David Ralston is now being mentioned as a possible candidate for governor in 2018, which leads to an obvious question.
Why would someone want to run for governor when they’re already the speaker of the Georgia House?
The speaker is one of the most powerful persons in state government. Thanks to the generosity of lobbyists, he can eat and drink without ever paying for it and even get a free trip to Europe.
House speakers are not term-limited, either. As long as your caucus supports what you’re doing and remains in control of the House, you can be speaker for as long as you like (Tom Murphy managed to hold on to the job for more than 28 years).
The events of the past week, however, lead me to believe there may be something to the rumors after Ralston’s candidacy.
He delivered a luncheon speech before one of the state’s largest media organizations, the Atlanta Press Club, and was asked whether he wanted to run for governor.
He could have put any speculation to rest with a simple answer of no. Instead, he gave such coy replies as, "I don't think it's appropriate to think or talk about that particularly during a legislative session. I mean, we have enough distractions as it is."
And there was this variation on the old chestnut: "The job I have now I'm incredibly honored to have, so I'm happy to die in this office. Some days I think I'm pretty close to it."
In addition to his refusal to say no, Ralston is also getting out in front of some serious policy issues.
Normally, speakers of the House don’t take a leading role on policy initiatives. Their job is to preside over the House and keep the legislative process moving in a prescribed manner. There really isn’t much time to get involved in serious policy leadership.
But Ralston has created a rural policy advisory council and made a show of appearing before the House Economic Development Committee last week to talk about it. He is appointing 15 House members to this special committee and they will spend the next 20 months developing ideas for how to bring more jobs to economically stressed rural Georgia.
"The bright light of economic development and growth is not shining on every part of our state," Ralston said in his Press Club speech. "We have talked about this divide for too long."
Ralston also set up a new House subcommittee earlier this year that is focusing on how to generate funding for transportation infrastructure, especially mass transit.
"Transportation now is an increasingly big deal, as it should be," Ralston said just before the session started. "Transit's an important part of that. I think we have to recognize that transit is not only part of congestion mitigation, it's economic development."
He is taking a hands-on approach to the issues that are sure to be part of the next governor’s race, when voters will be choosing a replacement for the termed-out Nathan Deal. It seems highly likely that a person taking on that sort of role is thinking seriously about running for the office himself.
What sort of record would a candidate Ralston have to offer? He can justifiably claim that he helped clean up the mess in the House of Representatives when the former speaker, Glenn Richardson, was enmeshed in scandal.
On the other hand, after he was elected speaker, Ralston was slow to recognize that lobbyist spending on legislators, including himself, was getting out of hand. He only grudgingly came around to support legislation that placed a few limits on what lobbyists could spend to influence lawmakers.
If Ralston decides to run for governor, he will have to contend with a crowded field in the Republican primary. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle has essentially spent the last eight years preparing to run for governor, as has Secretary of State Brian Kemp. Former congressman Lynn Westmoreland is still hinting that he might jump into the race as well. The doors are wide open on this one.
Ralston has made no definitive statement yet on what his plans are for 2018. If he does indeed enter the governor’s race, it shouldn’t be a huge surprise to anyone.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an internet news service at gareport.com that reports on state government and politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.