(AP) — Georgia House Speaker David Ralston said Friday that health concerns compel him to step down as speaker at the end of this year, a move that roiled Georgia government and politics just days before statewide elections.
The 68-year-old Republican has been speaker since 2010, becoming the second most powerful person in state government behind the governor.
A lawyer from Blue Ridge in the north Georgia mountains, Ralston said he hopes to continue as a member of the House if his health concerns can be resolved. Ralston is unopposed for reelection in a district covering Fannin, Gilmer and Dawson counties.
“Serving as speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives has been the honor of a lifetime, and I owe a heartfelt thank you to my colleagues for the trust and confidence they placed in me thirteen years ago,” Ralston said in a statement. “I need to take time to address a health challenge which has arisen recently, and the House needs a speaker who can devote the necessary time and energy to the office.”
Republicans currently hold a 103-76 majority in Georgia’s House, with one seat vacant after an Augusta Democrat died. The whole House will elect a speaker when it convenes Jan. 9, but the House Republican caucus will pick a nominee who’s likely to win the office in the days after Tuesday’s election.
Among Republicans who might run are House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones of Milton, House Majority Leader Jon Burns of Newington, Rep. Barry Fleming of Harlem and House Majority Whip Matt Hatchett of Dublin, observers said.
As the paramount leader of the House, Ralston has shaped taxes, spending and laws.
In one example, he muscled through major changes this year to how mental health benefits are provided by private insurers and how the state provides mental health services. He could also put bills in the garbage can, stopping a state takeover of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in 2019.
Republican Gov. Brian Kemp is among those who owe Ralston a debt. After earlier stalling the Kemp priority, Ralston allowed the House this year to pass a bill that gave the state high school athletic association the power to ban transgender girls from playing sports matching their gender identity.
“Our state is better off thanks to his wisdom and commitment to all Georgians while guiding the House through challenging times,” Kemp said in a statement.
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 in 2002.
Currently the longest-serving state house speaker in the United States, Ralston was cut from the mold of Tom Murphy, the west Georgia Democrat who commanded the House from 1973 to 2003. Ralston took office after a chaotic period when the first Republican speaker in more than 130 years, Glenn Richardson, resigned following a suicide attempt and revelations of an extramarital affair with a lobbyist. Ralston had lost a speaker’s bid against Richardson in 2008.
“He brought a calm and steady hand to the House when it was in need of a calm and steady hand,” said outgoing House Appropriations Committee Chairman Terry England, an Auburn Republican and Ralston confidant.
Ralston survived a challenge to his power after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed he had used his position as lawmaker to delay court proceedings for people he was representing in court. Most of the hard-core conservatives who rebelled left the House after failing to unseat Ralston, with the speaker engineering the defeat of some.
Ralston stripped Fleming of his chairmanship after Fleming unsuccessfully ran for whip against Hatchett last year, seen as a move toward becoming speaker. After David Clark, a Buford Republican, balked at House COVID-19 rules in 2020, Ralston had Clark escorted from the floor and changed the locks on Clark’s office.
Clark and some other Republicans dislike Ralston because they see him as insufficiently conservative and too friendly to Democrats. Ralston shepherded a wide range of Republican priorities and was always ready to cut taxes, boasting of a state income tax cut passed this year that could ultimately total $2 billion. But he helped rescue a hate crimes bill from legislative purgatory after the 2020 death of Ahmaud Arbery.
His co-sponsor on this year’s mental health bill was Decatur Democrat Mary Margaret Oliver, maybe Ralston’s warmest friend in the General Assembly. The close ties to her and outgoing Democrat Calvin Smyre of Columbus meant Democrats could get a respectful hearing from Ralston, and sometimes get a little of what they wanted in legislation. Oliver called him stepping down “a huge loss.”
“As minority leader, I worked closely and well with him as speaker,” tweeted Democrat Stacey Abrams, who is challenging Kemp for governor on Tuesday. “Our politics differ, but my respect is deep and absolute.”
Follow Jeff Amy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jeffamy.