ATLANTA — Georgia House Speaker David Ralston died Nov. 16 at the age of 68, Speaker Kaleb McMichen said, less than two weeks after announcing he was stepping down due to health reasons.
A statement issued by McMichen said only that Ralston died after “a prolonged illness.” The Blue Ridge Republican became the second most powerful leader in the Georgia state government during his 13-year leadership of the 180-seat House of Representatives.
“A big pine tree fell in the Georgia House of Representatives,” said Columbus Democrat Calvin Smyre, the longest-serving member of the House of Representatives and a friend of Ralston’s.
Republican Gov. Brian Kemp ordered flags to be flown at half-staff until Ralston is buried and said his body will rest in the Georgia Capitol.
“Our state has lost one of its true giants,” Kemp said in a statement.
Ralston, an attorney from the mountains of North Georgia, had said he hoped to remain a member of the House after stepping down as Speaker after 13 years.
By the end of the current legislative session in January, House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, a Republican from Milton, will serve as speaker, as required by the state constitution. She will be the first speaker in the history of Georgia. Republicans nominated Jon Burns of Newington on Nov. 14 to replace Ralston when the newly elected General Assembly meets Jan. 9, an effort for continuity supported by Ralston’s closest allies.
“David Ralston spent his public service career lifting others up and advancing our state,” Jones said in a statement. “He knew the great power of bringing people together – arguing together – and finding common ground. Regardless of political ideology, he treated everyone with respect and was a model of courtesy.”
Ralston is survived by his wife, Sheree, and two adult children. Funeral arrangements will be announced later.
As Supreme Leader of the House of Representatives, Ralston shaped taxes, spending and legislation.
In one example, this year he enacted changes to how mental health services are provided by private insurers and how the state provides mental health services. He could also toss bills in the trash can, stopping a 2019 government takeover of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
Ralston was first elected to the Georgia Senate in 1992, when Democrats were in the majority, and served six years. He lost a race for attorney general to Democrat Thurbert Baker in 1998 before being elected to the House of Representatives in 2002.
Ralston, the longest-serving Speaker of the United States House of Representatives at the time of his death, was cut from the mold of Tom Murphy, the West Georgia Democrat who chaired the House of Representatives from 1973 to 2003. Ralston took office after a chaotic period when the first Republican speaker in over 130 years, Glenn Richardson, resigned after attempting suicide and revealing an extramarital affair with a lobbyist. Ralston lost a bid to speak against Richardson in 2008.
“He brought a steady and steady hand to the House of Representatives when it needed a steady and steady hand,” outgoing House Appropriations Committee Chairman Terry England, a chestnut Republican and Ralston confidante, said earlier this month.
Ralston survived a challenge to his power after the Atlanta Journal Constitution revealed that he had used his position as lawmaker to delay trials for people he represented in court. Most of the hard-nosed Conservatives who rebelled walked out after failing to unseat Ralston, with the speaker defeating some.
Ralston has pursued a wide range of Republican priorities and has always been poised to cut taxes, boasting about a state income tax cut passed this year that could ultimately total $2 billion. He also campaigned for rural development.
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