David Ralston won't join the race for governor -- but he'll try to define it

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, speaks to the Atlanta Press Club earlier this year. Bob Andres, bandres@ajc.com

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, speaks to the Atlanta Press Club earlier this year. Bob Andres, bandres@ajc.com

House Speaker David Ralston won't be joining next year's Republican race for governor. But he's doing his best to define it.

“I think it’s important for somebody to stay here and do the work. And I’m enjoying the work,” he said late Tuesday afternoon. We were in his third-floor office within a nearly abandoned state Capitol.

At least four statewide offices will be open and up for grabs next year: Governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state and insurance commissioner.

A boatload of GOP candidates, including much of the Capitol's leadership, are crisscrossing the state in search of promotion. The governor's race alone has attracted Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, state Sens. Michael Williams of Cumming and Hunter Hill of Atlanta. Never mind two Democrats, state Reps. Stacey Abrams of Atlanta and Stacey Evans of Smyrna.

One is tempted to kiss off the 2018 session of the Legislature, which begins in January, as a lost cause. Ralston is doing the opposite.

The speaker has begun setting the table for a feast of his own design — which next year’s more serious candidates will ignore at their peril. “I’ll help them. I plan to be here to give guidance, offer suggestions,” Ralston said, a grin leaking out of his mouth.

This spring, when the Senate balked at a joint committee to plot the state’s course on transit, Ralston fashioned a House-only commission to study the topic.

Members of a House commission to rescue a rural Georgia mired in hard times is also chugging along. Another House committee is looking at access to health care. Nine other House study committees, with varying assignments and of various sizes, have been set loose in the last few weeks.

One qualification was paramount for membership on these roving per diem machines. “I deliberately left people off who were running in statewide races,” Ralston said. “I want people that are going to be here, that are focused on doing the work and not on getting elected to another office. As I have focused myself.”

What does this portend for January? First, Ralston will insist on passage of a “clean” overhaul of the state’s adoption laws, one that doesn’t contain protections for child placement firms that refuse to deal with same-sex couples.

Earlier this year, the Senate's refusal to back off the provision, insisted upon by social conservatives in that chamber, sidetracked House Bill 159, sponsored by state Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, for the session.

“I hope they pass the bill. It would be very simple. It would sure make the session more productive,” Ralston said.

But it’s also likely to give certain Republican candidates a bit of heartburn. One backer of the “religious liberty” provision is Senate President pro tem David Shafer of Duluth, who is running for lieutenant governor. Another is state Sen. Josh McKoon of Columbus, who is running for secretary of state.

The House transportation commission has been tasked with formulating a blueprint for governing and funding transit in Georgia. “We need to decide where transit fits into our future – as a state,” the House speaker said. “We can no longer talk about transit as MARTA only. We’re so far past that point. It’s now traffic congestion mitigation, it’s economic development.”

The next meeting of Ralston’s transportation commission is on Aug. 2. It will be held at MARTA headquarters — a measure of how much the dialogue has changed. “Who would have thought that 10 years ago, that a commission created by the General Assembly would be meeting at MARTA?” Ralston said.

But it is rural Georgia’s predicament that’s likely to be the focus next year. Health care, in particular – regardless of what happens in Washington over the next several weeks.

"We talk about the rural hospital crisis oftentimes. We're talking about hospitals that are no longer sustainable, and are closing," Ralston said. "We've got communities that built 40 or 50-bed hospitals decades ago – those aren't sustainable anymore. But a medical presence — I think 'acute care' is what they call it — is vital in those communities."

The knot is of the Gordian style.

Economic development can’t happen without a functioning health care system. Which can’t survive without the Internet – because ‘telemedicine’ is where much of rural Georgia is headed. But broadband access requires economic development to pay for itself.

I asked Ralston what his members were likely to make their top priority next session. After much hesitation, he named the lack of broadband access in rural Georgia.

There’s the health care connection. And the business connection. And education, too. “We’ve got areas in the state where you can’t drive to a Starbucks and get on Wi-Fi, for kids to do their homework or do research,” he said.

My own guess: Broadband is also the most achievable, at the lowest cost. Technological “leapfrogging” is common enough in developing countries – the explosion of cell phone use in regions without land lines being the best-known example.

All in all, the to-do list is a long one, but sufficient to fill the empty dance card that January was supposed to bring. And there is a precedent.

In the last three decades, the positions of governor and lieutenant governor have been simultaneously vacant twice. In 1990, Zell Miller, then lieutenant governor, ran for governor. In 1998, Miller was term-limited, and Pierre Howard vacated the lieutenant governorship.

House Speaker Tom Murphy was already a power in the state Capitol. But each time, the vacuum allowed him to consolidate his influence.

“He was the guy who was still standing,” Ralston said. “My plan is to be the guy still standing.”