Longtime House Speaker David Ralston, a consensus builder molded by his beloved north Georgia mountains, died Wednesday afternoon just a little more than a week after announcing he would not run again for speaker because of his health.
Ralston, who was the longest currently serving state House speaker in the country, died following an extended illness, according to Ralston’s spokesman. He was 68.
His recent announcement he would pass along his gavel jolted Georgia politics and left GOP lawmakers scrambling to name a successor to serve in one of the most powerful roles in state government. And his unexpected death Wednesday dealt a shock.
The Republican House Caucus met Monday and named House Majority Leader Jon Burns as the next speaker if the full chamber backs him in January. Speaker Pro-Tempore Jan Jones, a Milton Republican, will fill in as speaker for now, becoming the first female speaker in Georgia history.
Jones, who was first elected in 2002 along with Ralston, called his death an “unfathomable loss.” She served as pro-tempore under Ralston during all 13 years he was speaker.
“He knew the awesome power of bringing people together – reasoning together – and finding common ground. Regardless of political ideology, he treated everyone with respect and was a model of civility,” Jones said.
Ralston’s booming voice coming through the House’s sound system – “Have all members voted?” – was a regular part of a legislative day under the Gold Dome. But he also had an easy style formed in rural Gilmer County and a thoughtful response always at the ready.
State Rep. Jason Ridley, a Chatsworth Republican who ousted a GOP incumbent in 2017, said Ralston became a close friend and a mentor who taught him patience.
“Being from a rural area and a really red area like where I’m from, you want to drop the hammer on some stuff, and he was always good to say, ‘Well, where you and me are from, yeah, this would work. But you have got to think about other people that’s in other areas. It’ll kill them down there where they’re at.
“And so what we need to do is figure out how to get toward where you’re wanting, but not go too far. Because it is something that needs to be done, but we don’t want to hurt our friends who are in areas where their people don’t think the same way we do,” he said.
Ralston found respect on both sides of the aisle, even if his politics and priorities at times grated on Democrats. House Minority Leader James Beverly, a Macon Democrat, described him as an honest broker.
“The thing about Ralston is he never lied to me. He could’ve jammed me and the caucus up in so many ways, but he was always straight up,” Beverly said Wednesday. “If you can’t quite find our footing in this space with someone you’re negotiating with, you never can trust them,” Beverly said. “With Ralston you knew where you were most of the time because he was a genuine article.”
Former longtime state Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Columbus Democrat who is now the U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic, said “a great pine tree has fallen in the Georgia House of Representatives.”
Ralston, who was most comfortable sticking to tax policy, resisted some of the more controversial measures that came through his chamber or he tried to push more palatable alternatives, such as a bill promoted as the “pastor protection act” in the wake of the Supreme Court’s landmark same-sex marriage ruling.
“I sometimes find myself worrying that the idea of focusing on that which unites us instead of that which divides us is becoming old fashioned and dated,” Ralston said at the time. “And I think that’s regrettable.”
He shepherded through high-profile measures that had bipartisan support but were still heavy lifts, such as the passage of a hate crimes law after the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in 2020. And this year, he channeled his political capital into a sweeping behavioral health bill, overcoming right-wing opposition that tried to derail it.
“Each of those might not have passed had he not put his stamp of approval – and not just his stamp of approval, but he also put his shoulder to the wheel to push them on through,” said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock. “It’s not hyperbole to say that during his tenure, he was second only to the governor in terms of his influence on what was going to happen in the politics of the state.”
In the 1990s, Ralston served in the state Senate, vacating his seat to run for attorney general. He came back to the state Capitol in 2003 as a state representative, and his first run for speaker was unsuccessful but he won the job when then Speaker Glenn Richardson resigned in scandal.
Ralston wielded tremendous influence in the House, Bullock said, and he often used it as a moderating force on members of his own party.
“As speaker, he was, to some extent, herding cats,” Bullock said. “It’s often he was perceived as being the adult in the room. And he would push back against some of the more extreme kinds of suggestions coming up from his caucus, and because of his voice, of his personality and the respect that his colleagues had for him, he would generally be able to prevail under those kinds of circumstances.”
Ralston, who spoke passionately about losing constituents to COVID-19 during the height of the pandemic, was a stickler for mask and testing requirements during the 2021 session, sometimes peeving members of his own party.
“That was one of those instances where, it could be, with the members of his caucus, that was not very popular, but he thought it was the right thing to do, and therefore, he demanded that it be done,” Bullock said. “If you didn’t have the kind of leader like he was elected to his position, there was the potential, if he did not have the power and influence, he could have been deposed, and there was never any serious effort at that.”
Ralston, an attorney, was able to bat away an intra-party challenge over allegations he misused a legislative leave policy to delay criminal cases, which he later addressed with a bill tightening up the rule. And he outlasted many of his GOP critics in the House.
As a Democrat who has served in the House since 1993, state Rep. Carolyn Hugley of Columbus has served under five speakers, both Democrats and Republicans.
Hugley said Ralston’s broad view of the Capitol and ability to work with the Senate set him apart from the others, but what she will remember most is the kindness he showed to House members.
“Speaker Ralston was just a giant of a man in Georgia politics. He was just very kind and cordial,” she said. “That’s what I admire most and think about most in this moment, that he was kind to his colleagues and he tried to be a friend to the entire House.”
Georgia Recorder Senior Reporter Stanley Dunlap contributed to this report.
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