David Ralston cared, and Georgia is the better for it

Melanie Dallas headshot

By Melanie Dallas, LPC

I remember the first time I met Speaker David Ralston, though he was not yet Speaker. I had been working with the parent of a local youth with behavioral health needs, trying to navigate what seemed like one roadblock after another. We finally sought the help of our local legislator, Rep. David Ralston.

He met with us, listened attentively, and then told us he would see what he could do. Not surprisingly, he could do a lot – and he did. What was clear at that first meeting was his care and concern for persons who experienced challenges in our community, which was also his community, and who were in many ways marginalized. He carried that care and concern with him every day, especially as Speaker.

Over the years since, I met with David Ralston many times, sometimes in his beloved home community of Blue Ridge but more often at the Capitol, in the Speaker’s office. His office was always busy, with aides and fellow lawmakers going in and out, phones ringing constantly. And yet when he was ready to meet with me, rather than have one of his assistants show me into his office, he would always walk to his office door and greet me by name, with that distinctive southern gentleman’s drawl, “Hello there Melanie; come on in.”

Even as Speaker he never forgot that he represented the people and families of Fannin and Gilmer counties – two of the counties served by Highland Rivers Behavioral Health. He was always available to discuss the needs of a single individual in his district, just as he was available to talk about the needs of the mental health system in Georgia. If our agency encountered challenges serving his constituents, David Ralston wanted to know.

Highland Rivers’ Fannin County governing board representative Keith Ledford, who knew Ralston well, says that even as David Ralston rose through the ranks to become one of the most important and powerful men in Georgia, his local constituents – his friends and neighbors – were always close to his heart and mind.

“David was always a true servant to his community and state. He always had a willing ear to listen to the concerns and needs of his constituents, who he thought of as neighbors, if not family. In Atlanta he may have been Mr. Speaker, but here in Blue Ridge he was always just David. He truly had a love for his area and the State of Georgia.”

I believe it was that love which inspired what will be remembered as one of his most significant legislative initiatives and achievements, House Bill 1013, the Mental Health Parity Act. He felt so strongly about this issue – ensuring that insurance companies treat mental health with the same importance as physical health – that he not only sponsored this landmark piece of legislation himself, but held a press conference in the Capitol Rotunda to do so.

One of the most remarkable things about this legislation is that is passed both houses of the Georgia General Assembly unanimously – something so rare in these times. There is perhaps no greater testament to the respect all Georgia lawmakers had for David Ralston than that. Equally important, this law will benefit thousands, if not millions, of Georgians who are impacted by behavioral health challenges. It is a tremendous legacy.

Highland Rivers extends our deepest sympathies to David Ralston’s family members and loved ones; your loss is our loss. His passing will not only be felt along the 515 corridor, in Gilmer and Fannin counties, but across Georgia. He was a formidable presence, conservative but never extreme. He had gravitas but was always in touch with his humanity. He never demanded respect but always earned it. Georgia is a better place because of David Ralston, because he cared.

Melanie Dallas is a licensed professional counselor and CEO of Highland Rivers Behavioral Health, which provides treatment and recovery services for individuals with mental illness, substance use disorders, and intellectual and developmental disabilities in a 13-county region of northwest Georgia that includes Bartow, Cherokee, Cobb, Floyd, Fannin, Gilmer, Gordon, Haralson, Murray, Paulding, Pickens, Polk and Whitfield counties.