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In busy session, Samuelson has one eye on the next

RALEIGH The most visible office in a legislative building full of cramped spaces is a prized, second-floor suite behind a wall of glass, steps from the House chamber.

Legislators rush in and out. Lobbyists hover outside the tall windows, waiting a turn with one of North Carolina’s most visible lawmakers.

As one of a handful of House Republican leaders, Rep. Ruth Samuelson has been in the middle of some of the session’s biggest issues.

She’s a primary sponsor of bills to require a voter ID, limit abortions, create a Charlotte airport authority and help the Carolina Panthers.

Well-spoken and quick on her feet, she’s often cast in the role of spokeswoman. Before last week’s debate on voter ID, she was tapped by her caucus to respond to Democratic amendments.

“My primary job right now is to make our caucus successful at the things we need to be successful at,” she says. “That’s what drives me.”

But the Charlotte Republican has her eye on another job.

Current House Speaker Thom Tillis of Cornelius has said this term would be his last; he’s expected to run for the U.S. Senate. Behind the scenes, the race to succeed him is on.

And Samuelson, 53, is on almost everybody’s short list.

“There have been members that have approached me about it,” she says. “So I’ve thought, ‘You need to be prepared.’ I’m trying to get myself ready.”

The chance to become the first female legislator to lead either chamber is one reason the former Mecklenburg County commissioner decided not to run for mayor of Charlotte, a possibility created last month when incumbent Democrat Anthony Foxx announced he won’t seek a third term.

“Speaker was probably the logical next step,” says Samuelson, 53.

She would be a strong candidate. A four-term lawmaker, she’s a proven fundraiser.

As caucus campaign chair in 2012, she monitored two dozen close races and made sure GOP 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.

Now, part of her job as GOP conference leader is to help the party’s 32 freshmen.

But she would face hurdles.

In an overwhelmingly conservative caucus, some perceive her as a moderate, especially on environmental issues. Last week she was one of a handful of Republicans who, with Democrats, voted against a GOP bill that would have killed the state’s renewable energy program.

Then there’s the geography problem.

“Ruth’s biggest challenge … is not her positions,” says Dallas Woodhouse, state director of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group that opposed her on the energy bill. “Her biggest challenge is that these (positions) tend to move around geographically.”

She would be the second speaker in a row – and third since 1999 – from Mecklenburg County.

“People said we would never elect a governor from Charlotte,” Samuelson says, “and we elected a governor from Charlotte.”

From a Democratic family

The woman who would lead House Republicans comes from a staunchly Democratic family. She once said her mother, a former planning commissioner with a passion for land conservation, wanted her to be a “radically liberal feminist.”

Growing up in an era of busing, she attended six schools by the time she’d graduated from West Charlotte High. Moving so often, she says, made her sensitive to the feelings of other kids who found themselves with new classmates in new schools. She liked to help them make friends.

“I’m a connector,” she says. “I was always disappointed when they met their own friends.”

Samuelson graduated from UNC Chapel Hill in 1981. For years she was a self-described non-conformist who liked to wear bib overalls. After returning to Charlotte in the mid-1980s, she saw that as an impediment.

“I finally realized being a nonconformist in the way I dressed stopped me from getting things done,” she once told a reporter.

Samuelson became vocal in anti-abortion efforts and began voting Republican. “I just realized that the way I thought was more like what Republicans thought,” she once said. She and her husband Ken became active in their church, at one time opening their home as transitional housing for missionaries and seminarians.

In 1988, with two kids of their own, they adopted a newborn in Chile. Samuelson brought back not only a child but a life-threatening case of typhoid fever that caused her “to re-evaluate a lot of things about my life.”

Ten years later, they won legal custody of a homeless boy from a troubled family. He’s now 24.

“It’s hard to imagine much around here phasing her in light of the fact she’s had teenagers and has been through trials,” says lobbyist Rob Lamme.

‘Mediation specialist’

This year, when Charlotte 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 allows the city to use an existing occupancy tax. Samuelson was one of four co-sponsors, but the one who explained the bill in committees and on the floor.

