Georgia state Rep. David Clark asked God for guidance before deciding to call foul on alleged abuses of power by House Speaker David Ralston. After all, Clark tells Atlanta magazine, it’s “definitely intimidating” to challenge a man some consider the state’s most powerful—and certainly popular—politician.
A year ago, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found that the speaker, the Republican representative for Blue Ridge and an attorney, had allegedly leveraged his legislative leave privileges to delay court cases—sometimes for years—for legal clients accused of acts such as child molestation, domestic abuse, and rape. Just days after the charges against Ralston made headlines, Clark introduced a House resolution calling for the speaker’s resignation. “The Speaker has demonstrated unacceptable abuse of power and professional judgment,” the legislation says. Almost a year later, Ralston has stayed put.
Clark, a U.S. Army veteran and the Republican representing Buford, felt he had no choice but to take on Ralston, one of Georgia’s most powerful figures. The crusade has been no small undertaking. “You don’t challenge a king unless you’re prepared to take his head clean off,” Clark says he was told by peers. But bringing down the state House’s top dog, even with the help of a handful of other conservative Republicans, is easier said than done. In fact, Georgia tea party leaders Debbie Dooley and Julianne Thompson, among others, attempted to unseat the speaker years ago, but to no avail.
University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock says that unless the 2020 elections seat a wide new slate of Democrats in the Republican-strong House, Ralston is safe in the speaker’s chair, which he’s held for a decade. “Republicans are still very pleased with David Ralston,” he tells Atlanta. No doubt, though, Clark—a somewhat quiet politico, perhaps best known for the American flag suit he wears during the last day of each legislative session—has become popular for pushing the resolution calling for Ralston’s ouster and another that, if passed by a majority during this legislative session, would enact term limits of eight years for speakers of the House. Even if they falter—there hasn’t been much movement on either proposal of late—those efforts could pay dividends for Clark, Bullock says. “Gwinnett County, as a whole, is becoming more Democratic by the day. Maybe, as his constituency becomes more Democratic, being critical of the speaker could be an advantage.”
Plus, Clark says he’s not done drafting legislation aiming to hold Ralston—and others accused of corruption—to account. He says he’s currently working on legislation “that will close some of the loopholes that . . . have allowed victims rights to be ignored in the judicial process.” The proposal won’t have the speaker’s name on it, Clark says, but anyone privy to his fight for justice will know who’s in the crosshairs.
Clark says he’s not trying to unseat Ralston to further his political aspirations—he claims he’s not gunning for the speaker’s seat, but might make a stab at it, should the opportunity arise—but rather to break the establishment mold. “Regardless of party, people can get so comfortable with the establishment on both sides that they’ll just fall in line,” Clark says. “My parents raised me to challenge the status quo and stand against those who abuse power. Whether it’s your family or your party, you have to stand for what’s right, regardless of the repercussions.” And repercussions have come, Clark believes. Ralston stripped Clark of his chairmanship of the Interstate Cooperation Committee this fall, and the young representative considers that retaliation.
But Ralston, in an interview with GPB, said, “There was no punishment. People like to, I guess, play victim sometimes on these kinds of things.” He later added, “The speaker’s job is not to be popular; the speaker’s job is to manage the House in such a way that we can do the business that people sent us to do. At the core of that job is putting the best team together, and I think I have put together the best team.” (Ralston’s office forwarded Atlanta a transcript of the GPB interview in response to our inquiries.)
Clark feels his once-cordial relationship with Ralston is tarnished, but that’s part of the sacrifice of being a public servant. He says he afforded the speaker the opportunity to explain himself after the AJC story broke, and that, during a meeting last year, “[Ralston] didn’t give me any evidence to show he wasn’t lying and was not abusing his power . . . he never even looked me in the eye.”
A few months before the 2020 legislative session kicked off, Clark admitted he’s “definitely consumed with the whole Ralston thing.” Still, he finds it a worthwhile crusade. Nodding to his time in military combat, he says, “When you’re in a place of sacrifice where you’re not there to gain power for yourself, and you’re there to serve your country for a higher purpose, it changes you forever. Once you start living for power, you lose some of who you are as a human being.”