Nominee for Georgia House speakership aims to keep friends

New Georgia House Speaker Jon Burns poses for a portrait at the Georgia State Capitol, Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Jon Burns has made a reputation as everyone’s friend during his 18 years in the Georgia House. Now he hopes that affability will serve him as the chamber’s speaker, one of the most powerful people in the state.

“You get a lot more done in life, and certainly in government, if you’re amenable to other people’s positions, their viewpoints,” Burns told The Associated Press on Thursday. “And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a laugh while you’re working.”

Republicans in November nominated Burns, their majority leader since 2015, as the long-term successor to the late Speaker David Ralston. Ralston had become a towering figure in state government by the time he died in November.

Reluctant to overstep before the chamber officially elects him, Burns has said little about his policy plans. He refused to even be photographed on the speaker’s dais before the House convenes Monday and chooses a presiding officer after the 180 representatives are sworn in. The 56-member Senate also convenes Monday and will choose a president pro tem, with Republican John Kennedy of Macon in line for that post.

The 70-year-old Burns, who lives in a rural portion of fast-suburbanizing Effingham County west of Savannah, will shepherd a smaller Republican majority than Ralston worked with.

He said he wants to provide continuity with Ralston’s term, projecting a conservatism that shies away from ideological excesses while maintaining a Republican majority against increasing Democratic strength.

Burns said he “won’t have any problem making a decision,” but said he may move more slowly than Ralston did because his “style is to bring in the different viewpoints.”

“It’ll be much more inclusive, but much of it will be the same,” Burns said, crediting Ralston’s mentorship.

A timberland owner and onetime farmer, Burns would keep the speakership in rural hands. That’s where power in the House has traditionally resided despite the growing population dominance of Atlanta and other urban areas.

Burns’ grandparents settled in southeast Georgia in the early 1900s. His father, Guerry Burns became successful through logging, farming and timber growing. Guerry Burns also was elected to the Effingham County school board and county commission, which Jon Burns said set an example of public service.

“The Burnses are an old family in this community,” said state Rep. Bill Hitchens, a fellow Effingham County Republican and friend of Burns’ father before his 2011 death. “His father was involved in the wood industry, and I think he bought every piece of property he could when it was cheap. And it paid off for their family in the long run.”

Today, Jon Burns owns 1,600 acres (650 hectares) in Effingham and Screven counties, plus property in coastal Camden County and a house at Lake Oconee. His property is assessed as worth nearly $3.9 million for tax purposes.

As a young man, Burns attended Georgia Southern University. He returned home to farm while attending law school at night in Savannah. But he never practiced law for a living. Burns said he “got sand in my shoes and never could get it out” and wanted to raise his sons in the country.

He developed a farm supply and feed business, and eventually stopped farming. His sons founded Georgia Exports Co., which bills itself as the top exporter of southern yellow pine logs in the United States, sending more than 18,000 shipping containers overseas in 2021, according to export statistics.

Burns has cruised to reelection without a Democratic challenger since 2010. In part that’s because of his district’s strong Republican tilt. But Tony Chiariello, Democratic Party chairman for Effingham County, said Burns has also won over some Democratic constituents as a strong supporter of public schools.

“Jon Burns is a very good politician, and he has made some very good friends among the Democrats in Effingham County, including in the African American community,” Chiariello said. “I don’t vote for Jon Burns, but I think he’s a decent fellow.”

In the House, he developed a reputation for a willingness to help anyone, regardless of party or seniority. Rep. Chuck Efstration, a Dacula Republican and incoming House majority leader, said he stopped into Burns’ office to seek help on an issue when Efstration was a new member who “didn’t even know where the bathroom is” and Burns was chairman of the House Game, Fish and Parks Committee.

“He was just so welcoming and gave me a warm offer of assistance,” Efstration said. “He really helped me talk through the issue that was on my mind and pointed me in the right direction.”

Minority Democrats say that while they don’t get everything they want from Burns, they have found him to be upfront and fair.

“He’s always been accessible and friendly,” said Rep. Al Williams, a Democrat from Midway. “When he could help, he would. When he couldn’t, he was honest and would tell you so.”

Burns helped win $60 million for a convocation center that broke ground in May at Georgia Southern in Statesboro. He helped land $43 million for a new parkway planned to ease commuter traffic between Effingham County and Savannah.

Burns points to a 2015 gas tax hike to fund $1 billion in transportation improvements and a mental health overhaul passed last year as achievements. As majority leader, Burns didn’t carry either bill, saying his biggest contribution was “being a good team player.”

Thanks to his amiable nature, Burns comes across as “a normal guy,” said Eric Johnson, a former Republican leader of the state Senate who lives in Effingham County. “Even the people in Effingham, they don’t know how powerful he is.”

Johnson, who left office in 2010, said Burns and his wife, Dayle, struggled in deciding whether Burns should seek to succeed Ralston — mostly because it would mean more time away from home and their five grandchildren.

Johnson said Dayle Burns, a retired school principal, will frequently be at the Capitol as one of her husband’s most trusted confidants.

“You underestimate her, it’s at your own peril. She’s like Marty Kemp to the extent she’s a full political partner and adviser,” Johnson said, likening her to the wife of Republican Gov. Brian Kemp.

Johnson said Burns and Ralston share similar political views, though their personalities are distinct.

“Ralston, he came across as this gruff old country lawyer,” Johnson said. “Jon’s going to be a lot more laid back, like a farmer sitting on the back of a pickup tailgate talking to folks. He’s going to have a different image, though I think his ideology is still going to be mainstream conservative.”

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