Georgia House Speaker David Ralston has died aged 68. A spokesman said he passed away on Wednesday after a prolonged illness, less than two weeks after announcing he was stepping down as spokesman due to ill health. The Blue Ridge Republican had held the position for 13 years, making him the longest-serving speaker of the United States House of Representatives at the time of his death. GPB’s Donna Lowry spoke to host Peter Biello about Ralston’s life and legacy.
Peter Biello: So you’ve been covering the Legislature for more than two decades. Talk to him a little about your reporter/source relationship. How did he work as a journalist?
Donna Lowry: Speaker David Ralston understood the work we do as journalists. He had great respect for us and it was mutual. I heard from a conversation I heard earlier today that he did in fact work as a journalist for a short time. So he understood what we do and why it matters. We don’t always agree on how things are told. He didn’t always agree with how we did our jobs, but he understood our need to do our jobs and tell the facts. And that was the main thing he focused on, making sure we got the facts right, even if they were facts he didn’t agree with.
Peter Biello: Do you have any special memories of Ralston that you would like to share?
Donna Lowry: So many. One of the things with Legislators: Beyond the Dome is, we are — Firstly, we are a live show at 7:00 p.m. on Georgia Public Broadcasting TV and we don’t stop until 7:00 p.m. and many times we were at the Capitol very late. I remember the times when we left the Capitol and he left there too. Instead of just saying hello to us, he would always stop and talk and ask about us. And I thought it was really special that the Speaker of the House stopped and wanted to talk and asked about people on our staff. That was important. The other thing is that as a leader he was a conservative but had a lot of respect from the other party, the Democratic Party. So a conservative Republican who was respected by the Democrats. And a lot of the — the buzzword I’m hearing from Democrats, even now since his death, that have come forward talked about access. He gave them access, at least to listen to them. And they considered it important whether their opinion was finally expressed in the form of laws. That might not be something he would agree with, but at least he would listen.
Peter Biello: Were there any key laws he championed?
Donna Lowry:There are many legacies, but the big one will be the last big one, and that is House Bill 1013, which is mental health parity. The Mental Health Parity Bill is a massive bill that he has campaigned for from the start. He’s talked about it for a number of years, but last year he pushed it through and he nominated Democrats to the committee. He made sure everyone had a voice in all of this. He was criticized by some very conservative Republicans, but he felt it was important that mental health be treated like physical health in this state. And I think that will be one of his greatest legacies. It was very emotional for him after it was over. He let the press come out on the floor to see how people felt afterwards. But it was – it was something he felt was important to this state. And Georgia was lagging behind, had lagged behind other states when it came to access to mental health services.
Peter Biello: Ralston will be succeeded by the new House Speaker, John Burns, representing Newington in South Georgia. How, if at all, do you expect things to change?
Donna Lowry: I really don’t expect big changes. I think they worked together. John Burns was majority leader and thus worked closely with Ralston. So I think they were consistent on a lot of things. The person who is interim Speaker of the House is Madam Jan Jones, who is the first woman to be Speaker of the House due to the time between the death of Speaker Ralston and the January legislature when the formal vote will take place. John Burns was nominated by his party to speak. Madam Jan Jones is – has been part of Ralston’s team for years and will continue to serve as Speaker Pro Tem. That’s how she rose to this position. And I think because they worked together in this group, this trio, we won’t see big changes. I think they’re pretty much in lockstep in a lot of ways.