"Congressman John Lewis (D-GA, 5th Congressional District), in paying tribute to his longtime friend, Senator Johnny Isakson, recently reminded his colleagues in Congress that you can cross the aisle without compromising your values," Georgia House Speaker David Ralston (R-District 18), during his remarks to the Legacy Dinner of the Conservative Policy Leadership Institute (CPLI) on January 24, 2020 at the Capital City Club in Atlanta.
Founded as the Coverdell Policy Institute, named for two term U.S. Senator and Georgia GOP pioneer, Paul Coverdell, the CPLI educates and trains future potential conservative leaders for public service and policy development in Georgia. Last year's Legacy Dinner keynote was newly elected Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan, and this year's remarks and lessons in leadership were shared by his State House peer, Georgia House Speaker David Ralston.
Ralston has led the Georgia House now for just over a decade, and he focused his remarks on lessons in leadership and principle which he had drawn and learned from three outstanding and memorable Georgians. Senator Johnny Isakson, Governor and later U.S. Senator Zell Miller as well as his own father, Willard Ralston, who served as the Clerk of Court for Gilmer County for 28 years.
Ralston, who was Republican before it was 'cool' in Georgia referenced the days when folks like Coverdell and Isakson could combine and hold their House and State Senate GOP Caucus meetings together fitting inside of a phone booth on the Capitol's Fourth Floor.
Ralston reminded the crowd that leaders like Isakson might be hard to find today. Johnny as he is known to most, served Georgia and our nation first in the National Guard, and subsequently was elected to the State House, State Senate, U.S. House and U.S. Senate, as well as appointed to critical positions such as Chair of the State School Board. A public service and leadership record of 45 years, echoed by simultaneous successes in the business world and private sector.
Ralston was raised in north Georgia, and regardless of one's political leanings in his lifetime and home territory, it was hard to escape the teachings, wit and wisdom of longtime Lieutant Governor, later two-term Governor and U.S. Senator Zell Miller. The former college history teacher and Marine was a lifelong Democrat, though many believed he switched his allegiance while supporting George W. Bush for re-election as for President in 2004. Miller, who is perhaps the only man to have the honor of keynoting both the Democratic National Convention in 1992 (while nominating William Jefferson Clinton for President) and later the GOP gathering in NYC in 2004, Miller pointed out that national security concerns simply trumped party loyalty. At his funeral in Atlanta in 2018, Miller was eulogized by three former Presidents, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.
Miller was a devout Democrat, just as the Speaker and his family were lifelong Republicans. The Speaker's father greatly admired Miller, but never voted for him. Miller, who understood that kind of thinking and loyalty once told the senior Ralston that he was right about "Sticking to his principles," even if that meant Miller did not secure his vote.
Clerk Ralston repeatedly told his son, "If you want to be principled, worry more about what you do, than what folks think about you."
Fortunately the son received that message well from his father. Running a chamber of 180 members in two-parties and numerous sub-factions too numerous to tally does not work well if you seek to win a popularity contest. Whether leveling the playing field for sales tax collections between brick and mortar merchants and the growing E-Commerce sector, attempting to honor campaign promises and financial commitments made to Georgia educators or further whittling down the tax burden on Georgia tax-payers, the Speaker's job must continually build consensus, while being respectful and listening to all voices, and ultimately delivering a balanced budget for sign-off by the State Senate and Governor.
Leading in hard times is challenging, but leading in good times is no picnic. Ralston hopes to lead the Georgia GOP caucus not only to victory, but to regaining several of metro area seats lost in the shifting purple tide of the last election cycle. A few folks in that CPLI audience may be among those seeking to shift those tides back.
There are few places or people they might seek out for better counsel, or even learning some shared mentoring lessons from a few of the greats than Speaker Ralston. Hear, hear Mr. Speaker.