Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Decatur), a native Georgian from DeKalb County was first elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 1987. In 1992 she was elected to the State Senate where she served until running for Lieutenant Governor in 1998. She lost the race in a runoff but returned to the House of Representatives in 2003 where she has served since. Throughout her tenure, she has served on powerful committees including as the chair of the House and Senate Judiciary committees.
She currently chairs the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Overview Committee (MARTOC) in the house and sits on the Judiciary, Science and Technology, Appropriations, Governmental Affairs, and Juvenile Justice committees.
State Affairs caught up with Rep. Oliver last week over a zoom call to hear about her career, future plans, and goals for the ongoing legislative session. Her responses have been edited for length and clarity.
What professional path led you to where you are now?
“I was one of the first group of women to come into (Emory) law school and when I applied to law school, when I was 20 years old, graduating early from college, I don't think I'd ever met a lawyer. It was a very out-of-the-sky opportunity that came to me. I applied to law school without any plan at all,” she said.
At the time, she had a full-time job with a publishing company because she had done some student newspaper work as an undergraduate at Vanderbilt, she said. She was just one of two women in a class of 60, she said. “I spent the first year… in a very odd position of being very young and not having really much of a peer group.”
Oliver interned with the U.S. Department of Interior’s legislative counsel in Washington D.C. but her first job was with Georgia Legal Services. Her responsibility: opening legal services offices across rural Northeast Georgia covering 27 counties.
“I'd never lived in rural Georgia,” she said. “No woman had ever been in any of those courthouses. … It was a very exciting, professional opportunity, and I was surrounded by incredibly smart lawyers who had come in from the northeast down to Georgia,” she said.
This led her to a brief two-year stint in Boston to teach before she returned to continue the law practice and teach part-time at Emory.
“But then, I was given an opportunity to work on a project at the Georgia General Assembly on housing foreclosure issues,” she said. She was in her early 30’s and at the time, she said “I had never walked into the state capitol.”
She got the bill passed, working with Rep. Ken Fuller and Sen. Eugene Walker. It ensured that homeowners would receive mailed notice of foreclosure if they owed money to private lenders, and it was her first taste of legislative work.
“I was given the task, pass a law, create this reform and I walked in the building and said, ‘Wow, this is a fairly fascinating place.’ There were then, and there are now some super smart people in that building, up to good and up to no good.”
State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver looks on during budget hearings at the Capitol on January 18, 2022. (Credit: Georgia House Media Services)
Would you say that was the defining or ‘aha’ moment for you?
“I think when people walk into the Capitol, they're either hooked, or they're thinking I'll never come back here. And I think I got hooked,” she said. “It was an ‘aha’ moment.”
“We were successful, and I was just stunned. And I became interested in politics,” she said. Opportunities arose through her law practice, Oliver represented the Georgia Council on Child Abuse and worked with Pierre Howard who would go on to serve as Lieutenant Governor, a position she would later run for herself, albeit unsuccessfully.
After being out of the legislature for a few years she took on the task of defeating the Republican incumbent in the newly drawn district in DeKalb.
State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Decatur) speaks to the press about proposed mental health reform, flanked by Speaker David Ralson (R-Blue Ridge), on Jan. 26, 2022. (Credit: Georgia House Media Services)
What accomplishments are you most proud of in your nearly three decades of service?
“It's hard to point to one thing because I think that I have been engaged in a lot of very positive efforts, but the Stalking Law and the Anti-SLAPP statute were to me very important bills that helped people, that really helped people solve some problems that truly existed and needed to be solved,” she said.
“So many victims were telling me their stories, horrific stories, and I knew that people were stalked. I partly had a domestic relations law practice, and I had represented individuals – men and women – who were suffering from bizarre stalking activities, very bizarre, and had prior to the criminal creation of a stalking statute,” she said.
Working at the Capitol she said “every single female TV reporter there would come and tell me they’d been stalked. People who see somebody on television and become obsessed with them is not unusual.”
The bill faced legal challenges from criminal defense lawyers who attacked whether stalking was “provable” but The Georgia Supreme Court ruled 7-0 that it was a constitutionally drafted statute.
The Anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) statute Oliver championed strengthens first amendment protections against lawsuits filed to intimidate someone into silence. It provides the ability for a defendant to ask for early intervention from a court to make a lawsuit go away before it goes into the lengthy and expensive discovery phase.
State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver (right) in the House of Representatives on the eighth day of the 2022 legislative session. (Credit: House Media Services).
What was the most challenging moment in your political career?
“Campaigns are difficult because people are shooting at you for irrational reasons,” she said. “There was one (senate) campaign. I'm not going to get too much into details… I'm not a nervous person about security… but there was a campaign where I was really physically afraid,” she said.
“There were so many very bizarre threats and phone calls that I wouldn't go anywhere by myself,” she said. “In today's world, you know, threatening politicians is fairly normal.”
“The difficulty of politics is that you are exposed to some very, very dangerous circumstances in a very small percentage of times,” she continued. “The hostility that comes from some people, who aren’t dangerous, but they're really angry or disturbed is fairly routine. And that's not pleasant.”
“It was just some weird dynamics that I'll never forget. The hate, the hostility and the anger and the irrationality, the bad personal behavior can be very discouraging. It's not only the Senate, of course, there’s a bunch of colleagues who went to the penitentiary. I never thought I'd be working with people who are felons.”
“You're in a climate with some dangerous people. So that's a bad part of politics. But most of my experiences have been very exciting and very fulfilling and you can make genuine friendships, working with somebody, it's kind of like being in the foxhole with them.”
Oliver’s advice: “put blinders on to bad behavior.”
What are your future plans and aims for the session?
“This session my wish is to pass this mental health bill, in substance as it's introduced,” she said. Last Wednesday Rep. Oliver along with Republican co-sponsor Todd Jones (R-Cumming), unveiled HB 1013. House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) said “no issue is more important” to him this session. The sweeping reform would address significant gaps in mental health coverage, and empower Georgia’s insurance commissioners to ensure that Georgians seeking coverage for their mental health needs aren’t arbitrarily denied reimbursements, among other provisions.
Oliver is also excited about the future of Georgia politics. “I'm staying in politics … I really believe that Stacey Abrams will be an exciting governor to work with,” she said.
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