Jews have made massive inroads in American politics—cue the comments about “The Israel Lobby”—and have become a staple of our representative democracy. But it wasn’t until last week that Georgia, the state notorious for the lynching of Leo Frank, voted in favor of a Jewish candidate in a statewide, partisan race.
His name was Sam Olens. And he will be the next Republican attorney general of Georgia.
From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
lens 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.”
Turns out that Georgia actually had a Jewish governor way back in 1801. But David Emanuel, who may have later converted to Christianity, had only been elected as a Georgia state senator and merely fell into the governor’s mansion when the prior governor appointed himself to the U.S. Senate. The New Georgia Encyclopedia explains:
Emanuel is considered to be the first Jew elected to public office in the South and the first Jewish governor of any U.S. state, although he may not have been an openly practicing Jew.
Two centuries later, Olens has unquestionably broken this religion barrier.