Opinion: Speaker’s kind, thoughtful leadership won’t be forgotten

Credit: Bob Andres/AJC

Credit: Bob Andres/AJC

DAVID RALSTON, 1954-2022

Two years ago, during the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic, I walked into Georgia’s magnificent State Capitol for legislative orientation. My first legislative session began immediately following the January 6 riots at the U.S Capitol. It was an unprecedented time to start a career in politics and just as challenging if you were a veteran politician.

People told me all the terrible things to expect entering into politics. They said I was naive to think politics had any inherent good. I would remind them that just because everyone else feels that way does not mean I have to feel the same. I was also told, “Republicans won’t care about you, and Democrats don’t care about you. Everyone is out for themselves.”

Contrary to these warnings, House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, and Lt, Gov. Geoff Duncan welcomed all the new senators and representatives of the Georgia General Assembly and delivered inspiring speeches about building relationships to get the work of Georgia’s people done.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Preparing for the widely known Carl Vinson Institute of Government’s Biennial Institute for Georgia Legislators in 2020, I wanted to introduce myself to the Speaker of the House and make it a memorable encounter so I would not be “just” one of 180 House members. I decided I would bring him a bottle of my mom’s famous muscadine wine, “Shirley’s Muscadine Wine,” made from the sweet fruit grown on my family’s farm, Jibb’s Vineyard, in Dooley County. My mom’s wine is given out to family and friends as gifts during the holidays and is made with love. There was quite a limited supply of her demanding product, so I begged her for a bottle.

I warned him as I gave him the gift, “Speaker Ralston, don’t drink a lot and don’t have anything else to do.” He chuckled with the sweetest smile as he accepted the wine and walked away.

Those who work at the State Capitol know that I had a particularly challenging first year, legislative session and re-election as a “moderate” or “centrist” Democrat. On one occasion, I excused myself from a vote on an agriculture bill because of my ties to agriculture, and some fellow Democrats responded with an uproar to my “excused” vote. Their reaction in the House chamber was so disruptive that Speaker Ralston banged his gavel to quiet the chamber and said, “We will have decorum,” and placed us in recess.

As I sat in my little freshman chair, feeling smaller than an ant, I was once again horrified and humiliated by my colleagues’ actions toward me. Then, a light tap on my shoulder from behind came from a woman I had never seen. She said, “The Speaker would like to talk to you.” I was confused and worried, wondering, “Oh, Lord. What did I do now?”

My second-ever conversation after giving him the wine was about his concern regarding how some of my colleagues were treating me. In disbelief, my face turned red that he knew anything about me, and my heart warmed as I realized he cared. He told me, “Be you, be authentic and represent the people in your district, and you will be fine.” I received his thoughtful words of wisdom and returned to my regular-sized chair, feeling taller and more confident.

My third conversation with Speaker Ralston was related to a stalking case in which I am the victim. A news reporter came to the Capitol and told me my stalker threatened me from jail on recorded tapes. Shaking, I went to his office, scared and unsure of what to do. He and his wife Sheree comforted me and immediately asked his staff to help me navigate a safety plan at the Capitol.

My fourth conversation with the Speaker was when he assigned me to a front-row seat in the House Chamber next to him. When he walked in, I walked up to him and whispered, “Mr. Speaker, I want to give you the biggest hug.” He laughed and chuckled and said, “Oh no. Don’t do that. Not in here.” We went on to speak briefly more, and that’s when I realized David Ralston was not only the Speaker but my friend.

We spoke on many other occasions, and I cared for him. His loss saddens me.

Losing a loved one during the holidays is tough. Each year, the holiday reminds us they are gone. Thanksgiving is not different, but I pray the Ralston family can see the loving man they lost was “thanksgiving” to so many of us. The country will continue to send condolences their way during the season of being thankful. So many are grateful we were blessed to know his kindness and even more thankful his family shared him at their sacrifice.

I mourn with Georgia, his family, friends and the entire Capitol. May he rest in peace with the grace of his magnificent wings. I pray the grief the Speaker’s Office staff is experiencing may be calmed and that his security team and the people who worked with him a breath away at the House chamber’s helm know they served him well. I saw him grace each of them with the same smile I was so fortunate to receive.

In loving memory of a Georgia giant whom I cherished hearing say, “Rep. Mesha Mainor from the 56th district.”

State Rep. Mesha Mainor, D-Atlanta, was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 2020 and currently serves on the Education, Governmental Affairs and State Planning & Community Affairs committees.