House Speaker David Ralston lies in state at Capitol 

Former House Speaker David Ralston, who died last week, will lie in state under the Gold Dome in Atlanta on Tuesday and Wednesday (photo: Rebecca Grapevine).

ATLANTA – Legislators from across Georgia and across party lines gathered underneath the Gold Dome Tuesday to pay tribute to former House Speaker David Ralston, who died last week and will lie in state at the Capitol until Wednesday morning.  

“He was a loyal friend through times of victory and loss,” Gov. Brian Kemp told the assembled mourners, who included Ralston’s family members as well as many state lawmakers.

“At times, he governed the House with an iron fist but also a big soft heart. That is why he was so respected and admired.”  

“Those who frequently disagree with each other can still come together to achieve extraordinary things,” Kemp said of Ralston’s approach to politics. 

Kemp listed some of Ralston’s key accomplishments: A mental health reform bill passed earlier this year, a 2020 hate crimes bill, and a 2015 transportation funding package.  

After serving for more than a decade in the state Senate, Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, was first elected to the House in 2002. In 2010, he assumed the position of speaker, which he held for more than a decade until his death last week.   

“Of all those friends I’ve had the privilege of knowing, David Ralston was unique,” said Len Walker, who was Ralston’s pastor and, prior to that, served with Ralston in the Georgia House of Representatives. “He was one of a kind and I treasure his memory.”   

Walker, a Republican who represented Loganville, described how his conversations with Ralston while in the House often started off with legislation but quickly transformed into explorations of deep topics such as theology, life and death.  

“I treasured the conversations we had,” Walker said. “He was a friend who would build you up …. [and] make you feel better about what you were trying to do in this state Capitol.”  

Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, credited Ralston for the passage of a major mental health bill earlier this year.  

“We passed a very significant mental health reform bill because of David Ralston’s leadership. It would never have happened without him,” Oliver said. “He was committed from the beginning. I think his cause for reform will go on beyond today.”  

Ralston was well known for maintaining a civil atmosphere in the Georgia House. 

“Speaker Ralston and I had a unique relationship,” said former Democratic Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus. 

Ralston did not shy away from challenges, said Smyre, who was chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. Smyre pointed to the former speaker’s success with this year’s mental health reform bill and the 2015 transportation package.  

“He loved those heavy lifters,” Smyre said. “Politically, he had a two-way street and not a one-way alley. You could go back and forth with him, reason with him.”  

“Though there were major differences under the Gold Dome, there was a sense of civility, that you could disagree without being disagreeable,” Smyre added. “A giant tree has fallen.”  

Ralston surprised Georgians earlier this month when he announced he would not run for the leadership position next year. His death followed soon thereafter. House Majority Leader Jon Burns, R-Newington, is expected to succeed Ralston as speaker during the next legislative session, which will begin in January.  

Ralston’s body will lie in state in the Rotunda of the state Capitol until Wednesday morning. A funeral service at Fannin County High School Performing Arts Center in Blue Ridge is planned for 1 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 27.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.  

Counties gearing up for weekend early voting ahead of Senate runoff

Photo by Beau Evans

ATLANTA – At least 13 Georgia counties will be holding weekend early voting this Saturday ahead of the Dec. 6 U.S. Senate runoff election between incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker.

Counties including Chatham, Clarke, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, Gwinnett, Muscogee, and Walton counties are moving forward with weekend early voting after the Georgia Court of Appeals turned back a challenge mounted by Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office.

Immediately after the results of the Nov. 8 election put Warnock and Walker into a runoff, the secretary of state’s office indicated that Saturday, Nov. 26, would be set aside as a weekend early voting day.

Subsequently, however, Raffensperger said it would be illegal to hold early voting on that day, citing a state law that prohibits runoffs on any day immediately following a state holiday. Besides Thanksgiving Day this Thursday, Friday is a state holiday.

The Warnock campaign, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and the Democratic Party of Georgia filed a lawsuit arguing the law the secretary of state cited applies to primary and general elections but not to runoffs.

A Fulton County Superior Court judge ruled late last week in favor of the plaintiffs, and the state Court of Appeals upheld that decision on Monday.

“This ruling is a victory for every Georgia voter,” Quentin Fulks, Warnock’s campaign manager, said in a joint statement with the two other plaintiffs. “We look forward to counties across the state providing voters the opportunity to cast their ballots on Saturday, November 26th.”

The Georgia Republican Party, Republican National Committee (RNC) and National Republican Senatorial Committee have joined forces to appeal the decision to the Georgia Supreme Court.

