ALBANY -- Dougherty County's delegation to the General Assembly expressed sympathy for Georgia House Speaker Glenn Richardson and his family Thursday night after Richardson announced earlier in the day that he will step down from the powerful political position and leave the Legislature in January.
Richardson, the first Republican to serve as House speaker since Reconstruction and once seen as a contender for governor next year, made his decision less than a month after revealing that he had attempted suicide over his 2008 divorce and days after his ex-wife accused him in a televised interview of having a "full-out affair" with a power company lobbyist whose employer has legislation pending in the General Assembly.
The speaker, one of the three most powerful elected officials in Georgia, made an emotional announcement to GOP House lawmakers before releasing a public statement indicating his wife's accusations were the final blow to a political career that has been reeling since he revealed the suicide attempt on Nov. 8.
State Rep. Ed Rynders, R-Leesburg, was on that phone call. As he gathered with the rest of Dougherty's legislative delegation at a Georgia Association of Educators meeting in Albany Thursday night, Rynders said the phone call was "gut-wrenching and extremely emotional."
In his public statement, Richardson, who said he would resign Jan. 1, mentioned his recent admission of suffering from depression. "I fear that the media attention of this week has deflected this message and done harm to many people who suffer from this condition," he said.
"I believe the speaker when he said he did not want to be a distraction," Rynder said, noting that he has been acquainted with Richardson since joining the Legislature in 2002.
"He's been extremely loyal to me and has been a friend to me," Rynders said. "I give him credit. He's always allowed me to vote my conscious; he never leaned on me; he never told me vote a certain way. He was never the bully with me that others want to portray him as."
Once Richardson's resignation is official, House Speaker Pro Tem Mark Burkhalter will become interim speaker, and the Republican caucus will have 120 days to elect a permanent replacement.
With budget-crunch issues already expected to make the 2010 Legislature a contentious session in an election year, the massive changeover in House leadership that could ensue as representatives move into new positions of responsibility could make for an even more interesting session.
"As we look ahead in regard to the leadership positions in the House, my major concern will be what impact the changes in leadership will have on rural Georgia," Rynders noted.
While the other three members of the Dougherty delegation are Albany-based Democrats, they expressed support for Richardson personally Thursday.
"I think that regardless of what's been said about anybody, anyone that is suffering from a disease and hard times, that our prayers need to be with Speaker Richardson and (Speaker pro Tem) Burkhalter, and pray for all our statewide officials," Rep. Carol Fullerton said.
"We wish the speaker well," Sen. Freddie Powell Sims said. "Obviously, these are difficult times for the speaker and his family, but as I speak to individuals across the state, we're praying for the speaker and his family."
Rep. Winfred Dukes called Richardson's situation "unfortunate," noting that it was of the speaker's own making. "It's a very unfortunate circumstance that he put himself in this position," Dukes said, "but I think he made the right decision for himself and his family and Georgia."
After the revelations that Richardson's wife, Susan Richardson, made Monday during an interview with WAGA-TV in Atlanta, House Minority Leader Dubose Porter called for the House ethic panel to reopen its investigation into Richardson's relationship with a lobbyist for Atlanta Gas Light in 2007, which Democrats contended was inappropriate. Richardson was co-sponsor for legislation the power company wanted in regard to a $300 million pipeline. The measure passed the House but failed in the Senate.
The ethics panel originally ruled that there was no enough evidence to confirm any wrongdoing on Richardson's part.
Susan Richardson said she had e-mails between her ex-husband and the lobbyist for Atlanta Gas Light that prove the affair. The couple divorced in February 2008.
Attorney General Thurbert Baker, a Democratic candidate for governor, said Thursday his office was looking into that allegation, and GOP gubernatorial hopeful Karen Handel, the secretary of state, Thursday called for Richardson to resign. The Georgia Christian Coalition also called for Richardson to resign.
On Thursday, Gov. Sonny Perdue, who has at times been at odds with the speaker, issued a statement saying Richardson made the right decision, which should give him privacy that will "enable him to recover fully and completely."
University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock said Richardson is known for comebacks, but the latest round of news may have finally damaged him beyond repair.
"Heading into an election year, I think Republicans would rather not still be talking about the life and loves of Glenn Richardson," Bullock said.
It has been a dizzying fall for one of Georgia's most powerful political figures. Sheriff's deputies found him Nov. 8, slumped semiconscious on the edge of the bathtub at his west Georgia home after he called his mother to say he had swallowed pills. A suicide note and a silver .357 Magnum were on the counter next to him. The contents of the note have not been released.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.