David Ralston, speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives, dies

David Ralston, who died Wednesday, had been speaker of the Georgia House since 2010,. The 68-year-old Republican from North Georgia announced earlier this month that he would not seek reelection to the post because of health issues. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

David Ralston, who died Wednesday, had been speaker of the Georgia House since 2010,. The 68-year-old Republican from North Georgia announced earlier this month that he would not seek reelection to the post because of health issues. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

David Ralston, the self-described “country lawyer” who helped set the state’s political agenda for more than a decade as the powerful speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives, died Wednesday after an extended illness.

Ralston, 68, a Republican who came from the hills of North Georgia, was elected speaker by the Republican majority in the chamber in 2010 after Glenn Richardson, who preceded him, resigned over a series of negative revelations.

He recently announced he wouldn’t seek reelection to the post because of his health problems. House Majority Leader Jon Burns of Newington was nominated Monday to become speaker in January when the General Assembly convenes for its annual session.

With Ralston’s death, Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, R-Milton, temporarily becomes speaker.

“The state of Georgia has lost one of its greatest leaders with the passing of Speaker David Ralston,” Jones said. “This is an unfathomable loss and one that leaves a hole in the heart of each and every House member.”

Gov. Brian Kemp said, “Speaker Ralston was a pioneer in the growth of Georgia’s Republican leadership and leaves an indelible mark on this state.”

Sen. Burt Jones, R-Jackson, who was elected lieutenant governor last week, said, “Speaker Ralston embodied the true essence of what it meant to be a public servant.”

Ralston took up the speaker’s gavel and brought a sense of moderation after some of the excesses of the Richardson era, but he also largely walked his party’s conservative line.

He will be remembered for commonsense, nonpartisan legislation, such as the expansion this year of mental health services, as well as reining in Republican colleagues who tried to foment the breakaway of Buckhead from the city of Atlanta. He also was a champion of cutting state income taxes, frequently stating, “Republicans cut taxes.”

Sometimes, he would also swing the gavel like a political hammer, as he did in 2021. The House passed a bill revoking the fuel tax break Georgia had accorded Atlanta’s Delta Air Lines after it and other large companies made a public statement opposing Republican legislation that was seen as restricting voting rights after President Donald Trump lost his reelection bid. The state Senate later killed that bill.

Charles S. Bullock III, a political science professor at the University of Georgia and a longtime Capitol observer, said Ralston took control of the House “at kind of a troubled time” and gained “respect on both sides of the aisle.”

He had a calmer demeanor than the often mercurial Richardson and was thought to hold the House in good order, Bullock said. Though that became harder to do as the fragmented politics of the Trump era impinged on state legislatures and pulled segments further right or left.

Ralston began his legislative career in the state Senate, where he represented a North Georgia district as a Republican at a time when Democrats ran the Statehouse. He grew up in the region and hung his lawyer’s shingle there after getting a professional start in Athens. He served in the Senate from 1992 to 1998 before making an unsuccessful bid to become Georgia’s attorney general.

Ralston returned to the Capitol in 2003 after winning election to House District 7, which includes Fannin and Gilmer counties and part of Dawson County.

He battled twice to become speaker, the top job in the House and arguably the second-most-powerful position in state government. He challenged Richardson once and lost. Richardson removed Ralston from the chairmanship of the Judiciary Non-Civil Committee to send a message. But 13 months later, Richardson’s wife dropped a bombshell, claiming her husband had an affair with a utility lobbyist who had a bill before the House.

Richardson resigned, and Ralston won the job, which includes doling out committee chairmanships and assigning bills to committees.

Ralston came into the job with some baggage of his own. While he was in the House but before he was speaker, Ralston paid $400,961 to the federal government for overdue taxes, interest and penalties, plus an additional $32,906 in unpaid withholding and Social Security taxes for employees of his law firm from 1996 through 2006. He blamed the problems on a crooked bookkeeper who pleaded guilty to embezzlement.

In 2016, Ralston was reprimanded by the State Bar of Georgia for taking money from his trust account at his law firm and loaning it to a client. He acknowledged “advancing the money” to a client to cover basic needs.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, from left, Rep. Barry Fleming, R - Harlem, and House Speaker David Ralston answer questions after the passage of a bill to buy a $150 million election system that includes a paper ballot printed with a ballot marking device.  Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

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In 2019, he fended off an ouster attempt by a group of 10 GOP lawmakers who demanded he step down after an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News found he frequently delayed criminal cases by claiming court dates interfered with his legislative duties.

Veteran state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, said Ralston enjoyed a “good reputation for moderate leadership” and for not creating any additional tension in the House.

As speaker, Ralston guided the House through debates on some thorny issues, including medical marijuana, abortion and transportation funding. He drew backlash from the far right when urging caution on measures such as a “religious liberty” bill.

“He is a gentleman and professional, and I count him as a friend,” Oliver said before his death.

Former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, an Atlanta Democrat who last week lost her second bid for governor, tweeted: “My deepest condolences to the family of Speaker Ralston. He possessed a formidable mind, served as a thoughtful leader and was a dear true friend. Our politics differed, but David never allowed them to permanently divide. God’s peace to a great Georgian who will be missed.”

Former Republican state Rep. Ed Lindsey of Atlanta tweeted: “He was a great speaker and a good man. He will be sorely missed by all who knew him and damn hard to replace under the Gold Dome.”

Oliver said Ralston, as a speaker, will be remembered for his advocacy for rural Georgia and his House district.

In early 2017, Ralston came out in support of a resolution, calling for creation of a rural caucus of 15 lawmakers that would be tasked with figuring out how to economically boost rural Georgia.

“Rural Georgia has not seen the positive results of growth and faces challenges, very real challenges to its future,” he said. “We have talked about this for too long. It is time now to make a priority of rural economic development in Georgia.”

Rural Georgia, like much of the nation, has seen hospitals close and its number of medical professionals shrink. When he made the statement, six rural hospitals had closed in Georgia in the previous four years.

In December 2017, the committee issued a series of recommendations that included expanding insurance through a Medicaid waiver project and making fundamental changes to the state’s medical center licensing laws.

Ralston was born March 14, 1954, in Ellijay and graduated from Gilmer County High School. He attended Young Harris College and the college now known as the University of North Georgia.

University System Chancellor Sonny Perdue, who served as governor from 2003 to 2011, said, “Speaker David Ralston was a steadfast friend of the University System of Georgia and someone who epitomized the spirit of a great citizen legislator and leader. His vision helped create the University of North Georgia’s new Blue Ridge campus while his guidance helped set the tone for accountability and affordability on behalf of our students.”

Ralston received his law degree from the University of Georgia and said he was drawn to the law by observing the work of his father, Willard Ralston, Gilmer County’s clerk of court for more than 30 years.

Ralston began his legal career as an associate with the firm of Cook, Noell, Tolley & Aldridge in Athens in 1980.

But by 1983, he was ready to return to the North Georgia mountains, where he started and ran his own law firm in Blue Ridge for more than 30 years.

His wife, Sheree, his children and other members of the family were with him when he died Wednesday.