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David Lewis, key leader in the NC House, announces surprise retirement

Posted July 24, 2020 4:23 p.m. EDT
Updated July 24, 2020 7:34 p.m. EDT

Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett

— A top leader in the state House announced Friday that he plans to retire at the end of this term instead of seeking re-election as planned.

Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, will be replaced on the November ballot by local party officials. He spent 18 years in the House and rose to become one of the state's most powerful Republicans, chairing the House Rules Committee that holds sway over whether legislation lives or dies in Raleigh.

Lewis, 49, also had a large hand in state voting laws that passed in recent years, including controversial redistricting plans and voter ID legislation that sparked multiple lawsuits over the last half decade.

The coming elections will decide who holds a majority in the General Assembly and thus who controls the next round of redistricting.

“The time has come to focus my energies in new directions and to allow another capable leader to serve in this important role," Lewis said in a statement. "As such, I have decided to not seek re-election."

House Rules is a way station of sorts for bills as they travel a byzantine path through the General Assembly. The long hours have weighed on Lewis for a while, according to House Majority Leader John Bell, who sits next to Lewis in the chamber.

"You're there before people get there," Bell, R-Wayne, said. "You're there after people leave."

Lewis' family farm has struggled in recent years, facing liens from creditors. At one point Lewis took a loan from a Republican donor who was later indicted and convicted in an unrelated federal bribery case.

In his statement, Lewis said serving in the House came with "great personal sacrifice and loss of valuable time with my family, as well as my livelihood."

"I will never be able to truly know how many times my assistance with homework was missed or how many ballgames, school award ceremonies, church events, family vacations and all the once-in-a-lifetime moments that I have forgone while serving in the House," he said.

Lewis is affable and well liked at the legislature. He overcame a speech impediment, though a stutter often pops up when he speaks on the House floor.

"I've taken speech therapy most of my life," Lewis told the WUNC Politics Podcast last year. "I don't feel it particularly limits what I do. ... I'm very thankful that the people of Harnett County haven't let that – they haven't felt that my service is impaired just because sometimes my speech is."

Outside the General Assembly, Lewis is best known for controversy. During a 2016 court-mandated redraw of the state's congressional map, he gave the quote that would feature prominently in the legal slog that followed.

“I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats," he said at the time.

The lawsuit that eventually overturned that map bore his name: Harper v. Lewis.

Lewis was also at the center of last year's controversial House vote to overturn Gov. Roy Cooper's budget veto.

House Minority Leader Darren Jackson said Lewis told him not to expect votes on the morning of Sept. 11, and Jackson relayed that message to other Democrats. But when the Republican majority arrived in numbers that morning and saw most Democrats absent, Speaker Tim Moore moved the vote through.

The acrimony that followed was national news. Lewis said it was a misunderstanding. The vote ended up not mattering much outside of intra-House politics, as Republicans in the Senate weren't able to gin up enough numbers to complete the override and pass the budget.

Democrats often gave Lewis marks for bipartisanship, though. He helped craft a pandemic elections bill earlier this year that won wide support, though some Democrats worried a short phrase was geared toward GOP legal strategy in an ongoing voter ID lawsuit.

That was borne out in a court filing that followed.

Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, who often worked with Lewis on election issues, called his retirement "a big loss for our chamber."

"He's handled a lot of really hard issues and fought really hard," Harrison said. "I have found him to be really good to work with on issues that could at times be hyper-partisan and difficult."

Lewis did not return a WRAL News message Friday seeking more information about his retirement, but colleagues said they believe his announcement is just what it seems to be. He spent much of that announcement thanking staff members, 16 of whom he mentioned by name.

"Rep. David Lewis is one of the kindest, most decent people I have ever known," House Republican Caucus Director Stephen Wiley said. "It is a shame that most only know him as a caricature based on what they've read online or heard from other people."

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