A final tribute to David Ralston, a politician who reached across the aisle

BLUE RIDGE — A powerful politician who would rather be known as a devoted country lawyer. A fiercely conservative Republican who may be best known for bipartisanship. A gruff, iron-fisted leader of the House remembered admiringly for simple acts of kindness.

The many sides of the late House Speaker David Ralston were honored in a funeral ceremony on Sunday that brought hundreds to his beloved hometown of Blue Ridge, nestled beneath the green-topped mountains that forged him.

“Politics were important. But people were more important,” said state Rep. Randy Nix, a Republican and close Ralston friend. “If you were hurting, the R and the D by your name didn’t really matter.”

Ralston, who died on Nov. 16 shortly after announcing he would give up his gavel, was one of Georgia’s most influential leaders. Hardly anything substantial passed the Legislature over the past 13 years without his approval. His funeral service put his legacy on display.

A phalanx of blue-clad Georgia State Patrol officers filled an entire section of a performance arts center for a final salute. Gov. Brian Kemp and three of his predecessors paid tribute. High-ranking state officials, prominent clergy leaders and business executives packed the aisles.

The crowd was dotted with movers-and-shakers at the Capitol — and the dedicated staffers and aides who really run the Statehouse.

And, perhaps the most fitting testament to Ralston’s memory, just about as many Democrats as Republicans assembled to bid the speaker farewell.

Representative Dale Washburn (Center) greets fellow Representatives at the State Capitol before the arrival of Speaker David Ralston's casket Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022.  (Steve Schaefer/steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

icon to expand image

Credit: Steve Schaefer

One of them, Democratic state Rep. Mack Jackson, recalled his stunned reaction when Ralston abruptly told him he planned to attend Sunday services at his tiny church in Tennille, a city of roughly 1,500 in east Georgia.

When Jackson asked why, Ralston answered simply: “Because you are my friend.”

“Those words resonated in my heart,” Jackson said in his eulogy. “This powerful man reached across the aisle to someone like me — and he came to a little rural Georgia church in Tennille. He truly cared about the whole state of Georgia.”

‘See around corners’

The longest-serving state House speaker in the nation at the time of his death, Ralston brought a sense of stability to a chamber in chaos when he won the gavel in 2010 after the resignation of his predecessor.

The speaker was no moderate Republican, pressing the passage of anti-abortion legislation, gun rights expansions and income tax cuts that most Democrats adamantly opposed. And he fought fiercely to protect loyal Republican allies, even when their missteps caused him grief.

But his legislative legacy also included dozens of consequential bipartisan measures during the terms of former Gov. Nathan Deal and Kemp, who remembered him at an earlier Capitol ceremony as a “loyal friend through times of victory and loss.”

He helped steer the passage of medical marijuana legislation after years of gridlock, and championed legislation to restore hate-crimes penalties and nullify a Civil War-era citizen’s arrest statute after the 2020 death of Ahmaud Arbery.

In his final legislative session, Ralston won approval for what he saw as his most important work: A rewrite of state laws designed to expand Georgian’s access to crucial mental health care services and increase the number of mental health professionals in the state.

In an emotional eulogy, Deal fought tears as he praised Ralston’s steadying presence, knack for mediation and abiding sense of dignity amid turbulent political times. Though Ralston often appeared stern, Deal said lurking behind the veneer “was a sincere and caring smile.”

“He would help anyone if he could. He would use his power and influence to help anyone without power and influence,” said Deal, who praised Ralston’s uncanny understanding of policy and people that helped him lead his fractious GOP caucus.

“He was a student of history who could foresee where an issue was headed — even though opinion polls showed otherwise,” said Deal. “In political terms, he could see around corners.”

‘Country lawyer’

The two forged a powerful alliance over Deal’s two terms, passing hard-fought tax policies, a long-sought package of infrastructure improvements and a comprehensive overhaul of the state’s criminal justice system.

“None of the good things that happened in my administration could have happened, or would have happened, without David Ralston,” said Deal, who said he hoped his late wife, Sandra, was giving Ralston a tour of heaven beyond the pearly gates.

“Step aside, St. Peter,” the former governor said. “You have a new docent.”


Credit: Mike Luckovich

icon to expand image

Credit: Mike Luckovich

Ralston also served as a moderating influence in a state Capitol prone to fits of reactive policymaking.

Nix, a LaGrange Republican, noted how rank-and-file legislators often broke into a tizzy over the latest hot-button issues. Ralston, he recalled, would calmly relay to them that he talked to his North Georgia constituents about the latest controversy and they urged restraint.

“He was arguably the second most powerful person in Georgia,” said Nix. “But you know what he called himself? A country lawyer.”

As the funeral service neared an end, Nix uttered two words that Ralston took much pride in declaring each year to mark the end of another trying legislative session: “Sine Die.”

And then, with tears in his eyes, Nix added: “We look forward to that special session when we meet again.”