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Newton representatives react to Richardson's resignation

COVINGTON — Newton County representatives in the Georgia House said they are saddened by the resignation of Speaker Glenn Richardson, but agree he made the right decision.

Richardson, R-Hiram, resigned Thursday from both his position as speaker and his House seat, following a suicide attempt and allegations by his ex-wife of an affair with a lobbyist. His resignation is effective Jan. 1.

"I think he thought it was the right thing to do, and if it's the right thing for him, I also think it's the right thing for us as a party," said Rep. John Lunsford, R-McDonough, who represents the 110th district. "I'm saddened by this whole situation. It's a distraction that in this economic time we don't need."

However, Lunsford said he's seen no signs that Richardson's personal problems have affected his ability to do his job, as some who called for his resignation have claimed.

"He's a phenomenally intelligent guy. We joked that if he hasn't been firing on all eight cylinders, my goodness, what could he do if he was?"

As for the effect the resignation will have on the 2010 session that begins in January, "It's going to be arduous at best and a bloodbath at worst," Lunsford said.

The House has 120 days to elect a new speaker. Speaker Pro Tem Mark Burkhalter will serve as speaker in the interim.

Lunsford predicted that there will be several people vying for the position.

"Within 15 minutes of the announcement of his demise, people were calling me at home to ask for his office dimensions, because my office is close to his, to see if their furniture would fit," he said.

The in-house election often results in the trading of political favors, with lawmakers offering to help get bills passed in exchange for votes, Lunsford said. Plus, there's the added tension of knowing that the new speaker may strip representatives, especially his or her opponents, of their current positions on committees.

"Typically, you get elected by pointing out your opponent's flaws. If you happen to be the majority leader or the minority leader or the majority or minority whip and you want the other job and you point out your opponent's flaws, if you lose, he's going to move your office and assignment and your parking space," Lunsford said.

Lunsford said he hopes the election of the new speaker will be held during the regular session to avoid costing taxpayers additional money.

But Rep. Doug Holt, R-Social Circle, representing the 112th district, said the election likely won't be a big expense for the state, noting that the last election of speaker only took two hours.

Holt called Richardson's resignation "a sad situation."

"Considering what has come to light, he did the right thing both for himself as well as for the state," Holt said, adding that if Richardson had stayed on, the new session would have been marred by a media frenzy.

"I have great confidence in (Burkhalter). He's a very capable guy," he added.

Though Rep. Toney Collins, D-Conyers, of the 95th District is on opposite sides of the aisle from Richardson, he said he always thought he was a good guy.

"All in all, I think this is a personal thing that he's going through. If he would have stayed, that would have been fine with me," Collins said.

Collins said he expects the impact of the resignation to be minimal.

"I don't think it will affect us policy-wise or as far as getting things done. If there was anything personally going on with the speaker, this will eliminate those problems. Hopefully, (the new speaker) will be open-minded and will not be partisan," he said.

Once thought to be a serious contender for governor, Richardson, the first GOP speaker since Reconstruction, had won sympathy from even his political enemies when he revealed last month that he attempted suicide by swallowing sleeping pills.

But then his ex-wife went on TV earlier this week and accused him of having "a full-out affair" with a lobbyist while they were still married. Susan Richardson said she has e-mails between her ex-husband and a lobbyist for Atlanta Gas Light who was pushing a $300 million pipeline bill that Richardson was co-sponsoring.

A 2007 ethics complaint over the affair was dismissed by a legislative panel for lack of evidence.

Now Susan Richardson's allegations have spawned a new ethics complaint by a government watchdog group this week. Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker's office said it had begun looking into the complaint.

Secretary of State Karen Handel, a leading GOP candidate for governor in 2010, said meetings at the state Capitol were grinding to a halt because Richardson was missing in action amid the worst state budget crunch in history. She and the Georgia Christian Coalition were among those who had called for his resignation.

It was not immediately clear when the election for Richardson's House seat will take place.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.