Gov. Nathan Deal on Wednesday tapped one of his top deputies, Chris Carr, to become the state’s next attorney general.
A list of powerful figures quickly lined up to support Carr, sending a blunt message that he will have big business and political backing when he asks voters for a full term in 2018.
Carr, the state’s economic development commissioner, will take office on Nov. 1 as head of the Department of Law, administering a staff of more than 300 tasked with enforcing state laws and investigating public corruption. He is Deal’s highest-profile appointment since the governor took office in 2011.
Carr, 44, will become only the sixth person to hold the state’s top law position since 1945. Attorney General Sam Olens, who was elected in 2010 and won another four-year term in 2014, announced his resignation Wednesday after the Board of Regents named him Kennesaw State University’s president.
Olens’ appointment had long been at the center of swirling rumors at the statehouse, and Deal moved quickly Wednesday to appoint his longtime ally to the coveted position.
In an interview with the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Deal said that Carr’s administrative skills and “servant’s heart” helped him make the decision.
“He has a lot of common sense, and that’s what any public servant needs,” Deal said. “He’s intellectually brilliant. He understands the consequences, and he understands the different perspectives.”
A graduate of the University of Georgia’s law school, Carr worked in public policy and Republican politics after a stint at the Alston & Bird law firm. He was a top aide to U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson before Deal named him to lead the state’s economic arm in 2013. He said he would stand for election as attorney general in 2018.
Carr said his understanding of state and legislative issues and his management of a state agency with more than 200 employees helped him prepare for the job.
“That’s the kind of experience I can bring to bear at the Department of Law to represent the state of Georgia and the interests of the people of our state,” Carr said. “People will judge me on the job that I do, and I’ll get up every day with a solemn responsibility to represent Georgia.”
‘The voice of economic development’
The appointment flings Carr headlong into a pitched election battle. Several Republicans, including state Sen. Josh McKoon and outgoing state Rep. B.J. Pak, have been mentioned as possible contenders. So has state Rep. Stacey Evans, a Smyrna Democrat considered a rising star in her party.
Carr comes armed with a string of early endorsements lined up with the help of Deal and Isakson. He’s a protege of both Republican leaders, and their advisers see him as a potential candidate for higher office down the line. His ties to Isakson remain strong: His wife is the Republican senator’s current chief of staff.
Among Carr’s supporters is former Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat who is bucking party lines to back the Republican. Barnes said he got to know Carr when he was working for Isakson, a fellow Cobb County native whom the ex-governor also endorsed for re-election.
“I’ve known Chris for a long time. I think it’s a good appointment. I think he’ll do a great job,” said Barnes, who added that he might also back Carr in 2018. “If folks do a good job, whether they be a Democrat or Republican, then I’ll endorse them then. I have nothing but confidence that he’ll do a good job.”
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed also sent the AJC a note supporting Deal’s choice for attorney general.
The appointment plunges Carr into a bitter battle over the “religious liberty” legislation in Georgia, which could become the focus of his election battle in two years.
That’s because McKoon is a leading advocate for such legislation, which was embraced by social conservatives who said it would protect the faithful from government interference. Powerful business groups made defeating it a top priority, calling it veiled discrimination against gays and other groups, and they cheered Deal’s veto of the measure this year.
Many of those influential big business forces are already lining up behind Carr. Georgia Power Chief Executive Paul Bowers and AGL Resources executive Hank Linginfelter, the chairman of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, both sent statements endorsing Carr as a pro-business force.
And Deal called Carr the “face and the voice of economic development in Georgia” who helped create more than 83,000 jobs on his watch.
‘Free of undue influence?’
Also in Carr’s corner is outgoing U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a Coweta County Republican and favorite of grass-roots conservatives. He called Carr a “trusted conservative who knows how to make government work.” Westmoreland will likely be cited as evidence that his support extends beyond the GOP establishment.
McKoon, for his part, praised Olens as a tough-minded attorney general who was unafraid to make hard decisions. He questioned whether Olens’ successor had the legal background to do the job — and whether he would be free of political interference from Deal’s office.
“It is important that our attorney general be someone who has amassed a significant degree of experience in the practice of law,” said McKoon, a Columbus attorney. “It is equally important that person be free of undue influence from any other official.”
That’s only one of many questions Carr will face in the years to come. Carr hasn’t formally practiced law in more than a decade. He acknowledged at a press conference Wednesday that’s he’s never tried a case in court.
Carr returned to active status with the State Bar of Georgia on Tuesday. He had been an “inactive member in good standing” since June 2007.
The state constitution requires the attorney general to have been an “active status member of the State Bar of Georgia for seven years.” Carr first joined the Bar on Nov. 1, 1999. He was active and in good standing until June 28, 2007 — about seven-and-a-half years.
Deal said Wednesday that his office consulted the State Bar of Georgia to make sure Carr’s experience met the state constitution’s requirements.
Olens said he wanted to spend more time in the courtroom after he was elected to the post in 2010 but soon learned that judges are apt to view that as “politicizing” a case. In his six years in office, Olens said, he never argued a case in court. The closest he got was a case the Georgia Supreme Court decided not to hear.
Instead, Olens created the position of solicitor general, who is an attorney responsible for all litigation in the office.
Barnes, a veteran trial lawyer, said any concerns about Carr’s lack of courtroom experience are “overblown.”
“The truth of the matter is he’s got good judgment. I always looked at good judgment more than anything else,” Barnes said. “And the attorney general’s job is about managing lawyers. That’s much more important than anything else.”
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Staff writer Aaron Gould Sheinin contributed to this article.