She Translates Issues Into Personal Choices

The Charlotte Observer
Richard Rubin
Oct 14, 2004

Mecklenburg County commissioner Ruth Samuelson has a Tony Stewart No. 20 sticker on the back of her car, right next to a Bush-Cheney decal.

That sounds like the vehicle of a gas-guzzling, NASCAR-loving conservative Republican. Except that the car is a hybrid Toyota Prius, and it's an example of the way Samuelson relentlessly reduces big-picture political issues into personal choices. The 44-year-old homemaker has represented southeast Mecklenburg's District 5 for four years, but now she's risking that safe seat to run at-large.

Local politics watchers consider her the favorite in the seven-candidate race for three seats, and if Republicans keep their majority, there's a good chance she will end up as the board chair.

If so, Government Channel watchers will likely hear two years of tough talk on taxes and frequent references to her four teenagers.

To Samuelson, the $1.1 billion county budget becomes a household budget, an approach that fuels her fiscal conservatism and aversion to tax increases.

She turns a discussion on environmental regulations into a lesson on raising children. Mandates, she contends, always prompt a backlash, whereas a collaborative approach can yield a similar result with less angst.

When she brings up the county's social services programs, she talks about her family's trip through the foster-care system to adopt their youngest son.

And on her favorite subject - the Little Sugar Creek Greenway - Samuelson put her money where her vote is.

During a recent candidates' forum, she described a springtime drive home from a funeral with her husband, Ken. They were talking about whether they would have any regrets if they died, and she mentioned one.

"I said my one concern is that if I died tomorrow, the greenways wouldn't get done," she recalled. So the Samuelsons took out a $1 million, 10-year term life insurance policy on her, and designated the proceeds for the greenway.

"She brings a woman's perspective to the board, which I also think is very useful," said fellow Republican commissioner Jim Puckett. "I wouldn't want to live in the world that me and (Republican) Bill James alone ran. Ruth, she agrees with us, but she probably makes us better at what we do, and we probably make her better at what she does."

For the past two years, Samuelson has been part of the Republicans' 5-4 majority, a group that has not always been cohesive. On several crucial issues, Republican Chairman Tom Cox either voted with the Democrats or declined to work with the other four Republicans to develop a clear party position.

That left Samuelson and Cox casting wary, tense glances at each other across the dais. Samuelson worked with Puckett, James and Dan Ramirez to hammer out their own budget.

In 2003, they got Cox to join them on a budget that cut property taxes. In 2004, they did not, and Cox joined the Democrats to raise property taxes.

Samuelson's top priorities include a new approach to funding schools.

She said the county should give up to half its budget - roughly the current amount - to education, and reserve the rest for other county programs, such as social services, parks, mental health and libraries. She argues that her approach would give Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools the freedom to set its own priorities and force the school board to understand the limits on the county's resources.

Cox, a moderate Republican, decided not to run for re-election this year. But Samuelson, daughter of Bob and Peggy Culbertson, prominent Charlotte Democrats, said a new Republican majority won't necessarily be more conservative than this year's bunch.

"I think," she said, "they will be more consistent."

Ruth Samuelson

  • Party: Republican.
  • Age: 44.
  • Address: 800 Huntington Park Drive, Charlotte, NC 28211.
  • Occupation: Homemaker, county commissioner.
  • Elected offices: Mecklenburg County commissioner, District 5, 2000-present.
  • Family: Husband Ken and children Bobby, David, Joy and Alex.
  • Education: UNC Chapel Hill, B.A. in speech communications, 1981. The American College, post-graduate studies and chartered life underwriter, 1985.
  • Telephone: (704) 366-8748.
  • Internet or e-mail:;

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