Ruth Samuelson, former lawmaker, dies at 57

Ruth Samuelson, former lawmaker, dies at 57

CHARLOTTE, NC (Bruce Henderson/The Charlotte Observer) - Ruth Culbertson Samuelson, who entered politics 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 at the time.

Samuelson died Monday morning and funeral services will be Friday at First Baptist Church, said Ken Poe of Kenneth W. Poe Funeral & Cremation Services. Details have not been finalized.

Samuelson, a Republican, served as a Mecklenburg County commissioner for four years before being elected to the N.C. House in 2006.

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. One of Samuelson's best friends in the House was Rep. Pricey Harrison, a liberal Democrat from Greensboro.

By 2013, Samuelson was a strong candidate to become the first female 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 as speaker 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, but started voting Republican in the mid-1980s, after returning to Charlotte after graduating from UNC Chapel Hill, as she became more vocal on her abortion beliefs.

In 1988, with two children of their own, Ken and Ruth Samuelson couple 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 (with 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 businesses 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 signature project, the Little Creek Sugar Creek Greenway near uptown. She once said she wanted her ashes scattered along the creek.

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.

A friend 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."