OPINION: State House Speaker David Ralston looks to mental health to fight crime

03/22/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Speaker of the House David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) speaks during a presser held by Gov. Brian Kemp at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta, Monday, March 22, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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03/22/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Speaker of the House David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) speaks during a presser held by Gov. Brian Kemp at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta, Monday, March 22, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

‘Couldn’t walk away” from Speaker job for Senate

When Georgia House Speaker David Ralston floated his own name as a potential candidate for Senate against Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, the collective response in political circles was, “Why in the world would he do that?”

Why trade a job with real power for a chance at one with less and less real influence in Washington?

It turns out, Ralston ended up in that camp, too.

“There’s a quote from coach Jimmy Valvano, who said, ‘Don’t mess with happy.’ And you know, and I’m happy serving there,” Ralston said of his perch atop the House.

More importantly, he said, he’s got items left on his to-do list that he thinks he can still make a difference on. “I couldn’t walk away from that,” he said.

At the top of the policy issues where Ralston said Georgia still hasn’t made enough progress is mental health care.

Georgia was just ranked 51st in the country for access to mental health services by Mental Health America. But you don’t need a list to tell you people here are in crisis, especially in towns so remote they don’t have a grocery store, let alone a therapist or in-patient mental health treatment center.

“I think we’ve relegated mental health to a second-tier part of our healthcare delivery system for way, way too long,” Ralston said. “If I can move the needle on that in measurable ways, then I can go home and feel like I got something really good done.”

The General Assembly passed a $58 million increase in mental health funding earlier this year, including for telehealth.

And after hearing feedback directly from sheriffs and law enforcement officers recently, he’s connecting mental health issues to the state’s recent increase in violent crime, too.

“They see it every day, in every community in Georgia,” he said. “They say, ‘If there’s one thing we could probably use more of, it’s having some way of making sure that the people that we have to deal with and arrest could get care and treatment.’”

Identifying mental health treatment as a way to tackle crime may seem obvious, but it’s also outside the partisan boxes that in the past have had Democrats focused on mental health and Republicans talking about more money for police.

But more leaders across the region are connecting mental health to violence, no matter their politics. Gwinnett County’s new Democratic sheriff, Keybo Taylor, recently started a mental health task force within his department.

Over the winter, Macon-Bibb County opened no-cost mental health clinics in low-income neighborhoods as a first step to address a spike in violent crime there.

“The issues are all tied together,” Macon’s non-partisan mayor Mayor Lester Miller told me on a recent visit.

As for the specific areas Ralston wants to address, he said he’s especially worried about early intervention for school-age children and unaffordable treatment options for Georgians at any age.

“One of the most heartbreaking things that I hear, and I see it even in Blue Ridge, is this issue of young people who are having so much pain, so little hope, that they’re taking their own lives,” he said.

The AJC’s James Salzer reported last week that Ralston will propose a $75 million funding package during the 2022 session for law enforcement and mental health.

Democrats have argued that the easiest, fastest way to increase all health care funding would be to expand Medicaid eligibility in the state through the Affordable Care Act. But that’s something that Gov. Brain Kemp and state leaders like Ralston have refused to do.

Another no-go for Ralston on the crime is any middle ground with Democrats on gun safety measures.

“I don’t buy the notion that guns are the big part of the problem,” he said. “I’m a strong believer in the Second Amendment. I don’t make any apologies for that.”

Listening to Ralston lay out the rest of his 2022 agenda is like hearing a roll call of the groups the GOP needs to turn out for them in 2022 if they want to keep control of the state: An education funding piece that suburban moms from Roswell to Brunswick can get behind (“I think they’re concerned that their kids may have gotten behind,”), along with yet another possible change to election law that the Newsmax crowd will be happy to hear about.

When I asked if Republicans are done changing election laws for now, Ralston said he wants to give the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, not the Secretary of State’s office, original jurisdiction over investigating allegations of election wrongdoing.

“The GBI shouldn’t have to wait on an engraved invitation from the county government or the Secretary of State’s office before they can come in and investigate,” he said.

The balance that the Speaker is attempting to strike heading into 2022 will be much like what he faced in 2020, when he needed to give his most conservative members something to get excited about, while also giving more pragmatic suburban Republicans something to run on in competitive November elections.

And it mostly worked for his caucus. State House Republicans outperformed former President Donald Trump in suburban districts and held off ascendent state Democrats, who flipped two House seats, but not the 16 they’d wanted to take control of the chamber.

“We have to remember that this is a big, diverse, competitive state,” he said.

Whether Ralton had run for the Senate or stayed on as Speaker to set his caucus up for next year, the challenge for Republicans is very real.

But if he wanted the power to determine the GOP agenda in the process, the Speaker clearly picked the right job.