By Maria Saporta
It was like a breath of fresh air.
Republican David Ralston celebrated his first month as speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives on Thursday by giving a talk to the Atlanta Press Club.
Even Ralston seemed humbly surprised that he now was one of the most important elected leaders in Georgia.
“I’m truly honored to be the speaker,” Ralston said. “Three months ago, I was somewhat making a living in Blue Ridge as a lawyer. The world has changed.”
The twisted personal and political agendas of former House Speaker Glenn Richardson are gone. The ethical and moral weaknesses that plagued the House leadership a year ago have been replaced by a speaker who visibly cares about honor and public service.
“The House has turned a page,” Ralston said. What is most important now is for the House to restore confidence so that voters trust their elected officials “to do their business.”
One of Ralston’s first moves was to rewrite House rules, opening up the political process and allowing the news media back to the floor of the House. It all is part of making “the process more inclusive,” Ralston said.
Instead of punishing people who disagree with him, Ralston appeared to welcome diverse ideas.
“I learn a lot from people who disagree with me,” said Ralston, who characteristically quickly injected humor. “I don’t find as many people who disagree with me as I did a month ago.”
Still, Ralston said he meets regularly with the House Democratic leadership and the with the Black Caucus. It’s all part of an effort to create bipartisanship.
“Tonight we are having a fund-raiser, not to raise money for politicians, but a fund-raiser for Haiti — Democrats and Republicans in the Clinton-Bush model.”
Ralston said he has developed a closer relationship with the Senate leadership and with the governor. They don’t always agree, but “we work those differences out in a respectful civil way.”
About Atlanta, Ralston said he has formed a partnership with newly-elected Mayor Kasim Reed.
“This is the capital of Georgia. This is the economic engine of Georgia,” Ralston said of Atlanta. “There are not two Georgias. There is one Georgia.”
Do you feel that breath of fresh air?
Ralston did not sugarcoat the tough choices that the Legislature will have to make to reach a balanced budget in a era of declining revenues.
“We are going to be doing things that are going to be unpopular,” Ralston said. “The toys are going to be postponed or eliminated.”
Instead, Ralston said the focus will be on taking “care of those who are least able to take care of themselves,” and on core services, such as education and public safety.
“We are going to get through this budget, and we are going to do the right thing for Georgia,” Ralston said.
The speech took place three hours before a joint transportation press conference between Gov. Sonny Perdue, Lt. Gov. Sonny Perdue and Speaker Ralston. And clearly, transportation was on Ralston’s mind.
“Transportation is going to be a big issue,” Ralston said, adding that in the past, transportation is an issue where civility is more needed and has been more lacking in the past few years.
A transportation funding bill must pass “so that Georgia can come into the 21st Century with transportation infrastructure,” Ralston said. “I don’t want to go back to Blue Ridge until that bill gets done.”
Ralston also spoke of how Georgia needs to do a better job applying the ethics laws that are on the books and that those laws should apply to not just legislators and lobbyists but should apply to state departments and agencies across the board and “bring them under the umbrella of laws of the state legislature.”
At the end of his speech, Ralston was upbeat.
“We are having a good year,” Ralston said. “I get up every day and look forward to going to work and wonder if that’s the day the wheels are going to come off.”
Let’s hope for Georgia’s sake that Ralston with his refreshing style of leadership stays in the driver’s seat with all the wheels intact.