Note: This article was also published by The Gainesville Times, a sister publication of DCN.
Georgia House Speaker David Ralston died Wednesday at 68, spokesperson Kaleb McMichen said, less than two weeks after he announced he was stepping down because of health concerns.
A statement issued by McMichen said only that Ralston had died after “an extended illness.” The Blue Ridge Republican became Georgia state government’s second most powerful leader during his 13 years leading the 180-member House.
“A great pine tree has fallen in the Georgia House of Representatives,” said Democrat Calvin Smyre of Columbus, the longest-serving member of the House and a friend of Ralston.
Republican Gov. Brian Kemp ordered flags flown at half-staff until Ralston is buried and said his body will lie in repose at the Georgia Capitol.
“Our state lost one of its true giants,” Kemp said in a statement.
Former Gov. Nathan Deal, a close friend of Ralston for more than 40 years, described Ralston as an exceptional public servant who guided Georgians over the course of his political career.
“(Ralston’s) constituents are blessed to have him as their voice at the Capitol,” Deal said. “As speaker, he’s been an outstanding leader. His steady hand and guidance helped bring order and efficiency to the General Assembly, which can be an unwieldy and unpredictable body at times.
“I could have asked for no better partner during my tenure as governor. Together, we worked to bring Georgia out of the Great Recession to make it the No. 1 state for business. Under his watch, our state has become stronger and our future brighter.”
State Rep. Lee Hawkins of Gainesville, who became friends with Ralston before he was elected to the House in 2012, said they had often exchanged political ideas and contemplated running for congressional office over the years.
“(Ralston) was a wonderful man and a great statesman,” Hawkins said. “He always thought of others and thought much of our state. Much of his work was to better this state for its citizens, and he passed some very meaningful legislation that will affect all of us into the future. I will greatly miss him.”
State Sen. Butch Miller, of Gainesville, who noted Ralston worked for the Gainesville Times for a brief time, also spoke in commemoration of the late speaker.
“Georgia has lost a great man,” Miller said. “David Ralston loved this state and worked tirelessly for the betterment of all its residents. He was a friend and a mentor to me and to many others. I count myself privileged to have known him politically and personally.”
A lawyer from the north Georgia mountains, Ralston had said he hoped to continue as a member of the House even after stepping down as speaker after 13 years.
Until the current legislative term ends in January, House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, a Milton Republican, will become speaker, as called for by the state constitution. She will be the first female speaker in Georgia history. Republicans on Monday nominated Jon Burns of Newington to replace Ralston when the newly elected General Assembly convenes Jan. 9, an effort at continuity supported by Ralston’s closest allies.
“David Ralston spent his career in public service trying to lift others up and move our state forward,” Jones said in a statement. “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.”
Ralston is survived by his wife, Sheree, and two adult children. Funeral arrangements will be announced later.
As the paramount leader of the House, Ralston shaped taxes, spending and laws.
In one example, he muscled through changes this year to how mental health benefits are provided by private insurers and how the state provides mental health services. He could also put bills in the garbage can, stopping a state takeover of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in 2019.
Ralston was first elected to the Georgia Senate in 1992 when Democrats were in the majority, serving six years. He lost a race for attorney general to Democrat Thurbert Baker in 1998 before being elected to the House in 2002.
The longest-serving state house speaker in the United States at the time of his death, Ralston was cut from the mold of Tom Murphy, the west Georgia Democrat who commanded the House from 1973 to 2003. Ralston took office after a chaotic period when the first Republican speaker in more than 130 years, Glenn Richardson, resigned following a suicide attempt and revelations of an extramarital affair with a lobbyist. Ralston had lost a speaker’s bid against Richardson in 2008.
“He brought a calm and steady hand to the House when it was in need of a calm and steady hand,” outgoing House Appropriations Committee Chairman Terry England, an Auburn Republican and Ralston confidant, said earlier this month.
Ralston survived a challenge to his power after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed he had used his position as lawmaker to delay court proceedings for people he was representing in court. Most of the hard-core conservatives who rebelled left the House after failing to unseat Ralston, with the speaker engineering the defeat of some.
Ralston shepherded a wide range of Republican priorities and was always ready to cut taxes, boasting of a state income tax cut passed this year that could ultimately total $2 billion. He also championed rural development.
A guardian of the powers of the legislative branch, Ralston initially clashed with Kemp before settling into a close working relationship. He was an enthusiastic lover of legislative give-and-take, often besting the Senate in negotiations, frequently roasting critics with a quip from the speaker’s dais and relishing interplay with reporters.
But some Republicans saw Ralston as too friendly to Democrats. He helped rescue a hate crimes bill from legislative purgatory after the 2020 death of Ahmaud Arbery, and stifled efforts to pass religious liberty legislation that liberals said would have legalized discrimination.
“He saw the reality that the House needed to be a leader for some level of moderation in the face of a Republican Party that has turned dramatically to the right,” said Mary Margaret Oliver, a Decatur Democrat who co-sponsored this year’s mental health bill and was one of Ralston’s warmest friends in the General Assembly.
The close ties to her and Smyre meant Democrats could get a respectful hearing from Ralston, and sometimes get a little of what they wanted in legislation.
“We forged progress where we could, and did not hold grudges when we went in different directions,” tweeted Rep. Scott Holcomb, an Atlanta Democrat.
Times reporter Brian Wellmeier contributed to this article.