Speaker David Ralston confers with then-House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams in this 2017 file photo. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

The Jolt: Stacey Abrams refuses to join criticism of David Ralston

Earlier this morning, we told you that Georgia’s political establishment had broken its silence to weigh in on House Speaker David Ralston and his law practice:

As news of state Rep. David Clark’s resolution calling on Ralston to resign his position ricocheted around the Capitol, a string of prominent figures who had previously stayed out of the fray rallied behind the embattled House leader.

Former Govs. Roy Barnes and Nathan Deal both called The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in separate interviews to voice support for Ralston, who faces backlash after an investigation found he frequently delayed criminal court cases by claiming the dates interfered with his legislative duties.

Both Barnes and Deal might be called ghosts of politics past. Gov. Brian Kemp, a spirit of politics present, also spoke up for Ralston on Thursday. And then there’s the person who Democrats might call the spirit of politics future in Georgia.

In an interview with Denis O’Hayer of WABE (90.1FM), Democrat Stacey Abrams, who worked with Ralston on occasion when she was House minority leader, pointedly declined to criticize Ralston or the tactics he’s used to keep criminal defendants out of the courtroom:

Abrams: “As lawyers, we are called upon to use our best judgment and to use the training we have to determine how to best serve our clients. As legislators, we are called upon to be responsive to the needs of the state, but to also manage our private practices.

“I believe that David Ralston will make the decision that is the best calibration of those two responsibilities, but I also recognize that this is a conversation for the General Assembly to have – and for him to have with his family and his law firm. I would leave it to him make that decision.”

O’Hayer pressed, reminding Abrams that some of defendants are charged with serious crimes, such as child enticement. Should he be required to choose between his speakership and his law practice? O’Hayer asked.

Abrams: “In the state of Georgia, our lawmakers are called upon to not only serve as legislators, but to also make a living. And there have been rules put in place to ease how that occurs. I would leave it to Speaker Ralston to determine if he’s meeting his obligations both as an attorney and as a legislator. But that his responsibility and obligation.”

Consider Abrams’ remarks a message to rank-and-file Democrats: Stay out of this particular fray.

***

The threat to Speaker David Ralston’s leadership -- and the support the House leader has received from two past governors and the current one -- reminds us of how the Blue Ridge Republican rose to power in the first place.

In 2008, Ralston rallied House GOP colleagues who were upset with the hot-headed approach of then-Speaker Glenn Richardson, the state’s first GOP speaker in the modern era.

Richardson had carved out a reputation for being combative, particularly with members of his own party. He led the effort to overturn vetoes by Gov. Sonny Perdue and called on voters to oust Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle when the Senate blocked his tax-cut plan. 

Enter Ralston, who cast himself as a consensus-builder who would take a more conciliatory approach. He launched a coup attempt.

"I don't believe good leadership is grounded in fear or intimidation or fear of retribution,” he said at a GOP caucus meeting.

His revolt was crushed -- he lost 75-25 -- and Richardson pledged to caucus members that he had “learned from the mistakes” he had made. But his tenure was short-lived.

A year later, the House was thrown into chaos that began with Richardson’s admission he had tried to take his own life, and ended with his ex-wife’s revelation that the speaker had had an affair with a lobbyist. Enter Ralston, again. And that time, Ralston defeated two challengers to win the House’s top job

***

 It’s the longest of long shots in the Republican-backed Legislature, but state Rep. Scott Holcomb wants to make a statement. Hours after a broad measure to replace voting machines with a system that spits out printed ballots cleared a House committee, the DeKalb Democrat filed a measure that would require hand-marked ballots. Some voting rights groups and Democrats have rallied behind that option, saying it’s cheaper and more secure than the computerized alternative. 

***

We’re told this is a first for a lieutenant governor: Geoff Duncan will host a Black History Month reception on Monday. Attendance is free, but RSVPs are required. You can find the details here. 

***

Todd Rehm of GeorgiaPundit.com pointed us to a Rome News-Tribune report on Senate Bill 59, a measure introduced by state Sen. Chuck Hufstetler to address “so-called surprise medical bills” that greet patients when out-of-network health care specialists are called in.

Hufstetler noted a competing measure in the House that simply requires patients to be notified of out-of-network care. Hufstetler’s assessment of the House bill: “They will know exactly how they are getting hosed, but they will still be getting hosed."

***

These lines from the Savannah Morning News are food for thought:

The conservation group One Hundred Miles filed a lawsuit Tuesday to force Camden County to reveal information about the potential risks from its proposed spaceport.

The conservation group and its attorneys at the Southern Environmental Law Center began requesting the documents concerning the public safety and environmental impacts of rocket launches from the site about two years ago.

The county has maintained the documents are exempt from the Georgia Open Records Act because they are part of a real estate transaction and because disclosing them presents a national security risk.

So it seems as if Camden County has created a new security clearance category for those allowed to see classified documents: We had “Top Secret,” and “Super Top Secret.” Now, above both, we have “real estate agent.”

You can find more details on the spaceport fight by licking here.

***

Our AJC colleague David Wickert reports that the state Senate has trimmed a budget request from our new metro Atlanta transit agency – the ATL – by almost the same amount the authority approved for a new board room.

***

Two top Republicans on the U.S. House Oversight Committee are furious about the way the panel’s Democratic chairman has been inquiring about Stefan Passantino, an Atlanta attorney and former White House ethics official. 

U.S. Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio, and Mark Meadows of North Carolina fired off a letter to committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., on Thursday, protesting “extremely unfair and unsupported accusations” made against Passantino and Sheri Dillon, Trump’s personal attorney.

In a letter last week, Cummings told White House Counsel Pat Cipollone that Passantino and Dillon may have provided “false information” to the Office of Government Ethics, which was looking into payments then-presidential candidate Donald Trump made to fixer Michael Cohen. 

“This is a serious charge, for which you relied only on cherry-picked passages of incomplete, one-sided handwritten notes prepared by (committee) staff,” the two wrote. “By making public assertions that these two lawyers made false statements - without even allowing them to respond - you have besmirched their reputations and have caused them irreparable professional harm.” 

Meadows and Jordan, who also lead the conservative House Freedom Caucus, asked for Cummings to provide more evidence supporting his allegations against Passantino. They also sent a twin letter to Emory Rounds, the director of the Office of Government Ethics, questioning whether the independent executive branch agency was tipped off about Cumming’s request ahead of time.

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