ATLANTA (AP) – Georgia House Speaker David Ralston died Wednesday at the age of 68, Speaker Kaleb McMichen said, less than two weeks after announcing his retirement because of health concerns.
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 has fallen 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.
Ralston, an attorney from the mountains of North Georgia, had said he hoped to remain a member of the House after he resigned as speaker.
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. The Republicans nominated Jon Burns from Newington to replace Ralston when the newly elected General Assembly meets on January 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 major changes in how private insurers provide mental health benefits 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. 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 maroon Republican and Ralston confidante, said earlier this month when Ralston announced his resignation.
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.
Some Republicans saw Ralston as too friendly to 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 helped salvage a hate crime bill from the purgatory of legislation following the death of Ahmaud Arbery in 2020.
His co-sponsor for this year’s mental health bill was Decatur Democrat Mary Margaret Oliver, one of Ralston’s closest friends in the General Assembly. The close ties to her and Smyre meant that Ralston Democrats could be heard respectfully and sometimes get a little of what they wanted in the legislature.
“In a toxic political environment, his friendship meant the world to me,” tweeted Rep. Scott Holcomb, an Atlanta Democrat, who said Ralston gave him the chance to move significant legislation even if he was in the minority. “We made progress where we could and didn’t hold grudges when we went in different directions.”