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Ga. House Republicans choose Ralston for speaker

Photo by RIC FELD

Photo by RIC FELD

ATLANTA -- A year ago, state Rep. David Ralston was the leader of a failed coup attempt, making a lonely argument that House Speaker Glenn Richardson was unfit to lead the GOP. Ralston was stripped of a prized committee chairmanship for his disloyalty.

On Thursday, the North Georgia lawyer won a caucus election Thursday to be the GOP nominee for speaker, while Richardson gave a tearful speech and fled the Capitol in the throes of a sex scandal.

Ralston still faces a vote by the full House when they return to Atlanta on Jan. 11, but Republicans hold a 105-74 majority in the chamber and he's almost certain to prevail.

He will have his hands full steadying a chamber reeling from weeks of turmoil surrounding Richardson and heading into a state budget crunch of historic proportions.

''This House, that's been battered over the last few weeks in very significant way, has told Georgians that they're ready to change,'' Ralston told reporters.

''It's not business as usual anymore.''

Thursday's vote by secret ballot was widely viewed as a rebuke to Richardson's heavy-handed and punitive leadership style. A self-described reformer, Ralston has vowed to strengthen ethics laws and end the so-called ''hawk system'' in which a hand-picked group of GOP lawmakers cast votes on any committee to help influence the outcome.

Richardson is stepping down Jan. 1 after explosive allegations from his ex-wife that he had an affair with a lobbyist. Richardson had revealed just weeks before that he attempted suicide.

The first GOP speaker of the House since Reconstruction, Richardson did not go quietly.

He offered an emotional farewell speech from the House podium on Thursday, fighting back tears and pausing several times to collect himself as he described his Nov. 8 suicide attempt. He said he tried to kill himself after he realized he could not repair his marriage.

''I am emotional because this is the end for me,'' Richardson said. ''It's time for a new speaker to lead us through challenging times.''

Ralston told his fellow legislators Thursday he offers an alternative: ''I'm a pretty simple guy with a pretty simple life.''

Opposing Ralston was state Rep. Larry O'Neal of Bonaire, a one-time lawyer to Gov. Sonny Perdue who was viewed as the favorite going into Thursday's elections.

But O'Neal came with his own ethics baggage. On Wednesday he revealed in a note to members that the Internal Revenue Service investigated tax legislation he wrote that saved Perdue about $100,000 in taxes on a Florida land deal. While O'Neal said he was exonerated, the news also dredged up old ethics allegations that had dogged Republicans during the 2006 race for governor.

Ralston, a former candidate for state attorney general, is known as a law-and-order conservative who pushed for tough restrictions on sex offenders in Georgia.

But he is not blemish-free. Ralston has faced questions over back taxes. He paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in delinquent personal income taxes from 1996 to 2005. Ralston has blamed a bookkeeper who pleaded guilty to embezzling from him.

Democrats nonetheless attacked him on the issue.

''What this election proves is that Glenn Richardson wasn't the only rotten apple in the Republican caucus,'' Democratic Party of Georgia chairwoman Jane Kidd said in a statement.

State Rep. Bill Hembree, of Winston, chairman of the House higher education committee, also sought the speakership but was knocked out in the first round of balloting on Thursday.

The Richardson saga clearly reverberated throughout the race as candidates sought to claim the ethical high ground, pledging that they would never embarrass the GOP or abuse their power

''I have no skeletons in my closet, no lingering ethics complaints,'' Hembree said. ''I offer a clean slate.''

O'Neal pledged he would ''not stand by in the future and let the indiscretions of a few tarnish the reputations of the rest of this group.''

Richardson refused to speak to the press as he has since news of his suicide attempt broke.

Following the vote for the new speaker, the man who was once one of the most powerful figures in Georgia politics was seen dashing from the Capitol, grim-faced with a television camera on his heels.