January 6, 2003 - Atlanta Business Chronicle: Peace Corps Staffer Eric Tanenblatt is Chief of Staff for Georgia's new Governor

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Peace Corps Staffer Eric Tanenblatt is Chief of Staff for Georgia's new Governor

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Perdue's chief of staff: 'A real behind-the-scenes guy'*

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Perdue's chief of staff: 'A real behind-the-scenes guy'
Sarah Rubenstein Staff Writer

Although many major companies have feared that Georgia's new governor would not embrace the state's commercial powerhouses, Gov.-elect Sonny Perdue's chief of staff has learned through his own career the importance of a politically active business community.

Eric Tanenblatt, 36, has made a name for himself in the Republican Party through the connections he has built from the state level all the way to President George W. Bush.

The ties in the business world that he has developed along the way should make Georgia industry rest easier as it prepares for this year's legislative session, said Tanenblatt, who was the late U.S. Sen. Paul Coverdell's state director for more than three years and later chaired Bush's 2000 campaign efforts in Georgia.

"I really believe in an active business community," said Tanenblatt, who first became acutely aware of that constituency's importance while working for Coverdell.

Coverdell, whom Tanenblatt called a mentor, assembled a task force of representatives from Georgia industries that regularly advised him on matters that would affect the state's companies.

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"I really got to know the state and its industries, or what I would refer to as its economic engines," said Tanenblatt, a native of Commack, N.Y., who has been active in Georgia politics for almost 20 years.

"To have local people tell you what that effect would be, would really have an impact on the way the senator would vote," he said.

Next, Tanenblatt involved himself with one particular industry.

While he was working in Coverdell's senate office, Cathy Woolard, now president of the Atlanta City Council, was head of the American Electronics Association (AeA), a national trade group representing the technology industry.

At Woolard's invitation, Tanenblatt joined the group's board after working for Coverdell. Tanenblatt chaired the public policy committee and helped create the Technology Leadership Coalition, which represents technology companies on public policy issues in Georgia.

As chairman and then vice chairman of the coalition, Tanenblatt recruited companies and developed the organization's legislative agenda, said Mike Levin, executive director of the AeA's Southeast council.

"He has great experience in politics," Levin said. "It helped the coalition also balance its lobbying efforts, so that we weren't looking at anything from one perspective."

Among the issues Tanenblatt addressed for the coalition was telecommuting, which Perdue touted during his election campaign as a way to reduce traffic, Levin said. The coalition has included telecommuting on its legislative agenda for the last three years.

"I just really believe that it's important for the business community to let their voice be heard ... especially in the area of technology, since it's such a fast-growing sector, you have a lot of people that are setting policy, that don't really understand it," Tanenblatt said. "So they need to be educated. And so I think industry has a responsibility to provide that education."

Tanenblatt also joined the board of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce in 1997 and, without a law degree, became managing director at the law firm McKenna, Long & Aldridge LLP in 2001, strategizing on federal, state and local policy issues for the firm.

Now, he's left those posts to become one of the top power brokers in Perdue's nascent administration.

Making the transition

Tanenblatt wasn't necessarily chosen from the ranks of a wide circle of "elder statesmen," said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. There just aren't many of those types in the Georgia Republican Party, after more than 130 years of Democratic control in the state, he said.

But Tanenblatt's résumé shows at least two things: "He's been a worker in the vineyard of the Republican Party and is very close to the president," Bullock said. "His strengths would be his contacts."

Tanenblatt said his connections to Bush and the federal government will help Georgia interact with other states and draw federal assistance, since he understands the bureaucratic processes and has the relationships.

Tom Harrold, a Democratic attorney who lobbies in the Gold Dome, called Tanenblatt a "real behind-the-scenes guy" whose lack of ego will serve him well, even though he faces a learning curve in dealing with the state legislature since so much of his experience has been at the federal level.

"He always has dedicated himself to working for somebody else," Harrold said.

Tanenblatt met his new boss, Perdue, about 10 years ago, when then-Sen. Coverdell was delivering a commencement address to Houston County High School in Perry. Tanenblatt had traveled to Perry, in Perdue's state senate district, and sat in the bleachers with Perdue during the speech.

The two continued to run into each other whenever Coverdell attended events in the county, and Tanenblatt observed Perdue even more carefully after he joined the Republican Party. Tanenblatt was impressed enough that he invited Perdue to co-chair the Bush campaign's efforts in Georgia during the 2000 campaign.

Calm amid the storm

As Perdue's chief of staff, Tanenblatt will bring a careful, analytical style to the administration.

Tanenblatt's peers described him as a calm figure who listens to all sides of a debate. But once he's made a decision, he's made a decision, they say.

"He's a guy that ain't gonna lose a lot of sleep once that decision is made, I'll tell you that," said Chuck Clay, former chairman of the Georgia Republican Party. "Anybody who confuses that [ability to listen] for weakness or lack of decisiveness is either going to be rudely awakened or sorely disappointed."

Tanenblatt said he was not surprised others described him as calm. He said he learned from various experiences in the "pressure cooker," as he put it, that there was no other way to be productive in trying circumstances.

Early in his career, Tanenblatt worked for the Peace Corps in Washington, D.C., where he had to deal with, among other things, an instance when Peace Corps volunteers were kidnapped.

More recently, Tanenblatt was a member of the Electoral College during the 2000 presidential election, whose result was challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court.

"I was being bombarded from people around the country who were trying to get you to switch your vote," said Tanenblatt, whom the Georgia Republican Party chose to be an elector because of his role on the Bush campaign.

Now, Tanenblatt has been thrown into a new type of pressure cooker. He has to help show that after more than a century, Republicans can govern Georgia.

"I think the first thing they need to do is to show they have the vision, the capabilities to govern," said Bullock, the political science professor from UGA.

He added, "Now you've got to come up with a series of programs, you've got to be able to implement them, and you've got to move your fellow Republicans from outsiders who criticized, to insiders who help steer the ship."

And as the Democratic lobbyist Harrold said, by the end of Tanenblatt's first legislative session, "He will be hardened."

Reach Rubenstein at srubenstein@bizjournals.com.

© 2003 American City Business Journals Inc.

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