BLUE RIDGE, Ga. — Georgia House Speaker David Ralston was remembered Sunday not only as a powerful politician, but also as someone whose concern for others stretched beyond partisan and other lines as hundreds gathered in the hometown of Republican Blue Ridge gathered to remember him after he died November 16 at the age of 68.
“David Ralston wanted to connect with people at heart,” said Republican Rep. Randy Nix of LaGrange, one of four speakers praising Ralston. “Politics mattered, but people mattered. If you were injured, the R or D next to your name didn’t matter.”
Current Governor Brian Kemp and former Governors Sonny Perdue and Nathan Deal were in the crowd at Fannin County High School’s Performing Arts Center, along with Ralston’s wife and children, other state officials, legislators, lawmakers and lobbyists. Ralston’s coffin was draped in a Georgia state flag and removed from the stage by an honor guard of State Troopers.
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Rep. Mack Jackson, a Democrat from Sandersville, recalled how Ralston had promised to visit the pastors of Jackson Church in tiny Tennille in eastern Georgia. Jackson said he was surprised when he arrived at church one Sunday to find two state trooper cars in the lot and Ralston standing in the foyer.
“I said, ‘Why, Mr Speaker? Why did you come to see me?’ And he said those words. He said, ‘Because you’re my friend.’ And those words resonated in my heart,” Jackson said, adding that Ralston had little reason to spend so much time with a Democrat who wasn’t even a minority party leader.
Jackson’s comments highlighted one of Ralston’s most notable qualities: a respectful relationship with Democrats. 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. But he has also sidelined or softened some right-wing priorities.
Ralston was buried in a private ceremony Sunday after the funeral in nearby Ellijay, where he grew up as the son of the Gilmer County clerk. Ralston moved to Blue Ridge after graduating from the University of Georgia Law School.
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’s fellow Republicans elected him head of the 180-seat House of Representatives in early 2010. At the age of 13, he became the second most powerful leader in the Georgia state government and was the longest-serving speaker of the House of Representatives in any American state at the time of his death.
House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, a Republican from Milton, became Georgia’s first female speaker after Ralston’s death. Republicans have nominated Jon Burns of Newington to replace Ralston when the newly elected General Assembly meets on Jan. 9.
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Deal remembered Ralston as “a leader and a trusted friend” and praised him as someone who listened, studied problems before acting, and could compromise “so problems could be solved, not just talked about.”
“I want to tell you that none of the good things that have happened during my tenure could have happened and could not have happened without David Ralston’s leadership,” Deal said.
Nix extolled Ralston’s Christian faith like Jackson, an ordained minister. However, he also urged participants to look ahead, saying that’s what Ralston would have wanted.
“This is a challenge, an opportunity for new leaders to stand up and complete the exercise,” Nix said. “It’s not so much about who follows in the footsteps as it is about who completes the journey.”
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