OPINION: A Speaker falls silent

It’s hard to describe how large of a void the death of state House Speaker David Ralston will leave at the state Capitol.

While some members of an institution are the window dressing and others are the furniture, David Ralston felt for many like the architecture of the Georgia State House, the solid structure holding the place up when politics, tempers, or both threatened to tear the chamber down.

The first difference members will notice when they return to session in January will be the absence of Ralston’s booming Appalachian baritone as he dropped the gavel and called, “The House will come to order!”

Whether at the beginning of the day or in the heat of debate, those words had the rare effect of producing results in the chamber. And so did he.

The outpouring of grief for Ralston when the news came Wednesday that he had died was immediate and genuine. And it may surprise people outside of the Capitol to know that some of the most heartbroken members of the House were the Democrats.

That’s not because Ralston didn’t have the affection of Republicans — he did. And it’s not because he was some moderate squish.

Under his Speakership, the House passed some of the most far-right legislation of any chamber in the country, from the now-stalled six-week abortion ban to permitless carry for concealed firearms to the election overhaul that Democrats called “Jim Crow 2.0.”

But Democrats said they respected and cared about Ralston because they felt he cared about and respected them, too.

At one of our first meetings, he told me he felt his responsibility was to the entire House, not just the members of his own party.

“We often say that we’re a family and we really are,” he said. “I tell people if you go outside that door, it doesn’t say, ‘Speaker of the Republican caucus.’ It says ‘Speaker of the House,’ which means my job is to serve the entire body.”

That meant that he conducted the chamber with formality and civility for all members, not just his own. And he reached out to Democrats and Republicans, day in and day out, whether for the birth of a child or the death of a parent or to get input on a bill he needed to move.

One of his closest friends and legislative partners was former state Rep. Calvin Smyre. The Black Democrat from Columbus was the longest-serving member of the House when he retired last year. A portrait of Smyre now hangs in the Capitol, courtesy of Ralston.

Their unlikely pairing began in earnest in 2009, when Smyre went to the Republican to say he was considering retirement from the House. With the GOP in charge for the foreseeable future, Smyre felt his most useful time as a lawmaker might be finished.

But after a conversation about the role and traditions of the House, Ralston made Smyre an offer. “I give you my word, if you stay here, I’ll use you,” Ralston told him. “We trust one another. You trust me and I trust you.”

Ralston later asked Smyre to second his nomination as House Speaker, which he did, and the two became bipartisan partners whenever the legislation required it.

Smyre called Ralston’s death this week surreal. “They say you never know the day, the time, nor the hour when you’ll get that call. And that holds so true today.”

Other Democrats described themselves as shocked and grieving, too.

Ralston was one of the great institutionalists I’ve covered as a journalist. At the heart of his job as Speaker, his priority seemed often to be defending the role of state House itself.

One of the many examples involved a bill from state Rep. Scott Holcomb, a Democrat from Atlanta, designed to mandate testing for rape kits after a backlog had caused thousands to go unprocessed.

Although Holcomb managed to pass the bill through the House unanimously, it ran into a buzzsaw in the state Senate, where it couldn’t even get a hearing.

After a last-minute push and so much legislative maneuvering from Ralston that Holcomb called it “School House Rock on steroids,” the bill passed in the last hour of the last day of the 2017 session.

The standoff was featured on HBO as an example of a rare piece of good news in politics, and so was Ralston. “When I looked at Scott Holcomb, I didn’t see ‘Scott Holcomb, Democrat,’” Ralston said. “I saw, ‘Scott Holcomb, a member of the state House with a good idea.”

Along with his respect for members, Ralston made it clear he respected the role of a free press, too, not only because he had been a cub reporter in Gainesville before going into law.

As Speaker, he was accessible to reporters, even when the coverage of him or Republicans was critical. After the AJC ran an investigation into his liberal use of legislative leave policies, the House passed a bill to change the rule he’d been accused of abusing. He then did a fly-around to various newspapers in the state to let editors pepper him with whatever questions they chose.

In the last year of his speakership, Ralston said he felt he’d completed his most important work.

The Mental Health Parity Act that he championed will save lives once its fully implemented, with expanded capacity for in-patient mental health treatment. Law enforcement officers will have more help when emergency calls come in and mental health professionals will be incentivized to work in the state.

The bill was partially informed by his rural community’s struggle to access mental health services. He also said he thought often of his father’s diagnosis with dementia and his mother’s struggle to care for him.

“I’ve seen the toll it can take on a family,” he told me.

Another final achievement was $14 million in last year’s budget for the University of North Georgia, Blue Ridge. Ralston had long lamented that there was nowhere in his portion of the North Georgia mountains where people could access a state education without leaving the area.

The campus in Blue Ridge, which he could see from his office, changed that.

Those efforts were neither Republican nor Democratic, but practical solutions to help Georgians. The hope among many is that Ralston’s example will live on, and the members of the House he left behind will live up to the expectations he had of them, for the good of the state and the good of the House.