House Speaker David Ralston leaves ‘mighty big shoes to fill’

By Tammy Joyner and Jill Jordan Sieder

ATLANTA - Georgia House Speaker David Ralston died Wednesday after an extended illness. He was 68.

At the time of his death, Ralston had served a dozen years as speaker, making him the longest-serving sitting speaker in the country. With the passing of Speaker Ralston, Speaker Pro Tempore Jan Jones (R-Milton) has become the 74th Speaker of the House and will serve the rest of Ralston’s term which ends in January.

Upon hearing of Ralston’s death, Gov. Brian Kemp ordered the flags at the state capitol to be flown at half-staff. He also said Ralston’s body will lie in state in the capitol. 

“Today, our state lost one of its giants, our family lost a dear friend, and all Georgians lost a true leader,” the governor said. “Speaker Ralston was a pioneer in the growth of Georgia’s Republican leadership and leaves an indelible mark on this state.”

A hard-line conservative, Ralston promoted the Republican agenda in the House, among them: Gun rights, the six-week ban on abortion, tax cuts and the state’s controversial election reform law. 

At the same time, he was known in political circles as a voice of reason in a markedly partisan era. 

He supported legalizing medical marijuana and endorsed new hate crime legislation. He sponsored and championed the sweeping mental health parity bill, which vastly expands Georgians’ access to mental health services, with broad, bi-partisan support. He pushed through, with bipartisan support, comprehensive adoption reform legislation and spearheaded the state’s first paid parental leave policy for state workers and teachers. 

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said he was “deeply saddened” upon hearing about Ralston’s passing. “We were aligned on many issues that affected the lives of Atlantans. And when we were not, I could always count on the speaker to be open to differing points of view,” Dickens said. “Speaker Ralston was a wise and fair leader whose love for Georgia was immense. 

Dickens lauded Ralston’s mediating efforts in preventing  Buckhead from seceding from the city of Atlanta. “He was a valued and vocal partner for us as we fought to keep Atlanta whole. He is leaving some mighty big shoes to fill under the Gold Dome,” said Dickens.

Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, had been speaker since 2010. He has served in both chambers of the Georgia legislature since 1992.

News of Ralston’s death comes two weeks after he announced he was stepping down as House speaker.

“I need to take time to address a health challenge which has arisen recently and the House needs a speaker who can devote the necessary time and energy to the office,’ Ralston said in a statement. “I love the House and want to see the honorable men and women who serve in it succeed.”

Ralston died just days after state lawmakers settled on a potential successor.  House Republicans tapped Majority Leader Jon Burns for the job. The decision won’t be final until the first day of the new legislature in mid-January when the full chamber will vote on Ralston’s successor.

Born in Ellijay, Ralston attended Young Harris College and North Georgia College (now the University of North Georgia), where he earned a bachelor’s degree with honors. He later received his law degree from the University of Georgia. 

From 1992 to 1998, Ralston served in the Georgia Senate. He was elected in 2002 to the Georgia House of Representatives where he represented House District 7, which includes Fannin and Gilmer counties and a portion of Dawson County.

Ralston focused on job creation, economic development and fiscal soundness. Since 2017, he has guided legislative efforts to expand economic development and broadband services to rural communities. In 2018, his conservative fiscal approach led to the state’s first cut to the corporate and individual income tax rates.

“Speaker Ralston was a steady, reliable guiding force under the Gold Dome in good times and tough times,” Senate Majority Leader Steve Gooch said. “He cherished the idea of his beloved House being a body that truly represented all of Georgia’s people, and he respected each of the elected members that comprised it, regardless of partisan differences. It takes a genuinely good and decent person to lead that way.”

While Ralston garnered respect and influence in the halls of the state capitol, he also left a lasting impression on Georgians he encountered.

Ellis Davis, a student at Valdosta State College, remembers meeting Ralston when he served as a page in the House of Representatives.

“He was a big man with a big heart for the people of Georgia,” said Davis, who visited with the speaker on several occasions. “He had a humor that made the hard times bearable. I will cherish the memories I have and I pray that good memories will sustain those that are mourning his loss.”

Steve Brown, former mayor of Peachtree City and former Fayette County commissioner, remembers his “colossal battle” with Ralston over the 2012 special purpose local option sales tax for transportation, otherwise known as the T-SPLOST referendum. Ralston favored the referendum. Brown was vehemently opposed to it and led a small but vocal group of opponents who fought against its passage.

Brown attended a panel discussion on the referendum where Ralston was speaking. Brown raised his hand during the question-and-answer session.

“I began by introducing myself at which time the speaker cut me with a serious gaze and low-gravel voice saying, ‘I know exactly who you are.’ ” Brown told State Affairs.  “Talk about feeling like a dead man walking. But upon answering the question his demeanor turned soft and polite. Obviously, the Speaker did not want a small group of upstarts trying to kill such a huge tax windfall.”

“Most politicians in his position would have most likely never spoken to me again and may possibly have attempted some sort of vengeful act of retribution,” Brown added. “But the speaker did not act that way. He was always very cordial whenever we were in the same meeting or conference. 

“It was a good lesson for me about the importance of maintaining a level of civility and decorum even under the worst of circumstances,” Brown, a Republican, said. “The speaker showed you could still be a hard-nosed politician and a fearsome legislator, but you could also be a gentleman in the midst of it all. I've tried to emulate that.”

Ralston is survived by his wife Sheree and their two children.

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