David Ralston became Speaker of Georgia’s House in 2010. While most outsiders were secure in knowing that Georgia had spent the past 8 years flipping to a solidly Republican state, there were serious problems below the surface.
The GOP front runner to succeed Governor Sonny Perdue was mired in scandal, resulting in an indictment just this year. The General Assembly was operating more akin to a fraternity house than a legislative body. There were scandals there too. Some were very real and public, some rumored with exaggerated hyperbole.
Ralston made a public stand against the way the House was operating in 2008, taking the rare move of challenging a sitting Speaker. He lost that vote 75 to 25 and was briefly “exiled to Siberia” along with most of his inner circle. Less than two years later, he was elected Speaker to put the House back on solid footing.
2010 was a unique year in Georgia Politics. In addition to most statewide offices having open contests with no incumbents, elected officials were having to deal with the rise of bloggers and social media. At the time I was actively blogging about many of these scandals, sometimes contributing to the rumors and fanning the flames of hyperbole.
Though I had much experience with campaigns and many of Georgia’s elected officials, I wrote very much as an outsider at that time. My time had been spent on elections and with the grassroots, not at the Capitol. I did not appreciate the difference between the idealistic platitudes of campaigns and the strategic pragmatism required to effectively govern.
I was quite happy that Ralston the reformer was chosen as Speaker. I then quickly became a critic when I saw what I interpreted as an incomplete overhaul of key committee chairmen.
I openly asked if he didn’t understand why he was elected and the mission of reforms that were needed. I now marvel at the arrogance and piety it took to write those words and hit publish. In my defense, I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
Bloggers weren’t welcome at the Capitol in those days. We were viewed as irresponsible rumor mongers, and most didn’t want to be seen talking to us in public – lest they be viewed as one of our sources. Speaker Ralston, taking a different path, invited me to his office for a meeting to discuss my concerns.
The Speaker began with a quick statement on ground rules. We would have an open and honest conversation and I could ask whatever I wanted. The only stipulation was that what was said stayed in that room. We could continue our dialogue so long as I kept my end of the bargain. I of course agreed.
He then said succinctly, “I understand you don’t like some of my decisions. Why?”
I then got a direct stare that I learned to become familiar with. He genuinely wanted to hear the answer, but at the same time the seriousness of the question was conveyed. We were now beyond pleasantries.
I told him, quite candidly, what my concerns were. He listened, and only interrupted for clarification, until I was finished. He then sat back and gave me another one of those looks for effect, and then he began his answer, paraphrased:
“This House is hurting. We’re already in session. The work done here isn’t done just in 40 days. We have less than two months to get the business of the state done. I’m the Speaker of the House – the whole House – and I have to protect all 179 other members who are hurting. I have some broad shoulders, and it’s my job to take the criticism so they can get their work done. I’m willing to do that, and you may write what you will. I only ask that you watch me, and you watch them, and let’s have this conversation in about a year again and tell me if you think we are still on the wrong track.”
We did have that conversation almost a year later. It was less formal and certainly less tense. This time he asked most of the questions. They were wide ranging and probing. They were not on easily discussed topics.
He made it clear he wanted candid answers. Too many greet leaders with flattery, and tell them what they believe they want to hear.
I was dumb enough to be candid and blunt. Sometimes he found that amusing. Sometimes I would hit a nerve and get another look that you didn’t want to get. But the visits became more frequent, and though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was getting a formal education in how governing actually works while I was sharing my assessments and opinions.
With apologies for making this column too much about me, consider this one a belated thank you note to Speaker David Ralston. In addition to the many things he’s done for this state, he took the time to challenge, educate, and redirect me to a much more responsible use of my platform. Most Georgians will never understand the weight that has been carried on those broad shoulders. I remain indebted that my personal development was included with the many more pressing matters of his burdens.