On a mild and bright late February morning, state Speaker of the House David Ralston took to the well of the House to defend his reputation as a person, as a lawyer and as a legislator after a joint investigation by Atlanta media outlets raised the question Ralston unethically used his position to benefit his criminal law clients.

Nearly every representative in the chamber gave the speaker a standing ovation, and at that point Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, may have been in his strongest position as speaker to date. Ralston helped create a working group on the state’s legislative leave law that passed April 2 both the House and Senate with only one no vote.

Since then, however, the slow burn of the investigation into his pattern of legislative leave continued, and a vocal group of Republicans still call for his resignation. Ralston addressed the situation Friday in an interview with The News.

“I tell members sometimes, you have to kind of filter what you hear, and the voices that are the loudest may not really be representative of your district,” Ralston said. “I tell people, I’ve got a lot of political activist types in my district, and they run candidates against me in the primary the last three primary seasons. They’re kind of loud and vocal, but I try to keep this in my mind — I represent not only them, but I represent the family that is struggling to make a living.

“Husband may be a builder, wife may teach school, trying to keep their bills paid, helping their kids with homework at night, going to Little League games, going to church on Sunday. But they don’t have time to go to political meetings because they’re busy, and those are the people I try to think about when I’m making decisions, and not just those who live on the internet, pounding away on Facebook and all that kind of thing.”

Ralston said it takes a while to build up a good reputation in the legislature, but it can get blown “by the stroke of a pen or the utterance of a sentence.”

Joining Ralston at Friday’s meeting were state Reps. Don Hogan, R-St. Simons Island, and Steven Sainz, R-Woodbine. Conspicuously absent was state Rep. Jeff Jones, R-St. Simons Island, one of the signatories to a House resolution calling for Ralston to resign, and who continues to stand by that position.

In a recent email to the state House Republican Caucus, Jones wrote that Ralston remaining in a position of power risks the GOP’s majority.

“We must wake up my fellow Republican Caucus members and act,” Jones said. “The Speaker is damaged goods and will be personally responsible for bringing down our Republican House majority. With that loss comes loss of reapportionment control and we all know what that means.”

Jones said it will also stall the House GOP’s plans to assist Gov. Brian Kemp on Kemp’s Georgians First initiatives, along with the usual loss of committee chairmanships and other legislative impediments that come from being the minority party.

Ralston said he doesn’t believe the controversy will have a noticeable impact with voters by the time November 2020 rolls around.

“They’re going to vote on who will keep their taxes low, who will be committed to making education better, who is committed to creating a good climate for jobs to come here,” Ralston said. “So, I don’t think they’re going to vote on some issue like this. I tell people that the only people you hear that from are the same people that you hear from the negativity about. It’s kind of like, if a fireman gets called to a house fire, you can either put it out or you can keep throwing gas on it. And if you throw gas on it, you can say, ‘This is going to burn the whole town down.’ So you put the fire out.”

Sainz said he believes Ralston’s management of the House allows for individual legislators to be more effective in representing their constituents, referring to the House resolution against offshore drilling and seismic testing.

“That’s a great example of something you’re going to have a great amount of diversity on how you look at that, from a coastal district, from a fishing town, from a port town in Savannah,” Sainz said. “You’re going to look at it different and at a different priority than if you’re representing Macon, regardless of whether you think it’s important or not.”

He said the prime benefit to him from the speaker and the Speaker’s Office is Ralston’s ability to build consensus.

“If we have someone who’s there who can listen to my issues and correlate them with something that is just as important in the Atlanta area, in the Macon area, in the Augusta area, and we have a speaker that can do that,” Sainz said.

2019 session

Ralston cited among the accomplishments in this year’s legislative session the $3,000 teacher pay increase — with the possibility of another $2,000 in next year’s session — school safety legislation with $68 million in appropriations and fully funding the Quality Basic Education level for the second consecutive year. There was also rural-focused legislation deregulating health care in the hopes of making it less expensive and easier to obtain, along with progress in opening up rural access to high-speed broadband.

Ralston said, “Keeping with what we’ve been trying to do in the House, and since I’ve been speaker since 2010, I’ve been very, very proud that the House has led on so many of the major initiatives that have come down the pipe — tax reform back in 2011 and ’12, transportation funding reform, criminal justice reform, adoption reform, rural development now, school safety, the list goes on.

“We’ve done that by using the offseason more productively. When I became speaker, when we adjourned at the end of a session, everybody kind of went home and said, ‘We’ll see you in January.’ We might have a conference or two we’d see people at, but we didn’t really utilize that time as effectively as I think we can, particularly in light of the fact that Georgia is a growing state now.”

‘The offseason’

He pointed to four major study committees that are to get to work over the next several months, including the state Freight & Logistics Commission, which received its members Wednesday. Other subjects include maternal mortality, mental health and gang violence. State Rep. Carl Gilliard, D-Savannah, will head up the gang violence committee once it forms, and Ralston indicated Hogan would be on the mental health committee.

Hogan introduced House Bill 178 during the last session, which would provide for assisted outpatient treatment programs, and Hogan indicated he’ll be making another push to get the bill moving next year.

Ralston said he believes mental health treatment’s been a neglected part of the health care system, “and it’s an issue that touches almost every family, to one degree or another, and every age group. We’ve really got to look at doing a better job of delivering services to those that need them, whether it’s looking at more resources or whether it’s looking at a different delivery model, or a combination of the two. We’re going to tackle that issue over the summer.”

He said the state needs some new thinking on the issue and people who are willing to ask the tough questions.

Regarding maternal mortality, Ralston said, “We like to brag we’re the No. 1 state in the nation for business, but we also have the worst maternal mortality rating in the country. It’s not acceptable. I don’t know the reasons — I’ve informed myself enough about the issue to know it’s not a rural or an urban problem, it’s all over the state, it cuts across every socioeconomic group. But, we’re going to make a priority of looking at that issue and finding out how we got here and what we can do, to do a better job.”

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