The Jolt: Tributes pour in for late House Speaker David Ralston

Credit: Bob Andres/AJC via AP

Credit: Bob Andres/AJC via AP

News and analysis from the politics team at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The Georgia state Capitol is still reeling this morning from the news late Wednesday that state House Speaker David Ralston has died.

Although Ralston had recently announced he would not run for speaker again because of a health challenge, members of both parties described recent conversations and text exchanges that left them hoping Ralston would soon recover.

The extroverted Republican from Blue Ridge cultivated broad circles of friends, colleagues, and longtime staff. We collected tributes from just a few of the people whose lives Ralston touched.

Credit: Bob Andres/AJC

Credit: Bob Andres/AJC

FORMER STATE REP. CALVIN SMYRE:

The longest serving member of the House when he retired last year, the Democrat from Columbus was one of the Speaker’s closest friends and legislative partners.

The unlikely pairing began in earnest in 2009, when Smyre went to Raslton to say he was considering retirement from the House. Ralston had just beaten the Democrat out in the race for Speaker and 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 asked Smyre to second his nomination as House Speaker, which he did, and the two became bipartisan partners whenever the legislation required it.

While they spoke often, Ralston called Smyre every March 10 to remind him they’d need to do a tribute to the late House Speaker Tom Murphy for Murphy’s birthday. “He’d say, ‘We’re just going to talk about our friend and tell people what kind of Speaker he was.”

Smyre called Ralston’s death 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.”

STATE REP. WILL WADE:

As a freshman Republican in 2021, Wade was eager to make his mark. He introduced tax policy legislation without first consulting with key GOP leaders. He was warned by a committee chairman that Ralston “might reach out.”

For days, the Dawsonville legislator was on pins and needles. Then he got summoned to Ralston’s office. When he entered nervously, Ralston leaned back and smiled.

“Welcome to the House,” he told Wade. “Now, tell me why you dropped this bill that has gotten my Ways and Means chairman a lot of unexpected calls.”

When Wade admitted to accidentally circumventing the process, Ralston stopped him mid-story.

“Oh, I know Rep. Wade. Let this be a lesson. And be glad that it was actually a good bill.”

Their relationship grew from there. A year after Wade’s father died, Ralston called him as he was driving to the statehouse.

‘Your dad is smiling with pride in heaven about how his son is serving his neighbors,” Ralston told him, “And so am I.”

Credit: Bob Andres/AJC via AP

Credit: Bob Andres/AJC via AP

FORMER HOUSE DEMOCRATIC LEADER BOB TRAMMELL:

The Luthersville Democrat was one of Ralston’s top adversaries under the Gold Dome. As House Minority Leader, Trammell’s job was to stymie key parts of Ralston’s agenda and promote his own.

But Ralston developed a close personal friendship with Trammell borne out of mutual respect. Trammell said he’ll never forget Ralston calling him as he stood beside his dying father in hospice just to check in.

And when Trammell’s appendix burst just before the 2020 legislative session, Ralston called him in the hospital. Trammell texted him a note of gratitude for the visit and Ralston texted back:

“Don’t thank me. You are my friend. And that doesn’t depend on anything. I will count on seeing you in the cockpit on Jan. 27. Follow the instructions and let me know if I can do anything.”

STATE REP. SCOTT HOLCOMB:

The two formed an alliance to resolve a huge backlog of untested rape kits, and scheduled a news conference with the head of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to celebrate the progress.

Ralston was instrumental in mustering GOP support for the legislation, which had previously stalled. When the news conference began, Ralston spoke first.

But to Holcomb’s surprise, Ralston let the Democrat announce the news that the rape kits had all been tested.

“I was awed by that act of decency and kindness,” Holcomb said. “How many people in politics would do that? And he was rightly proud that the policy framework we put in place worked and was making a difference.”

He added: “Good work that helped Georgians fed his soul. And while he was a strong conservative, I think some of his proudest achievements were the big bipartisan bills we passed.”

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Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

HISTORY. With the death of Speaker David Ralston, state Rep. Jan Jones rose from her post as Speaker Pro Tem to become the 74th Speaker of the Georgia State House. Jones is the first woman ever to hold the position.

The Fulton County Republican was also reelected Speaker Pro Tem for the next legislation earlier this week, meaning she’ll return to the second-ranking slot in January. But Jones will remain the first-ever “Madam Speaker” in Georgia for the history books.

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

ABORTION FALLOUT. We asked earlier this week what Republican lawmakers would do next after a Fulton County judge overturned the restrictive abortion law passed by the General Assembly in 2019. The law, which went into effect over the summer, meant that most abortions were no longer allowed once a doctor can detect fetal cardiac activity, typically about six weeks into a pregnancy and before many women know they are pregnant.

Our colleague Maya T. Prabhu reports that legislators plan to let the legal battle over the stalled law play out before passing any new measures. But as Maya notes, they’re confident they’ll win in court.

State Rep. Ed Setzler, the author of the original law who was elected to the state Senate last week, said: “It won’t take long for the state Supreme Court to rule in favor of the (law) and put it into full effect.”

In the meantime, Georgia’s previous 22-week abortion limit has gone back into effect, which has Georgia abortion clinics now “flooded with calls,” our colleagues Ernie Suggs, Alia Malik, and Jozef Papp report.