Lobbyist Connie Wilson, a former legislator, calls her a “mediation specialist.”

“She’s turning into the person who tries to find consensus on issues,” Wilson says.

Democratic Rep. Pricey Harrison of Greensboro says Samuelson has “a natural skill at being able to mediate and negotiate and help folks reach a compromise.”

Samuelson says some of that stems from growing up in a family “where it was OK to disagree.”

“It’s hard to mediate if you can’t … understand or empathize with the other side,” she says.

In 2011 Samuelson was a main advocate of a bill requiring women to wait 24 hours and have an ultrasound before getting an abortion. Passed by the House, it was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue. During the over-ride debate, critics argued the measure would traumatize rape victims.

Samuelson rose.

“I’ll tell you what’s traumatic and victimizing,” she said, acknowledging that she’d been a rape victim herself at 15. That ended debate.

House lawmakers over-rode the veto by a single vote.

Support for environmental issues

Few question Samuelson’s credentials as a social or fiscal conservative. It’s her stands on the environment that give some pause.

As a Mecklenburg County commissioner a decade ago, she championed the Little Sugar Creek Greenway. Eventually, she says, she wants her ashes scattered along it.

Will Morgan of the Nature Conservancy calls Samuelson a “champion of conservation.” Molly Diggins, state Sierra Club director, says she “combines a deep appreciation for the importance of clean air and clean water … with a pragmatic approach to the legislative process.”

Woodhouse of Americans for Prosperity says Samuelson “leans a little more green” than his group. “But,” he says, “you know that going in.”

Last week his group fought hard for Republican Rep. Mike Hager’s bill to end state subsidies of renewable energy. It failed. “This was a horrible vote by Republicans,” an angry Woodhouse told a reporter. “And they need to be held accountable.”

Hager, himself a possible candidate for speaker, says he has “a lot of respect for Ruth.”

“She’s passionate about what she believes.” he says. “She’s not as conservative as I am but she’s conservative.”

Over the next few months, House Republicans will be taking the measure of Samuelson and other would-be leaders.

“If any of us said, ‘Who are the top contenders?’ she’d be on every list,” says GOP Rep. Craig Horn of Weddington. “Now we’ve got to see who else is on every list.”

POSSIBLE SPEAKER CANDIDATES

With House Speaker Thom Tillis stepping down after this term, House Republicans are already chattering about a successor if they keep the House in 2014. No one has formally declared, but here are some names that pop up along with that of Ruth Samuelson.

•  Mike Hager, 50, Rutherfordton: Former engineer for Duke Energy; GOP majority whip in his second term; a leader of conservative faction.

•  Bert Jones, 50, Reidsville: Elected as Independent, turned Republican in 2011; chairs Health and Human Services committee, co-sponsored controversial Defense of Religion Act.

•  David Lewis, 42, Dunn: sixth term; co-chairs committees on Elections and Finance; point man on 2011 House redistricting.

•  Tim Moffett, 48, Asheville: Second-termer chairs the Regulatory Reform committee; sponsor of controversial bill involving Asheville’s water system.

•  Tim Moore, 42, Kings Mountain: Lawyer in his sixth term; chairs Rules committee and co-chairs elections panel.

• Tom Murry: 35, Morrisville: second term; chairs a Regulatory Reform subcommittee.

• Paul Stam: 62, Apex: Speaker Pro Tem in his seventh term; social conservative, lead sponsor of bill for non-partisan redistricting process.

•  Edgar Starnes, 56, Hickory: One of House’s most senior members in his 10th term; GOP majority leader; says he’s not a candidate for Speaker.

RUTH SAMUELSON

Born: Nov. 4, 1959.

Parents: Peggy Culbertson, former Charlotte-Mecklenburg planning commissioner; Bob Culbertson was on the school board.

Family: Husband Ken; four children, ages 24-27; one grandchild.

Education: Bachelor’s in speech communications, UNC Chapel Hill, 1981.

Occupation: Philanthropic consulting.

Elected offices: Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners, 2000-2004; N.C. House 2007-present.

Morrill: 704-358-5059
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