OPINION: House Speaker Jan Jones takes her place in Georgia history

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Georgia House Speaker Jan Jones never wanted to become speaker the way she did — learning over the phone in November that longtime House Speaker David Ralston had died.

“It just was shocking,” she said of the news of Ralston’s death. “I had not ever anticipated that he would pass.”

The Georgia constitution dictated that Jones, the Speaker Pro Tem and second-ranking leader in the state House, automatically rise to the position of speaker without ever being sworn in.

But even without the pomp and circumstance, Jones, a Republican from Milton, made history as she became the first woman to fill the role and the highest-ranking woman in Georgia state government history.

The timing of Ralston’s death, less than two months before the start of the next Legislative session, meant that it would fall to Jones to both preside over the House membership as its members grieved, but also over the nuts and bolts of getting the chamber ready for January.

“I did feel a sense of responsibility to make sure that not only was the transition (to a new speaker) smooth, but that whether I ran for speaker or whoever became the speaker, that I do whatever I could do to make them successful.”

Jones had worked with Ralston for more than 20 years. They both joined the Georgia House in 2003 and their paths up the leadership ranks coincided, too. When he ran for speaker in 2010, Jones ran to be Pro Tem (against six men, she points out) and won. Together they formed a steady mast at the top of the chamber for more than a decade.

Jones got her start in politics after her four now-grown children were school-aged.

Along with a role as an executive at HBO, she became what she called a “community activist”— pushing for traffic safety measures in her Garden Hills neighborhood and then, after a move to north Fulton County, focusing on measures to give the unincorporated and fast-growing area more local control.

State Sen. John Albers, a fellow Republican who has overlapped with Jones in the Fulton County delegation for years, called her “the mother of Milton,” since, once elected to the state House, she authored the bill to create the City of Milton in unincorporated Fulton County.

“There would be no Milton without Jan Jones,” he said.

Jones also set out to become a policy leader on education issues. Eventually, she set her sights on moving up the ranks of leadership.

Colleagues said she won the second-in-command spot through her reputation as a behind-the-scenes workhorse. She was willing to dig into the minutiae of issues that others glossed over.

GOP state Rep. Terry England, the outgoing chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, attributed her rise to “sheer grit.”

“With Jan, it’s always being on task and learning the nitty-gritty details of whatever it is that she’s working on,” England said. “The things that she is good at she’s very good at. The things that she may not be an expert on, she’s still good at.”

England also said that while he and Jones could disagree on a policy behind closed doors, “Once the decision was reached and we walked out, I could take it to the bank that I knew that Jan had my back.”

Jones stands out on the floor of the House among her mostly male colleagues for a few reasons, not the least of which is that, at 6 feet tall, she stands above many of the men in the chamber.

And to England’s point, she has a visible heads-down focus on the task at hand. While the House chamber can often feel dominated by back-slapping and Bulldog football tributes, Jones has built a reputation of just doing the work.

“Jones just gets the job done,” one Republican told me.

Although she’s often all-business on the House floor, the first 30 minutes of our interview in her Capitol office Wednesday wandered into a discussion about life for working moms, her children, with whom she Facetimes daily, and her new granddaughter. A second grandchild is on the way.

She said those new family considerations were ultimately the reason she withdrew her name as a candidate for speaker after announcing she’d run for the House’s top spot.

“My family has always been supportive of me, as I have been supportive of them,” she said. “But…at this very particular point, I think they want more of me, not less.”

She said she called the House Majority Leader, state Rep. Jon Burns, to say she’d back him for speaker instead. Burns quickly consolidated support and will be sworn in to replace Jones next week when the General Assembly convenes.

Because of her years of experience, colleagues told me they expect Jones’ portfolio to grow while Burns settles into his new job. She has expanded her staff by one to accommodate what is likely to be a broader policy portfolio, especially on education, but in other areas as well.

Her term as House speaker will end less than two months after it began, but she said she thinks becoming the first female speaker, along with being the first woman to be GOP majority whip and Speaker Pro Tem, is important for the state.

“The significance to me of being the first female speaker is that it won’t be significant the second time. That’s why it matters,” she said. “Whether it is the first Black person in a certain role or first Hispanic or female, people want to see others like themselves in the roles that they might aspire to, that they should aspire to. It does matter.”

The next session of the Georgia General Assembly, with Speaker Jones gaveling the House into session, will convene on Monday.