Ruth Culbertson Samuelson, who entered politics in Charlotte and rose to its top ranks in North Carolina before walking away three years ago, has died at 57.
Forthright and strong in her faith, Samuelson revealed in June that she had ovarian cancer. “I want people to know that God is my good friend,” she said before she died.
Samuelson died Monday morning. The funeral service will be held at 2:30 p.m. Friday at First Baptist Church near uptown Charlotte.
Samuelson, a Republican, was a Mecklenburg County commissioner for four years before being elected to the N.C. House in 2006.
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There she became known for her stands against abortion and for the environment, and for an ability to forge agreements between warring sides. She was endorsed by both the Sierra Club and the National Rifle Association.
By 2013, Samuelson was a strong candidate to become the first woman to hold the top job in the House. Instead she chose not to run for another term representing south Charlotte, saying it would take too much time from her passions for “philanthropy, faith and family” and that she wanted to pursue private sector opportunities.
She was working in Charlotte for Excellence in Giving, which helps donors make charitable decisions, when she was diagnosed with cancer.
U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, who left the House when Samuelson did, said he was “absolutely heartbroken” by the passing of a close friend. She fought her disease, Tillis said, with the strength, grace and dignity that defined her life.
“Her life was in public as it was in private: Grounded in faith and focused on serving others,” Tillis said in a statement. “Her devotion to her faith and her family served her well in the halls of the North Carolina legislature, where she worked with both sides of the aisle to become one of the most influential leaders in the state. And as Speaker of the House, there was no one I counted on more than Ruth Samuelson.”
Samuelson grew up in a staunchly Democratic family, the second of Bob and Peggy Culbertson’s four children, and for years was a self-styled nonconformist who wore bib overalls. She credited her parents with raising her to speak up and fight for what she believed in. She started voting Republican in the mid-1980s – after graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill and returning to Charlotte – as she became more vocal on her abortion beliefs.
She married Ken Samuelson of Charlotte.
In 1988, with two children of their own, Ken and Ruth Samuelson adopted a newborn in Chile. Ten years later, they won legal custody of a homeless boy from a troubled family.
Betty Doster was among Samuelson’s sorority sisters (as was future Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts) at Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority at UNC Chapel Hill. The two reconnected years later, and Samuelson became her spiritual mentor.
“She taught me a lot about faith and living it every day and having fun with it, and every time I was with her I was enriched,” said Doster, who is a special assistant to the chancellor at UNC Charlotte. “It was great that we reconnected in the last 20 years. It’s been special.”
Samuelson thought it important that women take leadership roles in the legislature, Doster said. She led by example in recruiting candidates and raising money for the GOP caucus. “She was very organized, and when she said she was going to do something, she did it,” Doster said.
Samuelson worked in the securities and insurance business before beginning her political career with an unsuccessful run for school board in 1998. Observer editorial writers didn’t know what to make of her when she landed a seat on the board of county commissioners two years later. By 2004, they judged her “smart, innovative and effective. She isn’t afraid to break new ground – or step on toes.”
She made her mark as a commissioner, in part, through her interest in environmental affairs. Samuelson was one of the first owners in Charlotte of a hybrid Toyota Prius. As a commissioner, she backed construction of greenways and was an early and important champion of the Little Sugar Creek Greenway near uptown. She once said she wanted her ashes scattered along the creek.
Mecklenburg County commissioners honored her work last month, naming a one-mile portion of the greenway through Freedom Park the Ruth Samuelson Trail.
In Raleigh, Samuelson co-chaired the legislature’s Environmental Review Commission, which vets environmental bills. In the increasingly conservative House, where she rose to become Republican conference chair, some colleagues viewed her as a moderate because of her green positions.
One of her best friends in the legislature, and her companion on weekly movie nights, was Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat. She and Samuelson bonded over the environmental and conservation bills they sponsored, sometimes to the chagrin of their parties in the polarized legislature.
“She was more of a mediator who tried to work out differences, and she was better at that than I. I think that was sort of her natural personality: She was very thoughtful and very smart about it, and seemed to read people’s thoughts,” Harrison said. “I got the sense when she was considering leadership that it might have been held against her that she was close friends with a liberal Democrat.”
