Why One of Georgia’s Most Powerful Politicians Has Never Run for Office
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because his tenure, and upcoming race, will test the modern limits of business conservatism.
It’s Tuesday morning and the eight bright-eyed employees are greeted with doughnuts, coffee and a friendly handshake from Chris Carr. Dressed in khakis and a light-blue button-down, the state’s top lawyer fires off quips while wielding a Georgia Film mug and commending the group for their willingness to “jump right in.” After all, there is no higher virtue than social grace, one the 44-year-old attorney general has stressed in both business and public service. “It always comes down to communications and relationships,” he’ll later tell them.
“Coffee with Chris” is Carr’s attempt to introduce himself to the 330 or so employees who fill Georgia’s largest legal department. The gesture serves as a useful ear on the ground, not to mention an easy claim of staying close to the rank and file.
This morning, he shares a story of a natural-born politician, a toddler who cried when Jimmy Carter beat Gerald Ford and who arrived in Georgia at age 6, son to a small-time entrepreneur. He implies a sort of political inevitability: After college, he would have gone straight into public service if not for a mentor who urged him to start in the private sector. After a brief stint practicing law, Carr eventually became the longtime chief of staff for Sen. Johnny Isakson, and later the economic development czar for Gov. Nathan Deal. His current digs, with all the trappings of elected office without having actually been elected, came after Deal appointed him last November to finish the term of Sam Olens, who stepped down to enter academia.
Carr is about to see if the narrative of a well-intentioned collaborator has legs in the age of Donald Trump. His first campaign, next year, is setting up as a battle between corporate conservatism and ideological purity. Against him are those who would have Georgia go the way of North Carolina and Alabama in enacting religious liberty laws and fighting federal influence on issues such as LGBT rights. On his side is the party establishment and old faces like the chamber of commerce and Georgia Power. “That’s probably his biggest advantage — he will be able to draw on the Isakson network, the Deal network and all the contacts he made in economic development,” says his wife, Joan Kirchner Carr, Senator Isakson’s current chief of staff.
But Carr, unlike Olens — who made national news by challenging President Obama on Waters of the United States Regulatory Overreach Protection Act and Affordable Care Act mandates — won’t have an easy foil for building his profile. In a state that backed Trump overwhelmingly over folks like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz in last year’s primaries, Carr says he is unlikely to test the constitutionality of executive orders like the travel ban. That stance may keep him safe with the base — but won’t generate headlines to run on. And Carr has more to worry about than his right flank, as Democrats make a push in the purple-trending state. Witness the frenzy around the special congressional election in Carr’s backyard in Dunwoody, and the surprising strength of young Democrat Jon Ossoff.
Will the Republicans that overwhelmingly backed Trump over Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz last spring reject a soft-talking political lifer like Carr?
For Georgia Republicans, it’s a familiar tug-of-war between Atlanta and those who believe the capitol has compromised their values. People like Carr are winning for now, says University of Georgia historian Charles Bullock: “The Appeal to Heaven caucus, my sense is that their numbers are declining.” On the religious liberty issue and others, Carr espouses a philosophy molded by Isakson, who likes to say there are two types of people: friends, and future friends. “My take on it is there are two different ways of life: constructive and destructive,” Carr says. “Do I want to add value or tear things down?”
Ideology aside, Carr stands out for competency. From 2013 to 2015, Georgia was thrice named by Site Selection magazine the best place to do business. That’s thanks in part to the Deal tax credit to moviemakers, which Carr cheerleaded to Hollywood and which helped the state’s film industry grow from $250 million in 2008 to $6 billion today. In his five months as attorney general, Carr’s priorities have been uncontroversial: spread awareness about opioid abuse, limit elder abuse and harshen prosecution against human traffickers who have made Atlanta a sex-trade capital of the world.
As the Trump-inspired base lines up against folks like Carr — whom they see as moneyed, well-connected and out of touch with populist sentiments — his chief critic is Josh McKoon, an attorney who led religious liberty legislation that Deal refused to sign last year. McKoon is considering challenging Carr in the GOP primary, suggesting Carr won’t hold accountable the chummy crowd from which he ascended (the Isakson and Deal sect), and knocking the attorney general for his lack of court experience. “I intend to see to it that we elect conservatives up and down the ballot next year so that, at last, critical elements of the conservative agenda can be adopted here in Georgia,” McKoon told OZY.
During Carr’s recent speech before the Atlanta Press Club — on the 49th floor of the Commerce Club — it’s hard to not trip over his establishment roots. Ritzy in a marble-and-embroidered-paper-napkin way, the backdrop is tailor-made for fundraising — but it also raises concerns about good ol’ boy Georgia politics. And the speech, stilted and filled with thank-you’s that seem appropriate in business but phony in politics, is another snapshot of Carr’s transition into candidate from an extremely wholesome (if Metallica-loving) father, who plays the piano and sneaks into his basement to work on puzzles (here, his wife outs him). Soon, Georgia voters will weigh in on the tempered, behind-the-scenes maestro: “Look,” Carr says, “you don’t always see the Isaksons of the world on the Sunday shows. But they’re the ones getting things done.”