In January 2021, as the coronavirus pandemic continued to rage, Will Wade was at the Georgia Capitol being sworn in as a new state representative. He and other incoming lawmakers were masked and standing nervously apart from each other. It was awkward, Wade said, until a ruddy-faced man with white hair approached.
“I’m Jon,” Wade recalled him saying. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
Wade soon discovered he was talking to House Majority Leader Jon Burns, the second-ranking lawmaker in the chamber. The freshman was disarmed by Burns’ easygoing style and surprised he knew details about Wade’s father’s struggle with Alzheimer’s.
Friends and colleagues said that’s classic Burns. In a political climate often dominated by showboating and incendiary rhetoric, Burns, 70, is unassuming and down to earth, they said. A consensus builder and a listener, he stresses his roots as a farmer and small business owner at home among the cornfields and pine trees of Effingham County.
“I’m just an old country boy,” he said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
But that obscures a more savvy side to Burns, who was elected on Monday as the new speaker of the Georgia House, the second-most-powerful elected official in the state.
Burns has amassed thousands of acres of land worth millions of dollars, according to financial disclosure forms filed with the state. Much of that property is tied to his family’s business in timber, an industry he has helped over his years at the Capitol.
Burns has always had ambition. It’s what pushed him to drive an hour each way to law school in Savannah three nights a week after a full day working on the farm.
“I think you prepare yourself educationally and then seize an opportunity when it comes,” he said.
‘We were very blessed’
The youngest of three boys, Burns grew up on his family’s farm tucked between the Ogeechee and Savannah rivers in eastern Georgia. His grandparents had settled there in the early 1900s and cleared the land themselves, Burns said.
Burns’ father worked row crops and owned a sawmill. The family also operated a country store that, for a while, had the area’s only telephone. It became a gathering spot for the community of farmers, who spent most of their days scattered miles apart in the fields.
“We had that really tight country lifestyle growing up,” he said. “Because out in the countryside you have to pull together, you have to work together to survive, and yeah, we were very blessed.”
Burns began working the farm at a young age. There were cows and hogs to be fed and eggs to be collected from his mother’s hens.
A teenager in the 1960s, Burns knew little about the social and racial unrest rocking the country. He played basketball and baseball at Effingham County High School and went to Mizpah United Methodist Church, which was just a stone’s throw away from his family’s home.
Burns went on to attend Georgia Southern University in nearby Statesboro, where he majored in political science. It was there that he met his future wife, Dayle, an art student from Florida. Following graduation he went back to the family farm but also enrolled in night courses at John Marshall Law School’s campus in Savannah.
He and Dayle had two sons. He worked on the family farm and the couple also bought adjacent land of their own. He raised cows and grew row crops, such as corn, peanuts and hay. He reintroduced cotton farming to the county. He got up early and went to bed late, staying up to irrigate the crops after the sun went down.
A political career begins
But Burns also had his eyes on the horizon.
In 1999, he purchased a feed and farm store, which gave him the chance to interact more with his neighbors, something he missed being out on the farm. Like his father — who had sat on the school board — he was becoming more involved in civic life, making connections that would later prove useful.
When a seat opened up on the board of the state Department of Transportation representing the 12th Congressional District, local legislators tapped him.
The post brought him to Atlanta for meetings, and sometimes afterward he would cross the street to the Capitol to watch state legislators in action. He liked the fast pace and the chance to make a difference, so when state House districts were redrawn he ran for a new district along the South Carolina border encompassing Screven County as well as portions of Bulloch and Effingham counties
Burns arrived at the Capitol in 2005 as part of the wave that flipped the Georgia House, giving Republicans full control for the first time since Reconstruction. It was an exciting time to be in the GOP. After decades in the minority, Republicans flexed their political muscle, approving a waiting period for abortions (Burns voted in favor) and pledging to usher in an era of fiscal conservatism.
As chairman of a House Game, Fish and Parks subcommittee, Burns won praise from business interests and environmentalists. He helped strike a compromise, for instance, on a bill allowing the removal of some trees blocking billboards. And in 2015 he was elected House majority leader.
Roots in timber
Burns has deep roots in Georgia’s $39 billion timber business.
Records show Burns owns about 4,000 acres of timber land in Effingham, Greene and Screven counties. He also listed himself as a partner at Burns Brothers Special and secretary of D.G Burns and Sons, both timber harvesting companies.
His sons serve as president and chief executive officer of the Georgia Exports Co., one of the largest southern yellow pine log exporters in the nation.
Burns has long backed proposals supporting the industry. He was one of the architects of a constitutional amendment voters approved in November awarding timber companies a tax break.
But Burns told the AJC that he saw no conflict of interest because while the measures may have helped his bottom line, they also benefited the industry at large, which is a key economic driver for the state.
“There was no legitimate, no specific benefit to me personally.” he said. “From an ethical perspective, I feel very comfortable with that. And certainly, I’ve never hidden the fact that I’m involved in that, in that industry.”
Chad Nimmer, a former state lawmaker from South Georgia who now works for Pierce Timber, said Burns hasn’t been afraid to challenge industry leaders who have been pushing to increase weight limits for trucks carrying timber.
Nimmer praised Burns’ fairness and predicted he would be a speaker who would listen to all sides before making a decision.
“He’s not afraid to get his boots scuffed up and dirty and go to work every day,” he said.
‘A classic conservative’
David Ralston’s announcement in November that he was ill and stepping down as speaker left the state Capitol reeling. Ralston had held the gavel for 13 years and had become known as a moderating influence at the Gold Dome, allowing some of the more ideologically extreme measures — such as those dealing with “religious liberty” — to die once they reached his chamber.
As a longtime Ralston ally, Burns was the obvious choice to replace him, and in a Nov. 14 vote of the Republican caucus he beat out state Rep. Barry Fleming of Harlem for the job. Just two days later, Ralston died.
Burns was elected by acclamation as the legislative session kicked off Monday.
One of the big questions at the Capitol now becomes, how will Burns lead the chamber at a time when the state is growing more diverse?
Dan Snipes, a Statesboro lawyer who has worked for Burns, said he believed the style of the new speaker would resemble that of the old speaker.
“He doesn’t have an extreme bone in his body,” Snipes said. “He is a principled, classic conservative.”
Burns can now move into the speaker’s office. Five days before the start of the 2023 legislative session he hadn’t. There were no photos or keepsakes on the walls; a few chairs and tables were scattered about haphazardly. A nameplate with Ralston’s picture still welcomed visitors to the office.
“It’s bittersweet,” Burns said of the circumstances that have brought him here, taking over for an old friend.
Burns’ election was a mere formality. Republicans hold a 101-79 advantage over Democrats in the chamber. Nonetheless, as the GOP chaos played out last week in Washington over the selection of a new speaker, Burns’ more cautious side emerged.
“I’m not taking anything for granted,” Burns said.