Samuelson voted in 2011 to expand the solar portion of the state’s renewable energy law and two years later fought a GOP-led attempt to repeal the law. Republican Senate leaders in 2014 included Samuelson among “rogue” House members who inserted tougher measures into a coal ash bill.
Samuelson also backed a bill to put Charlotte’s airport into the hands of a commission and sponsored a voter ID bill. And as majority whip in 2011, she took her opposition to abortion to dramatic heights.
As House members debated Gov. Bev Perdue’s veto of an abortion bill that required women to wait 24 hours and have an ultrasound before the procedure, Democrats attacked it as potentially traumatizing to rape victims. Samuelson took the floor to disclose that she had once been raped.
“I’ll tell you what’s traumatic and victimizing,” she said. The House overrode the veto by one vote.
Former state Rep. Charles Jeter entered the House as a Republican freshman in Samuelson’s final term. She became his mentor, but not just about politics. Colleagues learned they could take Samuelson at her word, Jeter said, and she seemed unfazed when others disagreed with her.
“The thing I learned from Ruth is grace,” Jeter said. “You never saw her lose her cool. She was adamant in what she believed in, but she never let (differences) become personal. She was she just the epitomy of everything you would want in an elected official.”
Jeter inherited from Samuelson the job of Republican conference leader. The title didn’t exist, he said, until Samuelson had proven herself in recruiting candidates and raising campaign money. Working with Tillis, she helped recruit 32 successful GOP House candidates and raised $2.3 million in the 2012 elections.
“Not a lot of people are willing to walk away when they’re getting ready to be handed the keys to the North Carolina House,” Jeter said. “She just did everything the right way, and North Carolina is certainly worse off without her in the House, and we’re all worse off without her among us.”
North Carolina political leaders on the passing of former Rep. Ruth Samuelson:
“I was saddened to hear today of the passing of Ruth Samuelson. I had the honor of serving alongside Rep. Samuelson in the General Assembly and saw firsthand how her faith and devotion to her community drove her to serve our state with distinction and purpose.
“Ruth will be sorely missed, but her tremendous impact on Charlotte and North Carolina will live on. My thoughts and prayers are with her family and friends.” Patsy Keever, chair of the N.C. Democratic Party
“Ruth bravely fought this disease with the same strength, grace and dignity that have defined her life’s work. In doing so, she left a final legacy of unshakable faith and unwavering hope that should inspire us all. As we mourn her loss and pray for her family, we rejoice in knowing that the faith that guided Ruth’s life has now carried her home.” U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis
“It is difficult to describe what Rep. Ruth Samuelson meant to her friends and family in the North Carolina General Assembly. Ruth’s infectious personality and powerful impact on public service in North Carolina will always remain close to our hearts. She will be remembered for her inspirational commitment to improving North Carolina. Please join me in praying for Rep. Samuelson and honoring her incredible legacy in the North Carolina legislature.” N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore
“Ruth Samuelson not only showed the power of faith but the importance of family and friendship. She was a strong woman whose grace and strength will forever continue to inspire all she encountered.
“Her graceful fight against this disease was a trait that was seen in all of her life’s work, including the progress and work she completed while serving the people of North Carolina. Ruth’s kindness and guidance will remain in our hearts as her memory lives on with all those she helped and inspired.” U.S. Rep. Ted Budd
“I’m heartbroken to hear that my dear friend Ruth Samuelson has passed away. Ruth was an amazing public servant and friend; she will be greatly missed. Ruth was everything that is right with North Carolina politics. Please join me in honoring her memory and praying for her family.” N.C. House Majority Leader John Bell
“Ruth Samuelson was a true friend and leader for North Carolina. She did her job as a legislator and conference leader with poise and strength. Her strong faith in the Lord shown through each and every day and she will be missed. Our prayers go out to her husband and children during this difficult period.” Republican Conference Chair Rep. John Szoka
"Ruth's dedication to public service, her family and her fellow citizens is a shining example for all of us to follow. North Carolina is a better place because of Ruth. May her family find peace in knowing Ruth is being welcomed home with the words "well done thy good and faithful servant." N.C. Republican Party Chairman Robin Hayes