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Credit: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Credit: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

SATURDAY SUIT. A Fulton County Superior Court judge has set aside time Friday morning to hear arguments regarding the lawsuit filed by U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and the Democratic Party over whether Saturday voting will be allowed ahead of the Dec. 6 runoff.

The suit seeks to reverse the state’s prohibition on early voting on the Saturday after Thanksgiving and the Friday state holiday formerly known as Robert E. Lee’s Birthday. The plaintiffs want the judge to allow voting on Saturday, Nov. 26.

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Credit: File photos

Credit: File photos

TODAY ON THE TRAIL:

  • Herschel Walker will hold a rally in Gainesville with U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and John Kennedy, R-LA.
  • U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock will speak to a theological conference in Macon and hold voter events in Fort Valley, Warner Robins, and Macon.
  • Atlanta-area Democrats state Sen. Jen Jordan, state Rep. Billy Mitchell, and state Rep. Sam Park will hold a news conference highlighting “how Herschel Walker lacks the character and the competence to be Georgia’s U.S. Senator.”
  • For your planner, Gov. Brian Kemp will join Walker for their first joint campaign event in Cobb County.

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Credit: Mariam Zuhaib

Credit: Mariam Zuhaib

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Credit: J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Credit: J. Scott Applewhite/AP

ON HIS MIND. Earlier this year, Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell lamented GOP “candidate quality,” which he said would cost Republicans otherwise-winnable Senate races this year.

At the time, many believed he was talking about U.S. Senate hopeful Herschel Walker, among other unorthodox choices championed by former President Donald Trump.

But our colleague Jamie Dupree tells us that at a news conference in the Capitol Wednesday, McConnell said things in Georgia are looking up.

“I didn’t used to like the runoff in Georgia. All of a sudden, I like it a lot better than I used to,” he said. “We’ve got a second chance in Georgia to get it right.”

The GOP leader said Republicans are “going to do everything we can to get Herschel Walker elected.”

He also gave his two cents about how Walker can go from second place to first in December. “We underperformed among centrist voters, independents, and moderates in Georgia,” he said, adding later, “And as I said, all of a sudden I’m a fan of the runoff.”

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Credit: Jenni Girtman / AJC

Credit: Jenni Girtman / AJC

BACKUP. Priorities USA, the largest Democratic Super PAC in the country, announced it will spend an initial $1 million against GOP Senate nominee Herschel Walker. The group will fund digital outreach to mobilize Asian-American, Latino and Black voters ahead of the Dec. 6 runoff.

The group said a separate statewide digital ad campaign will focus on Republican nominee Herschel Walker’s calls for a total abortion ban.

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Credit: J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Credit: J. Scott Applewhite/AP

DAY JOB. U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock took a quick break from the runoff campaign trail to travel to the Capitol and vote for a measure giving federal protections to same-sex and interracial marriage.

Every Senate Democrat, including Georgia’s Warnock and Jon Ossoff, and 12 Republicans voted to advance the bill. That was two more votes than they needed to overcome the filibuster threshold and allow the bill to move toward becoming law.

Warnock missed confirmation votes earlier in the week as he campaigned in Georgia ahead of his Dec. 6 matchup against Republican Herschel Walker. But he said the marriage equality legislation was worth a day off the trail.

“I am a strong believer that there is no such thing as equal rights for some; it’s equal rights for all,” he said. “Equal protection under the law is the covenant we have with one another as American people, and to the degree that any one of us is not covered by that we’re all in peril.”

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Credit: COX

Credit: COX

TODAY IN WASHINGTON:

  • After two delays, the House may take up bills to name the Veterans Affairs hospital in Decatur after the late U.S. Sen. Max Cleland and the Department of Veterans Affairs’ administrative offices on the same campus after the late U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson.
  • The Senate is in session, but no votes have been scheduled yet.

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Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

NO NDAs. The U.S. House has signed off on a bill that would ban nondisclosure agreements from being used to silence victims of sexual misconduct.

The measure, called the Speak Out Act, has already passed the Senate and is now headed to President Joe Biden to sign into law. It is among the many changes to state and federal law that arose out of the #MeToo movement.

The House vote was bipartisan, with 100 Republicans joining every Democrat to approve the measure. The final vote was 315-109.

Georgia’s delegation split along party lines, with all six Democrats in favor and all eight Republicans opposed.

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Credit: Nathan Posner for the AJC

Credit: Nathan Posner for the AJC

ICE ABUSES. A former detainee at the Irwin County Detention Center told a U.S. Senate subcommittee earlier this week that she “went through hell” at the South Georgia facility, where an OB-GYN performed unauthorized and invasive procedures on her.

The AJC’s Lautaro Grinspan reports her testimony was the result of an 18-month investigation by the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee, chaired by U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, which found systemic abuse of immigrant women detained in U.S. facilities.

A report from the investigation found an unusually high number of procedures performed on immigrant detainees, which appeared to be part of a scheme to overbill the federal government. Medical experts said the women involved did not fully understand what was happening.

At the conclusion of Tuesday’s hearing, Ossoff condemned the mistreatment in Irwin County.

“This is such an appalling case,” he said. “I can’t think of anything worse than this. Unnecessary surgeries performed on prisoners? Give me a break. It’s an abject failure … It’s a disgrace to the federal government.”

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AS ALWAYS, Jolt readers are some of our favorite tipsters. Send your best scoop, gossip and insider info to patricia.murphy@ajc.com, tia.mitchell@ajc.com and greg.bluestein@ajc.com.