First elected speaker in 2009, he is the longest-serving House leader in the nation. Ralston has led the fractious GOP caucus through some of the state’s most divisive debates and fought to maintain the chamber’s independence under a succession of governors.
He’s long been one of the most powerful figures in the state, even if many Georgians couldn’t point him out in a lineup. The House approves the state’s more than $30 billion annual budget and has immense influence over which bills advance and which are sent to the dustbin.
Ralston’s decision sets off a scramble to replace him as the Georgia House’s leader. It wasn’t immediately clear Friday who would attempt to succeed Ralston, though potential candidates include House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, the No. 2 Republican in the chamber, and House Majority Leader Jon Burns, another high-ranking Republican. State Rep. Barry Fleming of Harlem, a Ralston rival, also confirmed he would seek the post.
Gov. Brian Kemp was among the many politicians who praised Ralston’s leadership.
“David Ralston has been a steadfast leader for Georgia throughout his time as speaker, and our state is better off thanks to his wisdom and commitment to all Georgians while guiding the House through challenging times,” he said.
House Minority Leader James Beverly said he was “shocked and saddened” when he heard about Ralston’s health.
“He taught me a bunch about governing and working across the aisle. He was always very truthful with me,” said Beverly, a Democrat from Macon. “If he said something, he meant it, and he stuck to it. It’s a sad day.”
A political force
Ralston has been seen as a moderating force in the Georgia Legislature who has pushed back over the years on far-right measures promoted by GOP legislators. Just a few weeks ago, he spoke of an “opportunity” session in 2023 that would avoid dicey cultural issues. But he is no moderate.
He has backed measures that expanded gun rights, restricted abortion, cracked down on violent crime and cut taxes. And he supported the rewrite of the state’s election law in 2021 even though he rejected then-President Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn his defeat.
During his 13-year tenure as speaker, Ralston pushed for income tax cuts, culminating in a bill this year that will gradually drop the state’s income tax rate from 5.75% to 4.99% by the end of this decade.
He also prioritized bills that steer state funding to rural Georgia and ease restrictions on foster care and adoption. He presided over a close vote in 2019 that prohibits most abortions as early as six weeks.
Ralston also has promoted other legislation despite his personal qualms. Long a critic of a “religious liberty” measure that opponents saw as discriminatory to the LGBTQ community, he allowed that proposal to reach then-Gov. Nathan Deal’s desk despite his concerns.
And earlier this year, he gave the go-ahead for a proposal that paved the way to restrict transgender girls from competing in high school women’s sports even though he said he had misgivings about the measure. He and other Republicans saw it as a way to boost Kemp’s reelection chances, and the governor thanked Ralston for the compromise.
Credit: Bob Andres, firstname.lastname@example.org
Credit: Bob Andres, email@example.com
He also has a long track record of embracing bipartisan issues. He was an ardent supporter of legalizing medical marijuana, backed Deal’s efforts to overhaul the criminal justice system, and endorsed new hate-crimes legislation and the repeal of citizen’s arrest laws.
And in this year’s session, he championed a measure designed to make it easier for Georgians to access mental health services. After it passed unanimously, he declared it would “set Georgia on a path of lifting up and reforming a failed mental health care system.”
“He was what we needed during these times,” said state Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Democrat from Columbus and the longest-serving member of the General Assembly. “With Speaker Ralston, there was a level of trust between us. We had a great friendship. We worked hand-in-hand on elevating transportation and mental health.”
Deal said he and Ralston worked together to make Georgia a top state for businesses following the recession from 2007 to 2009.
“As speaker, he’s been an outstanding leader. His steady hand and guidance helped bring order and efficiency to the General Assembly, which can be an unwieldy and unpredictable body at times,” said Deal, a Republican who was governor from 2011 to 2019.
A long history
Ralston was first elected to the Georgia Senate in 1992 at a time when Democrats ruled the Legislature. He won the GOP nomination for attorney general in 1998 but lost to Democrat Thurbert Baker. Four years later, he was elected to a state House seat from his Blue Ridge base.
Ralston rose to power after a scandal involving his predecessor, House Speaker Glenn Richardson, whose ex-wife said in a TV interview that he had an affair with an Atlanta Gas Light lobbyist while pushing legislation that would benefit the utility.
Ralston had run against Richardson in 2008 because he believed internal GOP feuding was keeping the General Assembly from getting things done. Richardson was engaged in a long-running fight with then-Gov. Sonny Perdue that led to sharper clashes — and the veto of a $142 million tax cut.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Though Ralston lost at the time, the defeat put him in position to take over the chamber after Richardson’s resignation. A plainspoken attorney from the mountains of North Georgia, Ralston struck a contrast to the mercurial Richardson, and he brought stability to a House GOP caucus riven by scandal.
But he was not without his own internal challenges. He survived multiple revolts over the years from fellow Republicans who wanted the chamber to more aggressively back conservative legislation.
He fended off an ouster attempt from 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.
And in 2021, Ralston and his allies defeated an attempt by Fleming to land a leadership post. Fleming was the chief architect of Georgia’s new election overhaul and a potential rival to Ralston, and the vote was seen as a proxy fight over the speaker’s control of the chamber.
House Republicans, who are expected to maintain their majority in Tuesday elections, are set to vote on new leadership before next year’s legislative session starts in January.
Ralston said the job was “the honor of a lifetime” and thanked his longtime aide Spiro Amburn and others for their service.
“I could not have done all of this without the love and support of my family, particularly my wife, Sheree, and our children,” Ralston said. “They have been my rock, and I love them very much.”
TIMELINE: David Ralston’s political career