Jewish voices of Republican conservatism,” said Steven Windmueller, a specialist in Jewish voting trends and a member of the faculty at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.
The Republican Jewish Committee counts Olens among four who won statewide office on Tuesday. Another was Jay Dardenne, the next lieutenant governor of Louisiana.
Three-quarters of Jewish voters still vote Democratic.
Disagreements with Democrats over U.S. policy toward Israel have had their effect, but there’s some evidence that an isolationist streak in the tea party movement could threaten a stronger Jewish shift to the GOP.
One target of federal spending by a Republican-controlled House next year is likely to be President Barack Obama’s foreign operations budget. Defunding it could threaten U.S. aid to the Middle East.
“I’m hoping we can see some kind of separation in terms of tax dollars going to Israel,” U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., the only Jewish Republican in the House and likely its next majority leader, said last week.
Back in Georgia, Olens will have little say over foreign policy, but he intends to cut a more public figure than Georgians are used to in an attorney general.
He will back legislation in January to strengthen the state’s Open Records Act, and he wants a bill to prohibit child custody hearings in cases involving a parent who is overseas and serving in the military.
And he will bask in his state’s diversity.
“When you look at rural Georgia and you see the number of African-American council members, mayors, commissioners, police chiefs, sheriffs — this state is far, far different than it was 40 years ago. My election is just another sign,” Olens said. “For the folks that still are living in the past — the state isn’t. The electorate isn’t.”