Glenn Richardson talks about a public affair, suicide attempts and finding himself after political demise. (11Alive)
ATLANTA - Glenn Richardson helped engineer one of the greatest political upheavals in Georgia history only to see it slip away. As Speaker of the House, he sat atop the machine that overtook a declining Democratic party, orchestrating the first Republican majority in state politics since Reconstruction.
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He was paid handsomely. He had a family. And still, it wasn't enough.
After an affair with a lobbyist, a failed marriage, bouts of depression, two attempts at suicide and a secret meeting with the top lawmakers and his closest confidants at the Governor's mansion, it was all gone.
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"I think it was a combination of thrusting me into that role and I wasn't ready for it. And also not having any help," Richardson said Monday from his Hiram home. "I had all the power, all the money and I wasn't happy. Now I have no power, no money, but I have my family and I'm happy."
For the first time since the scandal broke two years ago, Richardson told 11Alive's Jaye Watson about his meteoric rise and precipitous fall, his unrivaled ego and the depths of depression.
"More people will die of suicide this calendar year than murder in the United States. And yet when we hear about it we go, 'I wonder what's wrong with them?' Well they've got an illness just like cancer."
From humble beginnings to the heights of power
As a young boy on a chicken farm, Glenn Richardson wanted more. He dreamed of one day being Governor of Georgia or President of the United States. His star rose quickly in Georgia politics and he went from a smalltime lawyer, to fledgling legislator to house minority leader, to Speaker of the House in 2004. In just five years, he had gone from isolation on the backbench to wielding the gavel of the speaker.
"It's hard for men to be thrust into leadership roles and expect them to stay the same man they are," Richardson said.
Richardson was fierce, eloquent and impassioned. He represented the new Republican Party that would not bow to the Democrat establishment. He bedeviled the former leaders out of power once and for all.
But he could be equally quarrelsome with his own party. He could be pugnacious with people who disagreed with him, including then Governor Sonny Perdue, accusing him of "showing his backside" over a budget debate.
"I didn't have people in between. I had people that either loved me or hated me. I still think that's the way it is," he said.
But then came an ethics complaint by Democratic opposition, accusing him of an "inappropriate" relationship with a lobbyist working for Atlanta Gas Light. Richardson, they alleged, was trying to push through an AGL plan to build a $300 million pipeline across the state.
"I did absolutely nothing to push it through. I did the exact opposite. I tried to stay away from it once I figured out what it was," he said.
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Richardson would not acknowledge the relationship and the complaint was eventually dismissed. But the whiff of impropriety would follow him.
"If we fired every person from every job that had had an affair the unemployment would be 50-60 percent," Richardson said.
Through a review of ethics records, 11Alive found that Richardson accepted $667 from a number of lobbyists on AGL's behalf in 2006, less than 10 percent of the lobbyist gifts he received that year.
11Alive found Richardson accepted more than $55,000 in dinners, lavish trips, golf outings and sporting tickets over his five-year tenure as Speaker of the House. Yet he denies the money impacted his record.
"I think people sometimes think 'oh that's an expensive dinner it somehow influenced your vote,'" Richardson said. "It rarely influenced anything. It got information in a social context. For a long time in this country we have shared meals with information. That's all it is. Going to a ballgame or a golf tournament going hunting is a way to get your mind off all the other stress to talk about an issue."
Still, the damage had been done. His wife Susan would divorce him and his family was in tatters.
"The longer I was speaker, the more pressure came on, the more stress, and then I lost my family in the divorce. The wheels started coming off."
The walls come down
All of this was fodder for Gold Dome rumor trading until two moments that changed it all. His wife interviewed with a local television station, exposing his affair in detail. Richardson could only watch as it set off a precipitous chain of events that left his future as de facto party leader in question.
The Capitol was agog. The Speaker was nowhere to be seen and his future was uncertain at best.
Even more shocking, two weeks before, Glenn Richardson tried to commit suicide. Richardson had been coping with depression for more than 20 years, since his time as a law student. He began taking medication in 2005.
But this was different. He researched the lethal cocktail he would need to kill himself, and started stockpiling prescription drugs.
He says he took over 400 Ambien and 40 Hydrocodone in a "tight little quantity of time".
He called his children, telling them only he loved them and they would talk later.
His mother later told him he had called her, saying he had taken pills, and that it was too late.
Richardson's parents rushed to his house and called 911. He was unconscious when paramedics arrived, a gun, one of many he owns, nearby. When his children came to see him, he was unconscious in the ICU.
"The doctors told my family that I was probably not going to make it through the night. My children had to walk in and see me laying there on life support."
Richardson said he had begun taking Ambien because of trouble sleeping at night and painkillers for his leg after a fall. The pressure had become unbearable and things were rapidly falling apart.
"Killing yourself doesn't end the pain it just transfers it to someone else," Richardson said. "Because while you're gone all that pain that goes to your mother, your father, you children, your sisters, your brother, your friends. And it's not an answer."
"If one person heard me say, 'you mean to tell me a guy that could be the Speaker of the House, one of the most powerful men in Georgia, wanted to die? Wow, maybe my uncle, my brother, my cousin that I'm worried about could do the same thing.' And here's the answer," Richardson said. "Reach out to them, try to understand and love them."
The secret meeting
After news of his attempted suicide became public, Richardson was finished. What was once just rumors of peccadilloes and pointed fingers had become a problem with his ability to not only lead but could potentially jeopardize Republicans' delicate new hold on state politics.
"I think there's a perception that if you're going to be a leader you can't have any fallibility. And they didn't want me there in that mental state."
Richardson said he saw his circle of supporters evaporate, with only the true friends sticking by his side. "I just got good clarity on who they really were," he said. "The people who were acquaintances left in a hurry, who said they were friends. And I haven't heard from them since."
On Dec. 2, Richardson was called to a meeting at the Governor's Mansion.
"They got me there under false pretenses and they had my closest confidants, about 15 to 20 people in the room," Richardson said. "I didn't realize all those people were going to be there. They didn't tell me. And they told me it was time for me to go."
Richardson was awestruck. "[Governor Perdue] laid his hands on me and he prayed for me. It was their belief if I didn't go it was going to be the end of the Republican Party in Georgia," he said. "We'd never win another office, lose the majority, that I had to go."
Days later rumors circulated that he was back in the Capitol and would make a speech. Then, Glenn Richardson took the dais one last time to say goodbye to his "dear friends" and exited public life for good.
A new life
Things have improved for Glenn Richardson. Despite making what he says is one third the salary he used to, he is still working as an attorney. His life has returned to normal and two of his children live with him in Hiram.
"I feel good today. I still get emotional. But I'm not depressed. I'm sad. I'm upset at some of the stuff because of what I did, but it will be okay. I just live differently. I don't get in a rush to get things done so much. I stop I look I take it in and enjoy it. Simple things. Drinking coffee out on that back deck."
His son has married. His father died of cancer this year. Richardson said he spent 70 of his father's last 74 days at his side, holding his hand as he took his last breath.
There are still those who are angry at him, for putting the party at risk, for creating a sideshow, for acting selfishly, for never apologizing.
"I'm not proud of the mistakes I made and I'm sorry. And to the extent they said, 'Glenn didn't ever say he was sorry,' I am sorry," Richardson said. "I'm sorry to everybody that got hurt because of my actions. But I didn't set about to hurt anybody. I just made some mistakes."
He will not rule out another run for office, but said he would never rule out anything.
"I still have something to give. I still could if people could forgive me enough, if they could look past my mistakes," he said.