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Mr. Speaker: Ralston vows to seek solutions

Blue Ridge native vows to eliminate vendettas, prioritize budget

POSTED: January 10, 2010 12:30 a.m.
Sara Guevara/The Times

David Ralston waves to a familiar face at the Capitol in Atlanta Friday. Ralston will be sworn in as the speaker during the first legislative session Monday.

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Days before the state legislative session is set to convene, the office of the state House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee — the committee for which David Ralston is vice chairman — is teeming with state troopers, lawyers and legislators.

When the House reconvenes for the 2010 legislative session Monday, the Blue Ridge Republican is expected to become the most powerful man in the state House. Ralston was chosen as the majority party’s nominee for speaker on Dec. 17.

But in the week before Ralston’s confirmation, his office is in a state of controlled chaos. A receptionist fields calls and jockeys incoming visitors. Committee members discuss a bill that could ban sex between students and teachers. The Capitol’s sound system marks its disdain for a radio journalist’s recording equipment with a continuous squawk.

But in his own office at the end of the hall, Ralston exudes tranquility.

While he admits his life has recently become more hectic — incoming speakers, historically, have had two months to transition into the statehouse’s ultimate responsibility; Ralston has had three weeks — Ralston speaks with an even, sonorous tone. He uses words like "teamwork" and "family" to describe how he will guide the state’s 2010 legislative session.

Ralston’s predecessor, Glenn Richardson, resigned late last year amid allegations he had an affair with an Atlanta Gas Light Co. lobbyist at the same time he was sponsoring legislation that would have benefited the utility. Richardson, who led the House since 2005, was known for his temper and for feuds with other political leaders under the Gold Dome, including Gov. Sonny Perdue and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle.

But on Monday, state representatives may find themselves at the behest of an affable leader. And some are breathing a sigh of relief, referring to the speaker-to-be as "stable" and as a "statesman."

"I think David brings a very stable personality," said Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville. "... His background, his legal training and also his experience in life allow him to take a perspective of listening, of gathering input and then making decisions that may not please everybody, but in the end, at least everybody feels like they’ve had a hearing."

Collins, for one, felt the wrath of Richardson’s regime.

The former speaker stripped Collins of his chairmanship of the Children’s Health Issues subcommittee in early 2008 after Collins helped re-elect Mike Evans to the state Department of Transportation Board. Richardson had supported Evans’ opponent in the DOT election, former Rep. Stacey Reece.

And when Ralston challenged Richardson for the speaker position in 2009, Collins voted for Ralston.

"I was with David when there weren’t enough of us to put in a phone booth," Collins said.

Unlike Richardson, who was known for retribution, Ralston promises he will not ask House members to put themselves on the line for personal issues.

"I will not ask them to be a part of a personal vendetta, period," Ralston said.

Sen. Lee Hawkins, who served while Richardson feuded with Cagle, said the two chambers should have a better working relationship with Ralston in charge of the House.

"David is more of a statesman," Hawkins said. "He is very thoughtful ... very accessible and very approachable. He puts much thought into his decisions and I think we will see a very good working relationship between his office and the lieutenant governor’s office."

In a recent column in The Times, Capitol Impact’s Tom Crawford called Ralston a "conciliator, not a fighter."

"That’s not a bad thing to be called is it? Better than ‘scoundrel,’" Ralston responded.

And though Ralston says he has "a lot of personal affection for Speaker Richardson," he said Richardson’s "intimidation" and "strong-armed tactics" were not an appropriate way to conduct government business.

"I’m going to fight for the independence of the House every day," Ralston said. "But I also believe that every Georgian has a right to expect that we’re going to try to be cooperative and try to work together down here, and we’re going to be more civil about it, and we’re going to turn down the volume and try to come up with some solutions."

Even members of the minority party are supporting the Republicans’ choice of speaker. Ralston’s leadership and management of the House will be "better than what was there," House minority leader DuBose Porter said.

Porter is hopeful that under Ralston’s leadership, the "hawk" system will be abolished. Porter said the system, which designated certain members to sit and vote on any committee at the speaker’s discretion, eliminated representative government from the statehouse.

"I think he respects the process," said Porter, who is also a Democratic candidate for governor. "I’m hoping that we will return to the deliberative body that we should be where all parts of Georgia who are represented there have a voice. You may not win but you ought to have a voice."

Still, there is uncertainty that comes with a new boss. On Monday, in the midst of a two-year session, 179 representatives will have to begin adjusting to a new speaker and learn to live with the leadership and management style that comes with him.

"No intimate knowledge, no back room knowledge or anything, I think you’re going to see changes in the next couple of weeks," Collins said. "You’re already seeing some with staff with other things. I think you’re going to see some other issues that would come with any new speaker. How those settle out will be an interesting look. I think it’s, as somebody said once, it’s a whole new world."

Ralston, 55, is a former state senator and candidate for state attorney general. He was first elected to the House in 2002 to represent a district that no longer exists. Today, he represents Fannin and Gilmer counties and a portion of Dawson.

In March 1976, Ralston, a native of Ellijay, came to Gainesville as The Times’ assistant district editor. It was his first job out of college, and he mostly reported the goings-on in Forsyth, Lumpkin and Banks counties. But occasionally, Ralston said he covered the sporting events that then-sports editor Phil Jackson "didn’t want to go to."

His time in the Fourth Estate did not last long. Ralston left The Times in September 1977 to attend the University of Georgia’s School of Law. He still operates a law practice in Blue Ridge.

"I loved being a newspaper reporter, frankly, and I guess if I’d stayed another year I’d probably be interviewing the speaker," Ralston said. "But I loved it. I’d always wanted to be a reporter, but I always wanted to be a lawyer, and the desire to be a lawyer, I guess, kind of won out."

And later, the son of Gilmer County’s Clerk of Superior Court meandered into the political arena on his own. In 1992, Ralston campaigned for a state Senate seat against a 30-year public official — and won.

"I guess it just sort of got in my blood," Ralston said of the decision. "And, you know, I saw my dad be in local office all those years, and although it was local and not state, he just sort of set an example for me that public service could be a good thing. It was really what you did if you had a servant heart and you didn’t do it to profit, you didn’t do it for ego, you did it to help people."

Ralston, who considers himself an "outsider," has a number of weighty issues before him when he takes the speaker’s gavel Monday morning. Legislators are still seeking a transportation plan; the state’s education system is counting on careful incisions to the state’s budget; water is an uncertainty; and ethics bills already are beginning to appear in the clerk’s office.

And though the ethics issues in the House that landed Ralston in the speaker’s seat probably will come to the forefront this legislative session, the budget is still the main course on legislators’ plates, he said.

No numbers have been announced yet, but Ralston said he is fairly certain legislators will spend the next 40 days shaving at least another $1 billion from the state’s budget.

"We’re going to have to deal with the present reality," Ralston said. "And the present reality is that we’re going to have to make some tough decisions in terms of the budget."

It may mean weighing the need to keep teachers in the classroom against the desire to operate halls of fame.

"We can sit around and wring our hands about how awful this budget situation is — how gloom and doom it is — but I’m trying to encourage people to think about this as an opportunity for us to really refocus on what it is state government ought to be doing," Ralston said.



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