Olens spent most of the 2000s as chairman of the Cobb Board of Commissioners - and ran and governed as a conservative Republican. He kept the county's taxes the lowest of any county in the metro Atlanta area and made sure county services were delivered promptly and efficiently and at minimal cost. Most notably from a conservative vs. liberal standpoint, he gave Sheriff Neil Warren strong support when Warren implemented the 287(g) program, which screens the residency status of those arrested on other charges and brought to the county jail.
One of Olens' opponents for the GOP nomination for AG has tried to make a big deal of his past. State Sen. Preston Smith (R-Rome), noted last week in an Atlanta Press Club debate that Olens had been described in a Feb. 25, 1992 MDJ article as a member of the Cobb Chapter of the Clinton for President Committee, as well as the treasurer of the Cobb Democratic Party.
When asked by the MDJ last week, he denied ever serving on any committee to help elect Clinton and said he had not contributed to his campaign.
Well, for the record, that 1992 story was written by yours truly, back in his days as a reporter. Olens didn't take issue with its contents at the time. And he did not directly deny being treasurer of the Democratic Party when another electoral foe resurrected that information during Olens' first re-election race as chairman in 2003. By then, of course, Olens was a Republican. Maybe his memories of 1992 have gotten fuzzy with age, or maybe he's just trying to nip a fairly minor political story in the bud. I think it's beside the point.
People change as they age; most of us, hopefully, for the better.
Olens said as much last week.
"As a young attorney, I considered myself an independent and sometimes voted Democrat. As I matured, I realized the Republican Party much better represented my values and beliefs," Olens said.
And as someone with a growing political ambition in the monolithically Republican east Cobb of the mid-1990s, Olens may have realized that changing parties would be the only way to achieve those ambitions. If that was the case, he certainly had plenty of company. Around Town columns of the 1980s and '90s offered near-weekly updates of which elected Democratic officials were jumping ship, or about to.
Keep in mind that when Warren Herron ran (unsuccessfully) for state Legislature in 1962, he was the first Cobb Republican to do so since Reconstruction. Yet by 1990 then-state Sen. Roy Barnes (D-Mableton) could remark without exaggerating that, "There is no two-party system in Cobb County. Cobb County is a one-party county. It is a Republican one-party county."
(For a good overview of the county's gradual transition from Democrat to Republican, read Kennesaw State University Professor Dr. Tom Scott's book "Cobb County, Georgia and the Origins of the Suburban South: A Twentieth-Century History.")
There's not enough ink to compile a comprehensive list of national and local politicians who have changed parties in the course of their careers. You can start with "A" for Abraham Lincoln, who started out as a Whig and ended as a Republican; "B," for Bob Barr, who was elected to Congress as a Republican then ran for president as a Libertarian; "C" for Hillary Clinton, who was a Goldwater Republican in college and is a Democrat now; through maybe not "Z" but at least "R," for Ronald Reagan, the Republican who began as a Roosevelt Democrat but ultimately declared, famously, that "I didn't leave the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party left me!"
Any Republicans having second thoughts about Olens' "bona fides" as a conservative need to be reminded that Gov. Sonny Perdue - Georgia's first Republican governor since Reconstruction - was a Democrat as the 1990s began. And so was Nathan Deal, the Republican now among his party's leading candidates to succeed Perdue.
I think decisions about who to vote for and who to elect should hinge on that person's record and what he or she promises to do if elected. I think those are much more valid indicators of how the person will govern than what he did a decade or more ago, or who he voted for back then, or what he did or didn't smoke in college.
For every political figure you can name who stayed true to his party throughout his career, you can name a counterpart who didn't, and who went on to serve his community, his state or his country equally well.
After having covered Olens' entire political career, there's no question in my mind that he is a conservative. And a Republican. As for whatever he was or wasn't nearly 20 years ago, who cares?
Joe Kirby is Editorial Page Editor of the Marietta Daily Journal and co-author of the new "Then & Now: Marietta Revisited."