Charlotte Republican Rep. Ruth Samuelson, one of North Carolina’s highest profile lawmakers and a top contender for House speaker, said Tuesday that she won’t run for a fifth term.
Samuelson, 53, said she decided that a continued political career would take too much time from other passions, “philanthropy, faith and family.” She also plans to pursue business opportunities.
“We realized that my current trajectory in the House ruled out a lot of other things that are more important to us,” she told the Observer. “We’ve got a lot of awesome opportunities. We wanted to be more intentional.”
Samuelson, who hadn’t hidden her desire to be the state’s first female speaker, plans to leave the House when her term ends after next year’s election.
But the decision by the Republican Conference Leader creates another key vacancy in House leadership and deprives Republicans of a top fundraiser.
With House Speaker Thom Tillis of Cornelius running for the U.S. Senate, it also means Mecklenburg County will lose its two most powerful lawmakers.
“It’s going to leave a huge hole for Mecklenburg,” said GOP Rep. Bill Brawley of Matthews. “In 2015 Mecklenburg will not have as much power in a Republican-controlled House with both Thom and Ruth retiring.”
Samuelson’s decision comes on the heels of a recent letter from longtime GOP Rep. Paul Stam of Wake County telling colleagues he won’t run for speaker in 2015. Both decisions create a wide-open race to succeed Tillis.
Possible candidates include Reps. Edgar Starnes of Hickory, David Lewis of Harnett County, Tim Moore of King’s Mountain, Tim Moffitt of Asheville and Mike Hager of Rutherfordton.
“Ruth Samuelson is a gifted leader, a dedicated public servant, and a trusted friend,” Tillis said in a statement Tuesday night. “She has accomplished a great deal for her district and our state. Her service to North Carolina is matched only by her devotion to her family and her faith.”
Democratic Rep. Tricia Cotham of Matthews said, “We’ve definitely disagreed over many policy issues, but I certainly have respected her in her political work. … She been a tough and reliable advocate … and has worked very hard for her party and her policies. I respect her and I personally like her.”
In an email to colleagues Tuesday night, Samuelson said she plans “to continue working on your behalf and am committed to raise/donate a total of $250,000 for caucus efforts prior to my passing that torch along.”
As chair of the House GOP campaign committee in 2012, she monitored two dozen close House races and made sure Republican candidates got the help they needed. From her own campaign, she gave the party and its candidates nearly $250,000.
All that helped elect a record 77 Republicans.
This session, Samuelson was a primary sponsor of bills to require a voter ID, limit abortions, create a Charlotte airport commission and help the Carolina Panthers.
Well-spoken and quick on her feet, she was often cast in the role of spokeswoman. Her caucus often tapped her to take the lead in floor debate on issues such as voter ID.
This year, when city officials asked lawmakers to let them raise taxes to help the Panthers renovate their 17-year-old stadium, Republicans balked. It was Samuelson who helped negotiate a compromise.
The General Assembly ended up passing a bill that allowed the city to use an existing occupancy tax. Samuelson, one of four co-sponsors, was the one who explained the bill in committees and on the floor.
Lobbyist Connie Wilson, a former legislator, called her a “mediation specialist.” Democratic Rep. Pricey Harrison of Greensboro said Samuelson has “a natural skill at being able to mediate and negotiate and help folks reach a compromise.”
“Obviously we agree to disagree on a wide variety of issues,” said Sen. Malcolm Graham, a Charlotte Democrat. “Her heart’s in the right place. I think her policies are misguided. … But at the end of the day she’s public servant … and that’s to be commended.”
Before being elected in 2006, Samuelson served as a Mecklenburg commissioner from 2000 to 2004. In both positions, she earned a reputation as a friend to the environment.
Will Morgan of the Nature Conservancy has called her a “champion of conservation.” Dallas Woodhouse, former N.C. director of the conservative Americans for Prosperity, has said she “leans a little more green” than his group.
Samuelson graduated from UNC Chapel Hill in 1981. For years she was a self-described nonconformist who liked to wear bib overalls. After returning to Charlotte in the mid-1980s, she saw that as an impediment.
Samuelson became vocal in anti-abortion efforts and began voting Republican.
Announcing her decision in an email to GOP colleagues Tuesday night, Samuelson said, “There have been several private sector opportunities develop for me since the session adjourned that tap into some lifelong passions of mine.
“Coupled with a growing family and exciting opportunities with my church community, now is the time to set the stage for a great second half of my life.”