OPINION: One last win for House Speaker David Ralston

Credit: Branden Camp for the AJC

Credit: Branden Camp for the AJC

On the 3rd floor of the Georgia state Capitol, the ornately festooned state House chamber looks something like a relic from an earlier era. And so, for the last 13 years, has its leader, House Speaker David Ralston.

The courtly Republican from Blue Ridge came of political age when Democrats so thoroughly dominated the state, Republicans had no choice but to work with them. He took over the chamber in 2009 before Donald Trump, QAnon, election deniers, or the other more bizarre parts of today’s Republican party made their way into the GOP ecosystem.

ExploreDavid Ralston, speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives, dies

Not unlike the “Isakson Way” of the late Sen. Johnny Isakson, the Ralston Way in the state House meant a chamber that was controlled, conservative, and even occasionally collaborative with Democrats. While the state Senate could become unwound with power struggles and standoffs, decorum and courtesy were the rules of the House, and members of both parties largely lived by and appreciated them.

Ralston had broad support among his Republicans, but also sought the input of Democrats on thorny issues. One of his closest friends in the chamber until his retirement was state Rep. Calvin Smyre, the Democrat from Columbus, whose portrait now hangs in the Capitol, courtesy of Ralston.

But politics being politics, Ralston also kept a grip on his power. He elevated allies and punished the occasional adversaries, even until the very last minute of his tenure, as state Rep. Jon Burns, R-Newington, won the race to succeed the Speaker and state Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, went down in defeat.

With the ailing Ralston at home in Blue Ridge, the votes for Speaker were cast by secret ballot, written on scraps of paper and collected in a curiously large white plastic bucket, so we’ll never know exactly how it went down.

But a vote for Burns was largely seen as a nod to the Ralston legacy, which continued to rule the day.

State Rep. Will Wade, a freshman from Dawsonville, used words like “wisdom” “consideration,” and “consistency,” when he stood to speak for Burns.

When Burns made his own pitch to the chamber, he addressed the incoming freshmen in the room. “Please know that as you join our House family, I pledge to earn your trust at every opportunity,” he said.

Burns had been on the Speaker’s leadership team for eight years as majority leader. The two often huddled on the House floor during votes and, from his rural district in Effingham County to the white hair on his head, the plain-spoken businessman and farmer seemed cut from the Ralston cloth.

The more polished Fleming, on the other hand, had butted heads with Ralston more than once, including during an effort to join GOP leadership last year, to no avail.

After Ralston’s liberal use of the legislative leave policies tarnished his reputation in 2019, Fleming passed a bill through his committee to change the rules. He later pointedly promised The Augusta Chronicle that he’d keep a close eye on the Speaker and take further action “if this continues,” as Ralston sat right next to him.

As proof of the trust he said he had with the Speaker, Fleming pointed to the role Ralston gave him drafting Georgia’s new election law, which Democrats derided as “Jim Crow 2.0″ but Fleming called “the biggest assignment I’d ever had.”

“That is a testament to David Ralston’s leadership to put aside our differences to do what is necessary for office, our house and our state.”

What Fleming didn’t say was that the issue of overhauling the law in the wake of Donald Trump’s election conspiracies was a toxic stew — and that Ralston removed him from his chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee he prized as a part of the deal.

Nobody stays in charge without the ferocious ability to win, on Monday of this week, the Speaker counted one last victory.

Along with picking Burns for Speaker, the GOP caucus installed other close Ralston allies for lower leadership positions, too. State Rep. Jan Jones will continue as the second-ranking Republican in the Speaker Pro-Tem slot, while state Rep. Chuck Efstration won the spot as majority leader.

The first promise that Efstration made was one you rarely hear in any political setting — respectful decorum in the House.

“In modern politics, the divisive nature of our times often has little to do with the debate,” he said. “Folks are trying to interfere with the process and that’s unacceptable.” Republicans will need voices like Efstration’s if they want to hold on to the Blue-trending Atlanta suburbs in Gwinnett in the future.

Along with supporting both Ralston and Gov. Brian Kemp (he was Kemp’s campaign manager for his state Senate campaign back in the day), the Gwinnett lawyer also authored bills like the overhaul of Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law that passed unanimously after the murder of Ahmaud Arbery.

“What I heard consistently from the candidates who were running for leadership positions was that they were grateful for the leadership of Speaker Ralston,” Efstration told me. “The State House has provided consistency, common sense, leadership on policies that matter to Georgians and, and I expect that that will continue under Speaker John Burns.”

Another Ralston and Kemp ally, state Rep. Houston Gaines, will be caucus vice chair. The 27-year-old from Athens told me Kemp has shown Republicans the way to win in Georgia by focusing on the economy and public safety.

“We’ve got to go out there and tell people what we’re doing and what we’re for, not just what we’re against,” he said.

With their votes for their new leaders, Republicans in the House are saying what they’re for in the future, too. That, for the time being, is the Ralston way.