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Columns Tom Baxter

A new speaker takes the gavel in a House that may be harder to handle

By Tom Baxter

Rep. David Ralston’s announcement that he was stepping down as House speaker was overshadowed by Election Day four days later, which is probably what Ralston intended.

Though he did it quietly, Ralston giving up the gavel has a lot of implications for the way things are going to work under the Golden Dome — some might say as many as the election results. Though he has his critics in both parties, Ralston has been a steadying force through the partisan battles of recent years. He announced that a health problem prevents him from continuing the strenuous duties of the speaker, but he is not resigning from his legislative seat.

The House next year is expected to be a picture painted in redder reds and bluer blues, and Ralston’s successor will have an even more difficult time holding the reins. That demanding job will fall to House Majority Leader Jon Burns, who won the Republican caucus election Monday morning, fending off a harder-right challenge from Rep. Barry Fleming. It won’t be the last time his party’s more conservative members challenge him.

Burns comes to the post from a somewhat different trajectory than his predecessors. He was an elected member of the state Department of Transportation Board before his election to the House in 2004. That gives him experience in two important bodies in state government. He’s from Effingham County, part of the Savannah metropolitan area. That, along with the election to lieutenant governor of Bert Jones, from Jackson, about 50 miles southeast of Atlanta, constitutes a major geographical shift from the days not long ago when the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker were all from northeast Georgia.

The House will have a 101-79 Republican majority, two less than in the last session. The Republicans will have a Senate majority of 33-23, one less than in the last session. Those incremental gains by the Democrats are part of one of the most important but little-noticed stories of this election.

In 2010, Barack Obama’s first midterm, the Democrats lost the majority in 20 state legislative chambers. Through control of the redistricting process in a majority of states since then, Republicans have solidified their advantage in the legislatures and Congress. There was no expectation this year would be different.

“The legislative map remains frozen in time,” a story in Governing, which covers state legislatures as thoroughly as any publication, reported shortly before the election.

In what may really be the biggest surprise of last week’s election, the legislative map thawed somewhat.

Since 1934, the party which holds the White House has lost its majority in at least one state legislative chamber. This year the Democrats didn’t lose a chamber and increased their numbers in legislatures across the country. They flipped both chambers in Michigan from Republican to Democrat, as well as the Pennsylvania House and the Minnesota Senate. There’s still a long way back from the legislative bloodbath of 2010, but this election has given Democrats hope they’ve reached a turning point.

The experts didn’t see this one coming, either: First-time, Muslim women candidates were a big factor for the Democrats, in Georgia and across the country.

Nabilah Islam, a daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants who grew up in Gwinnett County, became the first Muslim woman, and at age 32, the youngest woman to be elected to the state Senate. She joins state Sen. Sheikh Rahman, who was elected in 2018.

In the House, Ruwa Romman became the first Palestinian elected to any office in Georgia. She joins Farooq Mughal, the first Muslim man to be elected to the House.

All four of the legislators are from Gwinnett County, and together they will comprise the second-largest Muslim delegation in the country, only one seat behind Minnesota.

For the next three weeks, politics in Georgia will remain focused on the U.S. Senate runoff. But soon enough, the General Assembly will be gaveled into order by a new team. It should be an interesting session.

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Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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