Politics & Government

State Sen. Bob Rucho says this term will be his last

North Carolina State Senator Bob Rucho listens to campaign worker Michele Hutchens outside Precinct 75 at Holy Covenant UCC in Charlotte, NC on Tuesday, May 6, 2014.
North Carolina State Senator Bob Rucho listens to campaign worker Michele Hutchens outside Precinct 75 at Holy Covenant UCC in Charlotte, NC on Tuesday, May 6, 2014. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Sen. Bob Rucho of Matthews, a major architect of everything from North Carolina’s tax policy to its voting districts, announced Thursday that he won’t seek a new term.

The Republican has served 17 years, longer than all but one other senator. He’s an accomplished lawmaker but polarizing figure.

“Rarely do you see someone work so hard and throw themselves so tenaciously into a project or policy,” Senate leader Phil Berger said in a statement. “It was Bob’s vision and conservative principles … that gave direction and intellectual heft to Republican legislators’ historic improvements.”

Rarely do you see someone work so hard and throw themselves so tenaciously into a project or policy. It was Bob’s vision and conservative principles … that gave direction and intellectual heft to Republican legislators’ historic improvements.

Senate leader Phil Berger

Democrats with whom Rucho sparred put it another way.

“More than any other senator, save perhaps Sen. Berger, he shaped the ideological agenda of the state Senate over the past couple of sessions,” said Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat.

Rucho, a retired dentist who turns 67 next month, said he decided to retire at the end of his term, which ends next year.

“Everything I wanted to achieve, tax reform … unemployment insurance, I’ve either got done or is on its way,” he said. “I’ve been working on this exit strategy for a while. If I would have run, I would have won again.”

Rucho and his wife put their Matthews house on the market several months ago. He said they plan to move to a smaller home when the younger of their two sons goes to college next year.

Everything I wanted to achieve, tax reform … unemployment insurance, I’ve either got done or is on its way.

Sen. Bob Rucho, a Matthews Republican

Rucho’s impact on North Carolina is undeniable.

As chairman of the Senate Redistricting Committee after the 2010 Census, he led the drawing of legislative and congressional districts that cemented his party’s control of the General Assembly and boosted the number of Republicans in Congress. He also supported a series of voting changes including a requirement for a voter ID.

The 2011 districts have been challenged in court. A ruling from the state Supreme Court is expected soon.

As co-chairman of the Finance Committee, Rucho led the charge for tax changes that have become part of North Carolina law. The changes lowered corporate and personal tax rates while expanding the services subject to the sales tax.

He’s also worked on legislation that helped eliminate the state’s $2.8 billion unemployment insurance debt to the federal government and a measure to make hospital bills easier to understand.

But it was tax reform that he tackled with missionary zeal, taking a PowerPoint to audiences around the state to build his case in 2013 that lower taxes would help economic growth.

So passionate was Rucho over the issue that he resigned his chairmanship when Senate leaders – in response to signals from Gov. Pat McCrory – dropped his ambitious tax overhaul plan in favor of a more modest approach. Senate leaders refused to accept his resignation.

“People will say it’s because you didn’t get your way,” Rucho said at the time. “I say no, because there’s a right way and a wrong way to do things. And if you don’t stand on principle, why should you be up here representing the people?”

Sen. Tom Apodaca of Hendersonville said Thursday, “I’ve never seen anyone take a project like Bob Rucho and get it done; that’s what we’ll miss the most. He was the best I have ever seen in the General Assembly to take something and get it finished. May not agree with what he was doing, but he’d get it done.”

I fundamentally disagreed with Rucho regarding the barriers he erected to people’s right to vote and that middle class and working families should bear a higher tax burden. But I respected his single-mindedness and his ability to pursue his agenda.

Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat

And many haven’t agreed with him. Critics said the tax changes favored the wealthy at the expense of the poor and middle class.

“I fundamentally disagreed with Rucho regarding the barriers he erected to people’s right to vote and that middle class and working families should bear a higher tax burden,” Stein said. “But I respected his single-mindedness and his ability to pursue his agenda.”

One of Rucho’s most controversial efforts came in 2013 when he introduced a bill to put Charlotte Douglas International Airport under an independent authority. The authority eventually became a commission, and the entire governance issue is tied up in court and with the Federal Aviation Administration.

“We’re all still scratching our heads over where the airport governance issue came from,” said Bob Morgan, president of the Charlotte Chamber. He called the business community’s relationship with Rucho “complicated.”

“He has been a great champion for tax reform … and of course that’s very helpful from an economic development perspective,” Morgan said. “But he’s been opposed to the investment in transit.” Rucho supported a 2007 referendum to repeal Mecklenburg’s transit tax.

Sen. Rucho is a man of absolute sincerity, even if he sincerely drives people nuts.

Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Charlotte Democrat

Rucho is the latest in a parade of lawmakers who have announced they aren’t running again, including veteran GOP Reps. Leo Daughtry of Johnston County and Paul Stam of Wake County. Filing for office begins Dec. 1. More than most, he will leave a complicated legacy.

“Sen. Rucho is a man of absolute sincerity,” said Democratic Sen. Jeff Jackson of Charlotte, “even if he sincerely drives people nuts.”

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill

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