• Commentary

Ralston Departs

“The Speaker wants to talk to you.”

When I was a full-time columnist, such words from a high-ranking official could spark very different kinds of conversations. At times, such a summons had to do with an idea the person wanted to discuss. Often, it meant dissatisfaction with something I’d written.

This was 2017, and David Ralston had read a column I wrote months earlier about the plight of rural Georgia. It struck a chord with him. He had been touring the state touting Georgia’s accomplishments, especially in job creation.

“Then I noticed, as I would go around the state,” he told me then, “I’d get up and give that rah-rah (speech), but they’re kind of looking with this blank stare. Like, ‘That’s nice, but’— and I thought, you know, that’s because it’s not happening all over the state.”

He told me he was creating the Rural Development Council, now in its sixth year. That conversation came to mind when I saw the news this past Friday that Ralston would not seek another term as speaker.

Let me pause here to tell you, if you did not already know, just how ground-shaking Ralston’s relinquishing of the gavel is. Only the governor, I would argue, has more of an impact on Georgia’s government and laws. And a good speaker can outlast a term-limited governor.

Many political observers anticipated change in the governor’s office. Instead, just as it seemed all but certain that Brian Kemp would be re-elected – dangerous words to write before all of the ballots are cast and counted, but all available pre-election evidence pointed in that direction – this stunner came out of the blue.

Oh, there had been chatter that Ralston might not be long for the job. It’s lonely at the top, made all the lonelier by a shrinking inner circle. Ralston’s circle was reduced in recent years by retirements (Terry England) and tragic deaths (John Meadows, Jay Powell). At some point, Gold Dome denizens posited, Ralston might just walk away.

This, however, is not that. Ralston’s announcement cited “a health challenge which has arisen recently.” The seriousness of his condition seems to be underscored by the fact that this news arrived by a written statement, not a press conference. Some of his top lieutenants scarcely heard the news before the public did.

The job of speaker is peculiar within Georgia’s system of government. It is perhaps the closest thing we have to the prime minister of a parliamentary system: a powerful office whose holder is elected only by the voters in one district, and then by his fellow representatives. “Primus inter pares,” in the Latin phrase. “First among equals.”

How does one manage this, year after year? There’s the hard side of wielding power, or simply maintaining order, in a chamber full of ambitious politicians. Call it a blend of loyalty, respect and fear. 

But if that were all, hardly anyone could stay in that spot for long, much less the 13 years Ralston did. So there had to be a softer side as well.

My conversation with Ralston about rural Georgia gave me the slightest opportunity to see what typically happens behind closed doors. He was empathetic toward people who were hurting; thoughtful and introspective about how to help; committed to seeking an answer. By giving me the story, in recognition of my column that had helped in some small way to move him toward action, he gave credit where he thought it was due.

Those qualities, not only the harder ones, help a person keep a difficult job.

Many reviews of Ralston’s time as Speaker will be written. Many will be harsher than this one, for his tenure was not without controversy or mistakes. Many of Georgia’s problems were addressed well during his time in office, but others were not.

Whoever succeeds Ralston will have a full plate. There will be statewide challenges, and personal ones. But Ralston’s allies and critics alike will likely agree on one thing: His departure changes everything.