ATLANTA -- Sam Olens has been winning legal and political victories since taking office, and those successes enhance his political capital.
Georgia’s attorney general was last seen in Tampa delivering an address at the Republican National Convention. He also chaired the health and education subcommittee of the Platform Committee there.
Granted, no one will read the platform five minutes after the ink dried, and he didn’t get a primetime speaking slot during the broadcast networks’ telecasts, but he was there.
He got there be being one of the attorneys general whose challenge to the constitutionality of federal health reform rose to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the section of the challenge he argued prevailed. He argued that the law was abusing the federal government’s power by trying to coerce states into expanding their Medicaid programs. As a result of his success, Georgia chose not to widen its Medicaid net.
It didn’t hurt his chances in getting in the Tampa spotlight by being Georgia’s only constitutional officer to endorse Mitt Romney’s quest for the Republican presidential nomination. Olens has become a Romney adviser, even watching with Romney when the Supreme Court delivered its health reform ruling.
It might have made sense to join other Georgia Republicans in endorsing Newt Gingrich who had represented Olens’ home of Cobb County in Congress. Instead, Olens took a different path and trusted his destiny to Romney.
Some observers speculate he could have a place in a Romney administration if he so chose.
Olens might not choose so. It’s no secret that he was considering entering the gubernatorial contest in 2010 before he swerved to the A.G. post.
It might not have been his first choice of job, but he’s been determined not to be just a seat warmer. Staffers say he keeps them running.
As a result, he’s put more than one feather in his cap since taking office. Besides the Medicaid victory, he’s won federal cases dealing with water withdrawals from Atlanta’s Lake Lanier, air pollution standards for the state’s coal-fired power plants, challenges to Georgia laws.
These cases weren’t a slam dunk. The state had lost the water case at a lower level under his predecessor and only triumphed when Olens appealed. He won preclearance of the state’s redistricting maps and its law to verify the citizenship of voter applicants when Texas just lost similar battles.
Unlike other Georgia attorneys general, Olens has pushed a broad legislative agenda, including revision of open-government laws, a crackdown on sex trafficking and one on prescription-painkiller abuse, winning passage for each. He also offered guidance to lawmakers as they drafted their own bills, and as a result he can claim some credit for their withstanding court challenges largely intact. One example is the law on immigration enforcement.
The observation “success breeds success” didn’t get to be a cliché without having some validity. In political circles, a perception of invulnerability, of sound judgment, of wide connections pays off in many ways large and small.
People return Olens’ phone calls, not just out of deference to his office, but also because they think it may be worthwhile to have him owing them a favor since he’s got all that influence.
Georgia’s stock rises when the stock of its attorney general appreciates, just as it would for its governor, the mayor of its capital and so forth. By backing the right candidate, Olens will gain status if Romney wins in November.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has seen the same thing happen to him during the Obama administration. Every Georgia politician knows if they want anything from Washington, their best chance is going through Reed.
Likewise, as Romney’s earliest elected backer here, Olens could have entre that the governor and U.S. senators don’t have.
The whole state can benefit from that.
Even in his role as attorney general, Olens wins by winning. As his courtroom foes evaluate their legal options, they have to consider that repeated success is more than just luck.
For example, federal agencies now know Olens’ willingness to go to court means they need more ammunition in the form of evidence, precedent and legal arguments to convince a judge or appellate court than they do with another state A.G. content to back down from a simple, administrative decree.
The jovial, soft-spoken Olens doesn’t swagger or bark “don’t mess with me,” but that’s what his street cred shouts.
At the midpoint in his first term, with grown children and with a popular governor likely to win re-election, Olens could be expected to listen to the siren song of the Potomac.
Obviously, it’s too early to think seriously about an appointment, but the political capital he’s amassing won’t lose value even if Romney falters.