The longtime leader of the Georgia House of Representatives announced Friday that he will not seek another term as speaker.

House Speaker David Ralston celebrates the passage of his sweeping mental health bill during the 2022 legislation session. Ralston announced Friday that he will not seek another term as speaker. (Credit: Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder)

House Speaker David Ralston, who has led the chamber since 2010, said in a statement that he needs to focus on a “health challenge which has arisen recently.”

The Blue Ridge Republican said he plans to finish serving as speaker until January to “ensure a smooth transition for my successor.” A new speaker will be elected on the first day of the new legislative session set for Monday, Jan. 9, which means the Legislature will now convene with new leadership in both chambers.

Ralston, who is running unopposed Tuesday, said he plans to continue to serve as a state representative, making him one of 180 lawmakers in the chamber. He was first elected to the seat two decades ago.

“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. I love the House and want to see the honorable men and women who serve in it succeed.”

The north Georgia lawmaker has been a moderating influence in the Republican-controlled Legislature who has preferred tax policies over the some of the more extreme hot-button social issues his Republican colleagues to the right of him have floated.

In a chamber with tightening margins, Ralston managed to attract bipartisan support for his continued leadership. And news of his decision to step down as speaker was met with respect on both sides of the aisle Friday.

“It is a sad day for Georgia,” said House Minority Leader James Beverly, a Macon Democrat. “My friend, Speaker Ralston, is the only speaker I know. He taught me so much about governing and working across the aisle. His leadership will be missed in the House Chamber.”

Stacey Abrams, a former House minority leader and the Democratic nominee for governor, said she learned from Ralston’s example. “As Minority Leader, I worked closely and well with him as Speaker,” she tweeted. “Our politics differ, but my respect is deep + absolute. God bless my friend as he faces this new challenge.”

Ralston is arguably the most powerful elected official in Georgia, and when he called a proposal a “non-starter,” that was usually the end of the conversation since the speaker is the one who brings bills to the floor for debate. He also jealously guarded the House’s independence from the executive branch and at times, butted heads with Republican Gov. Brian Kemp.

“The Speaker of the House is not elected to be the best friend of the governor,” Ralston said at the close of this year’s legislative session. “That’s just the way it is. We’re an independent body over here, and I value that and I try to protect that.”

Kemp and Ralston were allies in more recent times, though. And the governor said in a statement Friday that he intended to continue to call on his “friend” for advice and counsel.

“David Ralston has been a steadfast leader for Georgia throughout his time as Speaker, and 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 an effective political leader who campaigned statewide for his caucus and squelched a minor GOP uprising that challenged his leadership a few years ago. But he led with tenderness when the moment called for it and could be poignant in challenging times.

He also used his influence to elevate issues that can often fade into the background. During the 2022 session, Ralston put all his might behind a comprehensive behavioral health measure that passed even after far-right activists tried to sabotage it.

“He has earned a legacy of love and respect from the millions of Georgians and our families who have been impacted by behavioral health issues, mental health and substance use disorder,” said Jeff Breedlove, chief of communications and policy with the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse. “He is a forever champion, and that is going to be his legacy – is a forever champion. He has actually saved lives.”

In 2018, Ralston used his influence to push through major changes to the state’s adoption system, and under his leadership, bipartisan-led pushes like the overhaul of the citizen’s arrest law cited initially in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery and a long-stalled hate crimes law were passed.

In an advisory announcing his plan to step down as speaker, Ralston also touted the passage of a long-term tax plan to fund Georgia’s roads and bridges in 2015, a proposal to gradually lower the state income tax rate in 2022, and a paid parental leave policy for state employees and teachers that passed in 2021.

But Ralston also presided over some of the more controversial votes in recent years, including the six-week abortion ban that passed in 2019 and took effect after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. He also allowed a last-minute change this year that enabled the Georgia High School Association to ban transgender athletes in girls sports after a similar proposal had appeared to stall in the House.

This story comes to Reporter Newspapers / Atlanta Intown through a content partnership with Georgia Recorder.

Jill Nolin | Georgia Recorder

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending.