TAMPA — A speech before a national political convention begins with a phone call and a surprisingly tight deadline. For Attorney General Sam Olens, that call came three weeks ago.
And it arrived with a slight twist: Olens would perform a rhetorical duet before delegates with his Florida counterpart, Pam Bondi.
Days of emailing and editing, some late-night tweaks and two dress rehearsals later, the bespectacled lawyer — who had been chairman of the Cobb County Commission only two years ago — stepped in front of thousands of delegates to the Republican National Convention and millions of TV viewers with his partner on Wednesday night.
“We know that the Constitution limits federal power, but President [Barack] Obama clearly believes those limits just get in his way. So he ignores them,” Olens began. “He promises to rescue our economy and environment by investing in green jobs, but instead funnels your tax dollars into campaign donors’ pockets.”
Bondi joined in: “He sure does. He talks about giving us more control over health care decisions, but instead grants that power to government bureaucrats.”
The Olens-Bondi duo was sandwiched between and overshadowed by U.S. Sen. John McCain and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, rivals in the ’08 presidential contest. Who were in turn eclipsed by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and — the finale of the evening — Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
All in all, the seven-minute duet was a modest national debut for Olens. But if you think of a convention as a structured argument, two attorneys general were entirely necessary to Mitt Romney’s prosecution. They served as witnesses to what Republicans see as Obama’s overreaching on health care, illegal immigration, environmental regulation and more.
Olens was at Romney’s side when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its health care decision this summer. Before she became Florida’s attorney general in 2010, the same year as Olens, the telegenic Bondi served as a Fox News contributor — and frequently gave updates on the lawsuit.
”It’s not the fight we want, but it’s the fight we have with this president,” Olens said a few hours before his speech. “When I was running for office, I never imagined a telephone conference where senior officials from the Department of Justice would be on the line, asking me questions to decide who should be sued. I just never really pictured the federal government expending energy to decide which of the 50 [states] is next.”
Olens and Bondi fit well into the evening’s emphasis on diversity. Olens was Georgia’s first Jewish candidate elected to a statewide, partisan office. Bondi is Florida’s first female attorney general.
But both were also early Romney supporters in this year’s contest. In Georgia, where Gov. Nathan Deal backed Newt Gingrich, Olens was the only statewide elected official to endorse the former Massachusetts governor. Olens also supported Romney in ’08.
“The request for me came from Governor Romney. He asked for them to reach out to me,” Olens said. Then came a weeklong lull, followed by a request for copies of past speeches on his fights with the federal government.
Romney’s convention crew cut and pasted the speeches together and helped with “stylistic” flairs. But the words are original, Georgia’s attorney general said.
“I’m sure the public thinks that they give you a speech and you talk,” Olens said. “That’s absolutely not the truth, and I’ve actually been really surprised that it’s not the truth.”
One rehearsal was held Tuesday on the stage within the massive Tampa Bay Times Forum, an experience not nearly as intimidating as Olens anticipated. “It’s a much warmer setting than I expected,” he said. “You don’t get a feeling of the size of the room when you’re up on stage.”
The tag-team concept is what worried Olens the most. “The lectern is really made for one,” Olens said. “Spatially, it’s a challenge. It’s hard for us to be in that same space at the same time.”
It took some effort, but the two dodged out of each other’s way when it counted Wednesday night. But our poor seat behind the RNC stage allowed us an interesting perspective — we could see that Bondi put her partner at a height disadvantage with a pair of high-altitude heels.
Olens’ wife, Lisa, flew down for the speech. A daughter, Lauren, watched from Shenzhen, China, where she teaches English. Olens’ son watched from Syracuse University in New York. The attorney general could have flown Jonathan home for the occasion, but he is on a public servant’s salary and airfare is expensive.
Which raises a question: If Romney wins the White House, will Olens be drawn to Washington? “I think that’s highly unlikely,” Olens said. “I’m here. I’m loving the job.”
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider