Ross Williams and Stanley Dunlap, Georgia Recorder
January 30, 2024
The mood was somber inside the Georgia House of Representatives Tuesday morning as lawmakers mourned the sudden death of House Rules Chairman Richard Smith.
Smith, 78, died during the night after battling the flu, according to House Speaker Jon Burns’ office.
Gov. Brian Kemp made a rare visit to the House chamber to praise the man who he said he has counted as a friend for two decades.
“When he was your friend, you knew it,” Kemp said. “There were times when he was standing with me when others were not, but that didn’t bother him, he just did what he thought was right.”
Smith was born in Wrightsville and later moved to Morgan County, where he played quarterback for the state championship football team at Morgan County High School.
Smith earned degrees from Louisiana State University and the University of Florida and worked for both the University of Florida and University of Georgia extension services. Before being elected to the House, his career in public service included serving as Columbus interim city manager and city councilor.
Burns and Smith both came to the House in 2005, and Burns remembered Smith as a model statesman and a loyal friend.
“My daddy didn’t say someone was a good man about very many people, and I’ll tell you, I’m the same way,” he said. “But in every sense of the word, Richard Smith was a good, good man. He was a friend, and however you want to describe that word, he’d be honest with you, telling you no sometimes, but encouraging you to do better and be better and do better for your neighbors.”
Smith had plenty of opportunity to tell people no as chair of the powerful Rules Committee, which determines what bills will have a chance to make it to a House vote.
But Smith was never spiteful and always sought to serve the state, said Rep. Vance Smith, a Republican from Pine Mountain, north of Columbus.
“We all have our own personalities, and Richard had his, but you just had to step past that because, oh, what a big heart he had,” Vance Smith said. “He loved his community, and he loved the state of Georgia. And you better go to him with something good, because if not, it’s going in the trash. But that’s what made this state even better, y’all.”
“He spread the good news of the Gospel, and sometimes, he used his words,” Vance Smith added. “He lived it.”
Former Senate Rules Chairman Jeff Mullis spoke about the kindred spirit shared between the gatekeepers of legislation in both chambers. Mullis said that he admired Smith and that it is a sad day to have lost someone who was so important to the state.
Mullis emphasized the importance of Smith having a sense of humor and a steady demeanor while serving as the chairman of a Rules Committee.
“When it comes to rules, it is the pinnacle of your bill, and everybody is on pins and needles, and I always believed it was better to be jovial and make sure everybody was at ease,” Mullis said. “I thought the floor belonged to nobody except a good bill.”
Rep. Debbie Buckner, a Democrat from Junction City east of Columbus, said Smith will be remembered for his dedication to his constituents in a long career during which he served as a county agent, city manager, city councilman and state representative.
“He was my mom and dad’s city councilman. He was my mom and dad’s state representative,” Buckner said. “When he rode by their house and there were too many cars in the driveway, he would call and he would say ‘is your mom and dad alright?’ He could act gruff and almost scary at times to prove a point, to share his feelings, but underneath, he was a really good man.”
Perhaps no other Georgia legislator knew Smith as well as Cataula Republican Sen. Randy Robertson. They were both members of First Baptist Church of Columbus and Smith was the best man at Robertson’s wedding.
Robertson credits Smith’s leadership for creating a strong bond between the local legislative delegation regardless of party affiliation.
Robertson said that Smith embodied strong family values and was adept at sarcastic banter. Smith was also grouchy, which led Robertson to a running joke that if Smith was in a good mood two days in a row, he would need to rush Smith to the hospital.
“He had this great fatherly grumpiness about him that made me love him as much as any man on this planet,” Robertson said on the Senate chamber floor Tuesday. “Everybody says the world’s a little darker and there’s a vacuum when someone they care about passes away. My mentor passed away, but I know he’s watching over me.”
Columbus Democratic Sen. Ed Harbison said Smith’s contributions to Georgia will be sorely missed. Harbison said that people would never have to second guess where they stood with Smith.
“Mr. Smith was a true gentleman. He was a true statesman. He was a vital cog in our local legislative delegation,” Harbison said.
“We’re just going to try to march in his footsteps, try to emulate the great path that he blazed in his life,” Harbison said. “We all knew that when we went before the Rules Committee over there, you had to be right or be gone. Richard was about serious business and wasn’t about letting bad bills out of his committee.”
Smith was Georgia’s third House Rules chair in recent years. Rep. John Meadows died in 2018 and Rep. Jay Powell died the following year.
Smith’s replacement as Rules Committee Chair has not been named. Vice Chair Mandi Ballinger, a Canton Republican, has been leading the committee during his illness.
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