His personal breakdown was brutal and public, perhaps the worst political meltdown in recent memory in Georgia. But now, former House Speaker Glenn Richardson is back at the state capitol, attempting a most unlikely political revival.
Richardson, who resigned in 2009 after a suicide attempt and news of an affair with a lobbyist, qualified Wednesday to run for an open state senate seat.
“So why would I want to go into this?” said Richardson, 52, asking the question many are wondering. “I’m at peace. I think I can sympathize with people more than ever. I’ve struggled.”
Richardson, the one-time back bencher who became the first Republican state speaker since Reconstruction, admitted he was a bit nervous as he walked passed his old office for the first time in three years. He will have a tough primary election ahead of him. He faces a field that includes state Rep. Bill Hembree (R-Winston), a popular legislator who has been at the state house for 18 years.
“It’s a perfect fit,” said Hembree of the west metro Atlanta senate post he is seeking. “I’ve represented Douglas County and Paulding County, and I’m a native of Carroll County.”
Hembree, a self-proclaimed “social conservative,” served under Richardson in the House and represented a neighboring district. Hembree, 46, said he hasn’t spoken with Richardson since 2009, adding the former speaker’s decision to run was “somewhat surprising because it’s just three years since all the events that occurred in his life.”
Hembree said he would not get into dissecting those events. “I’m going to have a grassroots campaign and contact as many people as we can,” he said. “I’m not going to get distracted.”
Jim Naughton, a Carroll County businessman, also qualified.
In 2004, Richardson engineered a Republican takeover in the house, targeting money and other support to win key races statewide. The majority in the House cemented a Republican hold on state government that remains.
Richardson displayed a Libertarian streak. He sought to eliminate property taxes on vehicles and to cut school property taxes, shifting the burden to a broader sales tax. But the mercurial Richardson’s reign lasted just five years and was fraught with battles with house Democrats, senate Republicans and former Gov. Sonny Perdue.
By late 2009, Richardson was at the end of his rope. In November of that year, he tried to kill himself with sleeping pills and admitted he had suffered from depression for years. Later that month, Richardson’s ex-wife told a TV station her husband had had an affair with a lobbyist from Atlanta Gas Light. During the time, the House was voting on legislation that would have benefitted the utility.
Richardson resigned from office just days later. He says he was simply unable to function at the time, numbed by mental illness and battered by personal financial issues and a lack of political support.
“There’s no doubt some of my personal mistakes contributed to my troubles,” said Richardson, who added that the utility legislation did not pass.
He is aware he will be under scrutiny and attack during the campaign. He said that he talked with his family and friends before taking the dive back into politics.
“I hope [the voters] trust my heart this time,” Richardson said.