“I don’t know about y’all but I’ve been to too many funerals — and I’m tired of going to them,” Ralston said from his seat on the House dais after ordering Clark’s removal, prompting applause from fellow lawmakers.
The confrontation was the latest flash point among Georgia GOP members since tensions arose after the state’s Republican governor and secretary of state certified the November election results for President Biden. Clark joined about 30 other Georgia state legislators in supporting Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s lawsuit to overturn election results in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. The U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the long-shot bid.
There have been almost 880,000 cases of the coronavirus in Georgia and more than 13,400 deaths, according to The Washington Post’s tracker. During the first week of the state legislature’s session earlier this month, nine senators, staff, aides and interns tested positive for the virus, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Clark, who represents a district northeast of Atlanta, wrote on Twitter that he would continue to refuse the coronavirus test — or any other “unnecessary” test — without “a basis for doing so.” He added that he takes his temperature every day, complies with the legislature’s mask mandate and wears one in public. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though, said earlier this month that asymptomatic people transmit more than half of all cases of the coronavirus.)
The lawmaker also argued that it wasn’t fair for him to get two tests a week when his constituents don’t get the same advantage.
“I cannot in good conscience watch expensive tests that should be given to Georgia citizens who desperately need them be wasted for nothing more than political optics at the Capitol,” Clark said.
In an interview with reporters following his expulsion, Clark — who was maskless — said that Ralston was acting like a “dictator” and disputed the speaker’s claim that members are required to take the test.
Inside the chamber, meanwhile, Ralston asked members if they wanted to get rid of the testing policy, to which the room responded with a resounding “no.” The speaker then added he hopes the pandemic will end soon, but in the meantime, they needed to take precautions.
“I don’t know when this will end,” Ralston said. “But until that time, I think it behooves us to do whatever we need to do to be safe and to show love toward our neighbors rather than go out there and get media attention or standing up to authority.”
Ralston and Clark have had a fraught relationship. In 2019, Clark introduced a resolution asking Ralston to resign after an investigation from the Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News found that the speaker, who is a lawyer, allegedly abused his legislative power to delay court cases for his clients. Those cases involved people accused of rape, child molestation and domestic abuse charges. Ralston has denied the accusations.
During his informal news conference with reporters Tuesday, Clark likened his experience of being kicked out to that of the “Original 33,” referring to the first 33 Black members of the Georgia General Assembly who were elected after the Civil War but “got thrown out because of skin color,” he said.
The NAACP of Georgia condemned Clark’s comparison, calling his act of not getting tested “selfish” and “a painful reminder of the continued disparity that the current health care crisis continues to have on the Black community and how history has often been distorted to embolden racists.”
Clark did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Some state legislators from both parties commended Ralston’s move to expel Clark.
“I appreciate Speaker Ralston for removing a member who has refused to take a COVID-19 test since session reconvened on 1/11,” tweeted state Rep. Scott Holcomb (D). “We get tested in the building; it takes ~ 60 seconds. It’s absolutely necessary b/c we’re indoors & can’t always social distance. Too hard? Stay home.”
In a statement, Ralston said that Clark could return to the state House chamber once he complied with the policy “for the safety of all those who have to come to the Capitol.”