Georgia lawmaker booted from chamber for failing to get COVID-19 test

A Georgia state representative was removed from the House chamber Tuesday for refusing to be tested for COVID-19.

Rep. David Clark, R-Buford, had refused to comply with requirements that legislators be tested for COVID-19 twice a week. He has not been tested since the session began three weeks ago, said Kaleb McMichen, a spokesman for House Speaker David Ralston.

On Tuesday, Ralston had Clark escorted out of the chamber by a state trooper after he refused to leave when initially asked. Many of Clark’s colleagues applauded after his removal.

“We have standards and rules to help members and staff stay safe,” Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, R-Milton, said later. “The speaker made the right call.”

Clark was unrepentant after his removal, vowing not to get tested and threatening legal action.

“I’m not falling in line,” Clark said. “They have no right to do this.”

Clark’s removal is the latest sign that some elected officials in Georgia have not taken the yearlong coronavirus pandemic seriously. COVID-19 has sickened more than 722,000 Georgians and has taken the lives of nearly 12,000.

To prevent the spread of the disease, the Georgia House and Senate are requiring members and employees to be tested twice a week. In the session’s first week, nine people connected to the Senate — including senators, staff, aides and interns — tested positive for COVID-19. The House has refused to release testing results.

But Ralston has not been shy about chastising members who have failed to get tested. On the first day of the session, 74 of the House’s 180 members did not get tested as required — prompting a rebuke from the speaker.

On Tuesday, Ralston made it clear he will enforce the testing mandate.

“We have a member of this body who has deliberately failed at all to get tested as we begin session, clearly in violation of our testing policy,” Ralston told lawmakers. He said the representative was “jeopardizing the health of other members of this chamber.”

Ralston did not name the representative but said, “I’m going to ask that member to be as discreet as possible to leave the chamber.”

When Clark did not leave, Ralston asked House members whether they supported the testing policy. They said they did.

Ralston then called for a trooper to escort the unnamed member out of the chamber. The trooper approached Clark and led him out.

“I don’t know about y’all, but I’ve been to too many funerals, and I’m getting tired of going to them,” Ralston said after Clark was gone.

Later, the speaker’s office notified Clark that he was losing his legislative office space until he complies with the testing requirement.

House Minority Leader James Beverly, D-Macon, welcomed Ralston’s efforts to enforce the testing requirement. He said the rule was developed with bipartisan consensus.

“I think it was unfortunate,” Beverly said. “To have a member not abide by the will of the body is disappointing, to say the least.”

Later, Beverly and House Majority Leader Jon Burns, R-Newington, issued a statement supporting Ralston.

“We strongly support Speaker David Ralston in his efforts to preserve and protect the health and safety of the members and staff of the House of Representatives and all those who enter the doors of the Georgia State Capitol,” the statement said. “We agree that all members of the House of Representatives should comply with the testing procedures that have been implemented for their safety and the safety of their fellow Georgians.”

Gov. Brian Kemp said he supports the legislative testing rules. The executive branch has its own testing program that calls for testing once per week. Kemp and first lady Marty Kemp both tested negative Monday.

“I think it’s incumbent, whether you’re a legislator, whether you’re working in the executive branch, a member of the media, a member of the public, we all need to follow the guidance and best practices to keep you safe but also keep others safe,” the governor said.

It’s not Clark’s first run-in with Ralston. Last year he ran an unsuccessful campaign to oust the speaker.

On Tuesday, Clark promised more confrontation. He said he would not get tested, but he planned to return to the House chamber Wednesday.

“You can’t tell me I can’t go in my seat,” he said. “I’m not going to do it. The speaker is becoming a dictator. Where does it stop?”

Later, on his Facebook page, Clark sounded less confrontational but still determined not to get tested.

“When I arrived this morning, I came prepared to follow the required protocols by wearing a mask in chamber, having my temperature checked upon entry, and social distancing,” Clark wrote. “What I will not do is be forced to have a COVID test, or any unnecessary medical test, done without a basis for doing so.”

I want to address the event that happened today at the Capitol. When I arrived this morning, I came prepared to follow...

Posted by David Clark on Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Clark is the son-in-law of Georgia Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, who came to session in March obviously ill after getting a COVID test. The test later turned out to be positive.

Several members of the Senate caught COVID-19 during its first few weeks in Georgia.

McMichen said Clark is the only House member to refuse to be tested at all since the session began. He said the speaker’s office had contacted him numerous times to get tested, but he refused.

McMichen was livid after Clark was escorted out. He said a member had not been escorted out of the chamber for any reason in his seven years working in the House.

“All we are trying to do is keep people from dying,” McMichen said, his voice trembling.

Staff writers Greg Bluestein, Patricia Murphy and James Salzer contributed to this article.