“Georgians deserve better than Democrats scheming to change election laws in the 11th hour,” RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said Tuesday. “This flawed ruling benefits a handful of wealthy Democrat counties at the expense of basic election integrity and cannot be allowed to stand.”

The court ruling makes weekend early voting optional for Georgia’s 159 counties.

Voting rights groups urged county election officials Tuesday to allow weekend early voting in their communities.

“Georgians deserve more than five or six days of early voting,” said Stephanie Ali, policy director for the New Georgia Project.

“Weekend early voting options should be universal and not be dependent on where in the state a voter lives, added Aunna Dennis, executive director of Common Cause Georgia.

“I have no doubt that the people of our state will overcome those barriers in this December 6 runoff election and turn out to vote. But we, the people, need to keep pushing for equitable access to the ballot in our state so that we can work towards building a government that truly is of, by, and for the people.”

Mandatory early voting statewide will run from Monday, Nov. 28, through Friday, Dec. 2.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.  

New initiative seeks to increase the diversity of companies that contract with the state 

The Department of Administrative Services’s Small Business and Supplier Diversity Manager Julian Bailey will help oversee the state’s efforts to increase supplier diversity.

ATLANTA  – From fish sticks and canned fruit to feed prisoners to a 22-foot pontoon boat for the state Department of Natural Resources, Georgia buys a lot of goods and services to keep the state running.  

State and local government contracts with businesses to provide goods and services amount to about $4.5 billion each year.

A report the Georgia Department of Administrative Services (DOAS) issued last month outlines steps the state could take to ensure small and minority-owned businesses have a shot at winning those lucrative pieces of the state business pie. 

The report stems from an executive order Gov. Brian Kemp signed last July requiring the DOAS to explore ways to increase the amount of state business conducted by small businesses and businesses owned by minorities, women and veterans.

The agency surveyed more than 600 small businesses to learn about their experiences with the state’s contracting process. The survey remains open, but the DOAS has already compiled and published the first round of the results. 

The DOAS has named Julian Bailey, who has been with the agency for close to a decade, as its small business and supplier diversity manager. Bailey will work to increase engagement with the targeted business groups.  

“The push is to make sure that we’re leveling the playing field for all these businesses, that they’re no longer left behind, that they have an opportunity to be able to participate in the state’s bid processes,” Bailey told Capitol Beat.

Many businesspeople who responded to the survey said they often do not know about relevant opportunities and lack sufficient time or staff to develop bids. These small businesses also lack ready access to capital or fall short of the insurance and bond amounts required to do business with the state.  

The new report recommends appointing a small business liaison at each state agency and University System of Georgia institutions to help facilitate business owners’ access to the bidding process. The liaison would conduct outreach and training and help identify bid opportunities. 

The state also should increase its “matchmaking” services for businesses interested in the bidding process. This would give small business owners the chance to meet representatives from larger contractors and state agencies and showcase their offerings.  

“We plan to partner with all these different organizations, all these different chambers [of commerce] at the local level, to make sure that we are not leaving anyone behind,” Bailey said. “We’re making sure that everyone is able to participate in the state’s bid process.”

The report said Georgia should test out an informal bidding process that would allow businesses to submit informal bids via email for contracts that are $100,000 or less. Such a system would encourage small businesses that are deterred by complex bidding processes.

The state also should decrease the insurance and bond requirements for some state contracts to increase the number of businesses eligible to bid, the report recommended.

About a third of the survey respondents said they face challenges getting sufficient capital to expand a business. Georgia’s Department of Community Affairs plans to expand a small business credit program to increase the amount of capital available for small and minority- owned businesses.  

The DOAS already sponsors a number of training resources for business owners interested in bidding for a state contract. A seven-week training class the agency started for small businesses recently concluded training 32 potential suppliers about doing business with Georgia.  

“This is a great opportunity, for the state to say, ‘You know what? We’re going to make a difference as it relates to minority-owned, women-owned and veteran-owned businesses,’ ” Bailey said.  

The DOAS also manages procurement processes for smaller government entities, like county commissions and local school boards.

Charlie Maddox, who serves on the board of the Department of Community Affairs and helped connect Black chambers of commerce from across the state to the new program, said small local suppliers can often meet local governments’ needs best.  

“Our goal is to let the small employers know what’s out there, and also to match them up with what they are capable of providing,” Maddox said. “Some of these things can be done locally, by people that live in a community.”

