Nov 4, 2022 - Politics

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston to end tenure in powerful role

David Ralston at a podium

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston in the House Chamber in January 2018. Photo: David Goldman/AP

Georgia State House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) will not seek another term to lead the chamber, sending shockwaves through the state's politics just days before the midterm elections.

Why it matters: Since taking control of the gavel in 2010, Ralston has been seen as a steady hand alongside three governors, as well as a backstop against some far-right bills and controversial policy. The loss of Ralston as speaker leaves many wondering about the implications for the state.

  • He helped stop an attempted secession of Buckhead from the city of Atlanta, a state takeover of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and additional GOP-led changes to voting laws this past year.
  • During the legislative session earlier this year, Ralston helped champion and led the passage of a massive bipartisan legislative package overhauling the state’s mental health system.

Driving the news: Ralston said in a statement he intends to serve out his term as a state representative (he is running unopposed), but would not seek re-election as speaker in January.

  • He called the role "an honor of a lifetime" and said due to a "health challenge," the House "needs a speaker who can devote the necessary time and energy to the office."

What they’re saying: Edward Lindsey, a former Republican state representative who served on Ralston’s leadership team, called him "a giant in Georgia politics for this century."

  • Lindsey listed a slew of policies that the state would not have passed without Ralston, ranging from a 2012 constitutional amendment to allow the state to create charter schools to a large investment in transportation in 2014.
  • "He has guided the Georgia House and the state of Georgia with an even hand, and has kept us on track, pushing forward very difficult legislation across the board," Lindsey told Axios.

The other side: Stacey Abrams, who served as House minority leader alongside Ralston called him "fair" and "thoughtful." "When we disagreed, even vehemently, there was always respect in how we did work together," she told Axios. "I think it's going to be hard to fill his shoes."

  • "We are in very closely divided state where it is so imperative that we have level-headed leadership that respects one another and that can work together," she added.
  • Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Decatur), who helped Ralston pass the mental health package, said he honored pledges to talk about issues with Democrats. "We are in a terrible time of politics," she told Axios. Ralston, on the other hand, she said was "such an important, positive influence for the House. It's very sad."
  • Rep. Calvin Smyre (D-Columbus) said Ralston had an "open-door policy" and the two worked closely together across the aisle. "Every conversation was a two-way street," Smyre told Axios.

The view from the hall: "This is not good news," longtime Sierra Club lobbyist Neill Herring told Axios. Herring said Ralston had supported legislation protecting watersheds and praised his appointments to top committees.

  • "He kept the lid on the state government ever since he became speaker," he said.
  • "There’s a huge amount of respect for the guy," said Herring, who predicts Ralston will continue to have influence as a lawmaker. "They don’t grow on trees, especially on the legislative branch of the tree world."

Between the lines: Ralston has also played a role in tempering dangerous legislation.

  • "To be speaker you have to show sound judgment. Not only in advancing good policy but also stepping in the doorway and stopping bad policy," Lindsey said. "And I’ve appreciated that quality."

Yes, but: State Rep. Erick Allen (D-Smyrna) told Axios that while Ralston’s position on mental health was "very admirable," he also presided over the "most egregious abortion and voting bills that we’ve seen in decades."

  • "I think he was a very complex speaker," Allen told Axios. "He got a lot of credit for being the adult in the room, but in dealing with him, I think that he was just a Republican that knew how to play the game extremely well."

Catch up quick: Ralston, who had served in the House since 2003, was elected speaker after Glenn Richardson resigned over personal mental health issues and accusations that he had an affair with a lobbyist.

  • Ralston re-opened the House floor to journalists, focused on ethics reform, and did away with the "hawks" system that allowed select GOP representatives to swoop in and vote on any committee to push legislation.

Flashback: He has faced challenges to his speakership from the right and scrutiny in 2019 over leveraging his legislative schedule to delay court cases in his private law practice, which weakened his hold over the caucus.

  • He responded in part by championing a change to the loophole in the law he was accused of exploiting.

What we’re watching: The decision about Ralston's replacement will happen fast. Per caucus rules, Republican members meet the Monday after the November election to choose their nominee—someone who is likely to be elected speaker by the full house in January.

  • Many lawmakers reached for comment Friday declined to speculate about candidates on the record.
  • Abrams told Axios that there are a "handful of folks that I think could do that job," but wouldn't endorse anyone: "Not the person I want to win!"

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