Georgia House Speaker David Ralston has died at the age of 68.
According to a statement, the Republican state lawmaker died after an extended illness. Ralston was with his family, including his wife and his children, when he died.
At the time of his passing, he was the longest currently-serving state House speaker in the United States.
Ralson was representing Georgia’s 7th House district. He had become the 73rd Georgia House Speaker in 2010.
Due to his passing, per the Georgia State Constitution, Speaker Pro Tempore Jan Jones, a Republican, has now become the 74th Speaker of the Georgia House, making her the first female speaker in Georgia state’s history. Jones will serve for the remainder of the term, which ends in January.
Republicans have nominated Jon Burns of Newington to replace Ralston when the newly elected General Assembly convenes on Jan. 9, 2023, in an effort at continuity supported by Ralston’s closest allies.
It comes after Ralston announced on Nov. 4 that he would not seek the House Speaker nomination for the 2023-2024 legislative session.
“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,” he 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. I will work the remainder of my term as Speaker to ensure a smooth transition for my successor.”
Ralston had said if re-elected, he intended to continue as a member of the House. He was unopposed for the 7th House district seat.
Republican Gov. Brian Kemp issued an announcement in honor of Ralston’s passing.
“Today, our state lost one of its giants, our family lost a dear friend, and all Georgians lost a true leader,” he said, adding that he has ordered flags to be flown at half-staff in Speaker Ralston’s honor, and that Ralston shall lie in state in the Georgia State Capitol.
“Speaker Ralston was a pioneer in the growth of Georgia’s Republican leadership and leaves an indelible mark on this state. His last session as speaker will long be remembered for his landmark mental health reform bill, helping Georgians fight through inflation, and passing a historic income tax cut that puts more money in the pockets of taxpayers for years to come,” Kemp said in a lengthier statement.
“We are also especially proud of our previous bipartisan efforts on reforming the citizens’ arrest law and adding an anti-hate crime statute to the Georgia code, which would not have happened without the Speaker’s steadfast leadership. These historic accomplishments were only a handful of the numerous hallmarks of David Ralston’s decades-long service to Georgia.”
“A great pine tree has fallen in the Georgia House of Representatives,” said former Georgia State Rep. Calvin Smyre—a Democrat, the longest-serving member of the Georgia House, and Ralston’s friend.
Georgia House Democrat Leader Gloria Butler, said in a statement: “Our policy differences aside, we found Speaker Ralston to be measured and level-handed … His absence will be felt throughout Georgia, but his legacy and memory will live on.”
A biography (pdf) on the state government’s website calls Ralston a “driving force” behind many laws passed in the state that made Georgia the “#1 state in the nation for business year after year.” These include Georgia’s Transportation Funding Act of 2015, and the state’s first-ever cut to the income tax rate in 2018.
Ralston also worked to advance a bill following the 2020 presidential election that would have reformed the state’s election laws, including over absentee voting, voter ID for absentee voting, time limits for voting, and more. The bill was opposed by many state Democrats. Kemp later signed into law the Republican-dominated state Senate’s version of an election reform bill, which had some overlap with the House bill.
This year, Ralston oversaw the passing of Georgia’s Mental Health Parity Act, a reform that “transforms both access to and delivery of mental health services and treatment options throughout the state.”
Ralston in 2011 was honored as “Georgian of the Year” by Georgia Trend Magazine, and in 2018 was honored by the Zell Miller Foundation with the Zell Miller Award for Distinguished Public Service.
Ralston “has previously served as President of the Fannin County Chamber of Commerce and the Blue Ridge Mountains Arts Association.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.