ATLANTA — David Ralston, the speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives, died Wednesday following an extended illness.
His death was announced by spokesperson Kaleb McMichen in a news release. Ralston was 68-years-old.
Ralston, who has served in the position since 2010, recently announced he would not seek another term as speaker, citing health challenges. Friends said Ralston was stricken with COVID-19 and subsequently hospitalized.
Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) was a conservative advocate of the 'heartbeat' abortion law and expanded gun rights. Yet, he was beloved by Republicans and Democrats. Last year, Ralston put his muscle behind a bill to expand mental health services, a bill Democrats sought.
Friends and advocates mourned his passing Wednesday. "It's a huge loss for Georgia," said state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Decatur), who served with Ralston in the state Senate in the 90s. They both left the senate to run for statewide office -- Ralston, for Attorney General and Oliver for Lieutenant Governor. Both lost and later won House seats.
"His skill at being speaker, controlling the House -- which can be a very cantankerous group -- was very inspiring to me," Oliver said. "He never lost his temper. He treated people respectfully."
Before his death, Ralston was the nation's longest-serving active speaker of a state house. His legislative biography highlights several of his legislative achievements, including Georgia’s Transportation Funding Act of 2015 and the state’s first-ever cut to the income tax rate in 2018.
“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 13 years ago,” Ralston previously 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 represented Georgia’s 7th House district which includes Fannin and Gilmer counties and a portion of Dawson County. He was first elected to the state house in 2002. Ralston also served in Georgia State Senate from 1992 to 1998.
In recent years, the speaker also supported new hate crimes legislation and the repeal of the citizen's arrest law. During the most recent legislative session, Ralston and Oliver spearheaded a bipartisan effort to reform the state's mental health care. The measure passed without opposition.
As outlined in the Georgia State Constitution, Speaker Pro Tempore Jan Jones (R-Milton) became the 74th Speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives for the remainder of the term which ends in January.
State Rep. Jon Burns, who was tapped as Ralston's replacement earlier this week, will serve as House speaker when the new term begins.
Arrangements for Ralston's funeral are pending.