As Georgia’s speaker of the House, he was the state’s second most powerful man. But the pressures of his job, combined with an insatiable appetite for the trappings of success, were feeding his ruin. On Nov. 8, 2009, he was just a depressed, lonely man who saw no other way out of a self-induced spiral.
The year before, his wife left him after he had an affair with a Capitol lobbyist, and three of his best friends — fellow business and political leaders in Paulding County — died in a plane crash. His law practice, fueled by real estate growth, hurt for business, as did the bank he co-founded.
Killing himself wasn’t spur of the moment. He had fought depressive, suicidal thoughts for years. This time, he stockpiled 400 Ambiens and 40 tablets of hydrocodone. He researched it on the Internet and found 100 could kill a man. Four hundred should kill a horse.
2. Back on the road
One fall afternoon last month, Richardson drove his pickup down a West Georgia country road. He was off to deliver yard signs to supporters, pick up a donor’s check and collect information on a candidates forum that night in Carrollton.
“There’s a clinical history there that leads us to be concerned,” said state Rep. Larry O’Neal, who was a Republican House floor leader with Richardson. “I just hope he can handle it.”
Richardson smiles hearing such concerns. He’s a humbler version of his old self, quick to laugh, engaging in conversation, eager to please, although his face still gets flushed when talking in his rapid west Georgia twang. He knows he carries enough personal baggage to fuel a battery of attack ads, but he was willing to chance it by running.
3. Meteoric rise, hard fall
Twenty years ago, as Paulding County’s attorney, Richardson often launched into rambling soliloquies about then-Speaker Tom Murphy, the legendary, cigar-chewing Democrat who ruled for decades. Murphy, he argued, abused power to reward allies and punish enemies.
Tired of complaining, Richardson won a state House seat in 1996 and became a thorn in Murphy’s side.
In 2002, Sonny Perdue upset Barnes and became Georgia’s first Republican governor since the Reconstruction. Richardson became his House floor leader and, two years later, the point man to swing the House GOP. He held strategy meetings, raised money, picked winnable seats, trained candidates and drove thousands of miles to campaign for them.
“I built the system of getting people all over the state to write checks for the right races,” he said. “Then I started picking off Democrats.”
The November 2004 election cemented the GOP’s grip on Georgia politics. Richardson was elected speaker and, flush with victory, lined up ambitious plans. “I felt I had a destiny,” he said.
The Richardson years were tumultuous. He battled Democrats, Senate Republicans, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Gov. Perdue. In 2007, an angry speaker told the media Perdue bared “his backside” by vetoing a $142 million property tax rebate Richardson pushed for homeowners.
That session, Democrats filed an ethics complaint claiming Richardson had an “inappropriate” relationship with a female lobbyist for Atlanta Gas Light while pushing a bill that authorized a controversial $300 million natural gas pipeline.
The charges didn’t stick — publicly. Personally, however, the damage was done. On New Year’s day 2008, Susan confronted him. “I want to get a divorce,” she told him.
4. Ending it
The weekend of Nov. 8, 2009, Richardson was beside himself. His ex-wife had gone away with a man and Richardson said he did not know where his teenage children were. He said he located his then 15-year-old daughter and had her come to his home for the weekend.
But Sunday came and he was alone again. As dusk sank in, Richardson felt maybe the lowest he’d ever felt. He started gulping the pills he hoarded. The plan was to painlessly slip away, “to get in bed and pull the covers over me.”
The next day, he woke up to see his pastor. “I’m not supposed to be here,” Richardson said.
“Yes you are,” the preacher responded.
Richardson was transported to an out-of-state hospital, hoping the incident might blow over. But there are few secrets in politics and the world soon knew.
Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, a pharmacist and friend of Richardson, said the speaker was on a collision course from the start.
“The speaker was taking pain medication that would knock anyone else out,” he said. “Barbiturates or an opioid (like hydrocodone) will wildly change your behavior. Then you add sleeping tablets. It accumulates in your system. Then put that on top of depression and then put on top of that the rigors of being speaker. I’m amazed he held out as long as he did.”
At first, it seemed Richardson might survive politically. He announced he had depression and was viewed sympathetically. Within days he was back stumping for other Republicans.
Two days later, Richardson was summoned to the governor’s mansion. He thought he’d meet with Perdue to talk about about how to go forward. Instead, he entered a conference room filled with about 20 of his top allies from the House — his “lieutenants, majors and colonels.”
“I didn’t know you’d all be here,” he told them.
Perdue began the meeting with a prayer. In the awkward moments that followed, the assembled group told Richardson it was time for him to go.
Stunned, he methodically moved around the room and pointed at each member.
“Stand up!” he said. “Are you with me?”
One by one, the answer was the same.
“Glenn, I love you, but it’s time.”
On Christmas morning a few weeks later, Richardson drove to the Capitol alone. As he expected (and hoped), the building was deserted. He entered his second floor office one last time, packed the personal mementos of his 13-year career and slipped out unobserved.
5. The road back
Farris died in February 2011. At the funeral, Richardson saved rows at the church for political dignitaries. Just a few filtered in.
“That drove it home for me,” said Cooper, “that when you’re gone, you’re gone.”
It also provided clarity. Get on with your life, he told himself. He threw himself into work and took on several legal cases at little or no cost because no one, it seemed, has money these days. He joined up with former foe Roy Barnes to sue Georgia Power, arguing the utility was illegally adding sales taxes and fees to a monthly nuclear expansion surcharge on customers’ bills.
In August, the Senate seat opened up. Richardson talked to friends and family. Many were surprised he’d want back in. Still struggling, he drove out to Ephesus Baptist Church cemetery in Villa Rica and stood at the foot of his father’s grave.
“Dad, I know you’re not here. But I know you can hear me. What do I do?”
“I came to a peace,” Richardson said. “I’m going to try it. I might fail.”
“What’s the worst thing that can happen to me?” he thought.
6. Day of reckoning
Election day was gray and blustery but came with a sense of nervous excitement.
Richardson, who once raised millions for other candidates, scraped together $31,000 in two months; not bad, but nothing like the $130,000 that Bill Hembree, a nine-term Republican legislator who served under the former speaker, raised.
Just three legislators donated to the former speaker. Fifty gave to Hembree.
Back at the governor’s mansion in 2009, Perdue and his top lieutenants had told Richardson they’d always be there for him.
“As it turns out, I hardly have talked to any of them again,” he said.
He hoped to make his way to the runoff Dec. 4 with a quarter of the vote. He’d been hearing good things from people he came across during the campaign.
Finally, about 8 p.m. results blipped on the computer. Some 20,000 had cast early ballots in the district. Hembree got about 50 percent. Mike Dugan, a newcomer on a shoestring budget, surprisingly got 24 percent. Richardson was fourth with 11.6 percent. He was even running a distant second in his own county.
Richardson once had power and money but lost his family. Now power and money elude him, but the family is intact.
“I am sure there was a reason for all of this,” he said at night’s end, although he was not exactly sure what that was. It’s all part of a journey, he said. Maybe something that had to be exorcised so he could move on.
Tired and sinking into his couch, Richardson told a newsman on the phone he had no plans for the future. He hung up and then announced his next political move: In the morning, he would drive around to yank up his yard signs.