RALEIGH, N.C. — Rep. Harold Brubaker, the first and only Republican House speaker of the 20th century and most recently the chamber's senior budget-writer, announced Thursday he's retiring from the General Assembly immediately.
Brubaker, from Randolph County, said he was stepping down from his seat a week after the short budget-adjustment session ended. Republican leaders in his district would pick a replacement candidate to run in the November election.
Brubaker, 65, said in an interview he had decided early last year that he would leave the legislature when he felt confident the House was led by a new generation of Republicans who could govern. The chamber is in good hands, he said, and he didn't want to just stick around.
"My role is to train the next majority," Brubaker told The Associated Press, adding "if I was going to retire, I wanted to make sure that I was going to retire when I was up on top."
Brubaker, the speaker from 1995 through 1998, had an upfront view of the transformation of the North Carolina Republican Party, which for decades had been little more than a speed bump for Democrats on the way to general election victories in an era of one-party government.
When Brubaker arrived in the House in 1977, Democrats held a whopping 114 of the 120 seats in the chamber, partly the result of the extended post-Watergate drubbing the GOP took.
Brubaker said his goal was always to become House speaker but kept it largely to himself because it seems almost absurd in the 1970s: "They would have laughed me out of the building."
The numbers steadily improved for Republicans and Brubaker, who became minority leader in the early 1980s.
Republicans swept into power nationwide during the 1994 elections and took a 68-52 majority that year in the North Carolina House. Brubaker, who owns a real estate appraisal company in Asheboro, was the first Republican voted to the speaker's post since 1895. He embarked on carrying out an eight-point pre-election contract signed by GOP candidates.
He succeeded at negotiating with two powerful Democrats – Gov. Jim Hunt and Senate leader Marc Basnight – by passing tax cuts and putting a referendum on the ballot that ultimately made North Carolina the final state to give its governor veto power. Democrats and even some Republicans chafed at the GOP's governing style under the reign of Brubaker and Rules Chairman Richard Morgan of Moore County.
"To all my colleagues, I want to thank you for the friendship, which I will always cherish as well as a lifetime of memories from all the spirited legislative battles," Brubaker said in a written statement.
Brubaker's second term as speaker was more difficult as Republicans held only a two-seat majority in the House and were squarely in the minority in the Senate.
Brubaker returned to the House floor in 1999 after Democrats took back the majority in the 1998 elections. Even in his early 50s, Brubaker was considered an elder statesman among House Republicans, content to play a low-key role and quietly swaying fellow caucus members on key business-friendly legislation.
Current House Speaker Thom Tillis called Brubaker "my mentor, a trusted colleague, and a dear friend. "
His "commitment to fiscal conservatism and his mastery of the legislative process have made him one of the most effective legislators in our state's history," said Tillis, R-Mecklenburg.
Brubaker, a Pennsylvania native who moved to North Carolina in 1969, had one more big part to play when both the House and Senate went Republican following the 2010 elections for the first time since 1870. With Republicans lacking a deep bench of veteran committee leaders, Brubaker stayed on as senior chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
He helped draw up a two-year budget bill in 2011 that Gov. Beverly Perdue vetoed – a historic first for a spending plan – but was quickly overridden with the help of a handful of House Democrats. The 2011 plan let expire temporary sales and income tax increases approved by Democrats in 2009 that generated $1 billion annually.
Brubaker said Republicans set the tone "that government must live within our means. We do not have to raise taxes."
Perdue vetoed a budget-adjustment bill two weeks ago, but that was overridden only 10 days before Brubaker's announcement.
On Thursday, the governor called Brubaker "a good friend."
“The North Carolina House will certainly miss his experience and depth of knowledge. His long-time service to the state and to the voters of the 78th district will be missed,” she said in a statement.
Brubaker, who is also a cattle farmer, said he would expand his business to include consulting and lobbying work, with help from his son. State law permits Brubaker to register as a lobbyist early next year as the next two-year General Assembly session begins in January.
It wasn't immediately clear if Republicans in Brubaker's district also would choose someone to serve out his term through the end of the year. Barring a veto override session, lawmakers aren't expected to reconvene again in 2012.