"So why did he REALLY do it?" I’ve been asked that question many times since the news broke that House Speaker Glenn Richardson had tried to commit suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills.
The most truthful answer I can give is: I don’t know. And really, who can ever understand just what pushes somebody to that ultimate step of trying to end it all?
I am inclined to believe that part of the answer was given by Richardson in the statement he released when he disclosed his suicide attempt:
"For the past 2½ years, ever since my separation and divorce, I have struggled with the disease of depression," Richardson said. "While depression often seems to be resolved on occasion, when personal trials or tribulations arise, it flares back up. That is what occurred with me. My depression became so severe that I took substantial steps to do harm to myself and to take my own life."
There has been a lot of media coverage of Richardson’s behavior since he became speaker nearly five years ago. He was accused in a 2007 ethics complaint of having an inappropriate relationship with an Atlanta Gas Light lobbyist. The complaint was dismissed but a few months afterward, Richardson’s wife divorced him.
From casual remarks I have heard him make over the years, I think Richardson cares very deeply about his three children. Divorce is always hardest on the kids, so it’s reasonable to believe that the speaker is distressed about the impact on his family. All of those things can take a toll on a person’s emotional well-being.
There could be other problems as weighing down on Richardson as well. Along with U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey, Richardson is on the board of directors of a troubled Paulding County bank that has more problem loans and foreclosed property than capital on hand to cover potential losses. Richardson’s close friend and political ally, state Rep. Earl Ehrhart of Cobb County, was a board member of Georgian Bank, which went belly-up in September from major losses associated with the collapse of the real estate market.
Will Richardson’s personal issues cause political problems for him in the legislature?
One state newspaper, the Brunswick News, has already said Richardson should step down as speaker because of the stress caused by his depression.
"Given the trauma in Rep. Richardson’s life, given his attempt at suicide just weeks ago and given the tremendous revenue problems pressing down hard on the state and its taxpayers in all 159 counties today, it would be best for all concerned for Richardson to resign as Speaker of the House," the newspaper editorialized.
Richardson is obviously determined to hang on to what is one of the most powerful positions in Georgia politics. "He intends to continue serving as speaker," said his spokesman, Marshall Guest, when asked about Richardson’s plans. Three days after disclosing the suicide attempt, Richardson even traveled to South Georgia to appear at a fundraiser for Rep. Ed Rynders, R-Albany.
While some conversations are being held behind the scenes, there haven’t been any public demands from other Republican House members to replace Richardson, at least for the moment. There was a challenge to his leadership last year when Rep. David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, ran against Richardson for speaker, but Ralston could only muster support from about 25 House members.
Recent history suggests that the state’s voters tend to be very forgiving of politicians who have personal problems similar to those of Richardson.
In 2004, state Sen. Renee Unterman of Gwinnett County was in the middle of a hostile divorce proceeding when she passed out from a drug overdose and spent some time recovering in a clinic near Boston. Several media outlets reported unflattering details from the various court documents filed in that divorce case.
Even with all of the negative publicity, none of Unterman’s legislative colleagues demanded that she withdraw from her Senate race. She was reelected to new terms in 2004, 2006 and 2008 with little or no opposition. She is still in the state Senate today.
Just as Unterman continues to serve, Richardson can probably hang on to the reins of power as House speaker for a while. At this point in time, it doesn’t look like those situations will change.
Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact’s Georgia Report, www.gareport.com. His column appears Wednesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com.