Government contracts can provide a steady income and stability to small businesses, Maddox said.

“We want …. the potential business operator out there [to think] that this might be an opportunity for me,” he said. “They may be in Hahira, Georgia, and say ‘Oh, there’s these opportunities. … I want to be connected to that.’ ”

Independent advocates praised the new initiative but said some checks and balances are needed to fully deliver on expectations. 

“We are happy to see Governor Kemp acknowledging the importance of creating small business equity with the announcement of the Small Business and Supplier Diversity Initiative Report,” said Rachel Shanklin, Georgia director of Small Business Majority, a small-business advocacy group. 

Shanklin urged Kemp to expand Medicaid and take other steps to promote equity in Georgia. 

“We hope that the governor will tackle ongoing equity problems in the state through impactful and meaningful policies that increase diversity and remove barriers to long-term resources,” she said. 

“Efforts to provide more procurement access to minority-owned and small businesses are always a plus, provided that prevailing wage standards are part of the process to keep out potential contractors who offer relatively low contract bid amounts by paying their employees unlivable wages,” added Ray Khalfani of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.  

“This initiative to expand access can provide a larger window of opportunity for minority business owners who seek to create better quality jobs and hire underserved workers.”

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.  

Congress gives final passage to renaming VA buildings after Isakson, Cleland

ATLANTA – Two Atlanta-area Veterans Affairs buildings are being renamed for two former U.S. senators from Georgia who served as longtime advocates for America’s veterans.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed two bills last week that authorized renaming the VA Regional Office in Decatur after the late Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson and the VA Medical Center in Atlanta for former Democratic Sen. Max Cleland, who died late last year.

“Our veterans deserve the best, and Senator Isakson always fought for them,” said Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., sponsor of the bipartisan bill honoring Isakson. “Renaming the Atlanta VA Regional Office in his honor will inspire us to stand up for Georgia’s veterans every day like Senator Isakson did.”

Cleland, who lost both of his legs and right arm serving in Vietnam, served as administrator of the VA under then-President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s and later spent one term in the Senate.

“Max Cleland was an empathetic leader and a passionate patriot with a warrior’s heart for our veterans and for Georgia,” said Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., who sponsored the legislation honoring Cleland. “His life and legacy will live forever in our hearts.”

Both bills passed the House last week with bipartisan support after clearing the Senate earlier this year. They now head to President Joe Biden’s desk for his signature.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Kemp stumps for Walker on runoff campaign trail 

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp stumps for U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker in Cobb County on Saturday.

SMYRNA – Recently re-elected Republican Gov. Brian Kemp campaigned Saturday on behalf of former University of Georgia football star and U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker, who is facing a Dec. 6 runoff for Georgia’s U.S. Senate seat.   

“Look, we cannot rest on our laurels here,” Kemp said to the Walker supporters gathered in a parking lot in Cobb County. 

“Who do you want to fight for you in the United States Senate? Do you want a guy that represents our values like Herschel Walker or do you want a guy who’s stood with Joe Biden 96% of the time?  

“This is going to be a turnout election – who’s more motivated?  Is it them or us?,” Kemp said, urging Georgia Republicans to take advantage of early voting and vote as soon as possible. 

“I know Herschel Walker will do like we’ve done in Georgia, be fiscally conservative,” Kemp added.  

The joint appearance represents a departure from fall campaign events, when Kemp and Walker kept their distance from each other and ran separate campaigns.  

Though Kemp defeated Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams for the governor’s seat, Republican Walker fell short of incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock by about 38,000 votes in the Nov. 8 general election. Because neither candidate earned more than 50% of the vote, the two face a Dec. 6 runoff.  

Kemp and Walker blamed Warnock and President Joe Biden for inflation. Kemp touted steps Georgia has taken under his leadership to address economic pressures, such as temporarily lifting the gas tax. 

“We need someone in Washington that’s gonna …. row the boat with Governor Kemp,” Walker told the crowd. “What [Warnock has] been doing is rowing the boat against Governor Kemp.”

“He [Warnock] voted to put men in women’s sports. Men shouldn’t be in women’s sports,” Walker said. “It’s written in my Bible and it says woman came from the rib of the man. Senator Warnock need[s] to read his Bible.” 

“They want to bring wokeness in our school house,” Walker added. “Instead of teaching our kids how to read and write, they want to teach them about [critical race theory]. … That won’t happen on my watch.”  

Early voting in the runoff is due to begin on Saturday, Nov. 26.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.