Judy Cromer clearly remembers the day she first met Rep. Sue Myrick. At the time, though, she says she had no idea who she was talking with.
It was the fall of 1999, soon after Hurricane Floyd struck Eastern North Carolina and flooded thousands of homes. A “little tiny lady with her cell phone to her ear” walked into the Volunteer Center in Pender County where Cromer served as director.
“ ‘Hi. My name is Sue and I am a volunteer. What can I do to help?’ ” Cromer recalls Myrick saying.
Looking at the small woman, with no clue she was a member of Congress, an exasperated Cromer sarcastically blurted out she needed a “ton of money, a ton of volunteers and homes for these people.”
Within months, Myrick rounded up millions in private cash donations, more than a thousand Mennonite volunteers, and more than 40 mobile homes (donated anonymously by a bank) to be given to the neediest families in Pender and Duplin Counties, said Cromer.
Cromer eventually learned of the congresswoman’s identity, and Myrick attended weekly meetings with Cromer and families who described their needs.
“She put on her baseball hat and sat in the back,” Cromer said. “The only thing she asked in return was that I did not tell anybody she was doing this.”
The image of Myrick in a ball cap at the back of room secretly trying to help residents who lived more than 200 miles from her Charlotte-area Congressional district is much different than her public life as a politician. In the public arena, she has been at the center of heated debates on controversial issues including immigration and terrorism. But the image of her working on behalf of vulnerable North Carolina families is exactly what friends and colleagues say defines her the best.
“I’m not sure people realized how hard she worked and how much she cared for people and did things behind the scenes,” said her longtime chief of staff Hal Weatherman, who now works for her son, N.C. Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Forest.
Myrick, 71, announced in February that she would not seek a 10th term in Congress. She gave no reason for her decision and has declined multiple requests for interviews. She used her Facebook account to publicize her decision.
“I’m grateful for the privilege of serving you. We have all been blessed by staff members who truly care and delight in helping to solve problems for everyone in the district. Thanks for the trust you have placed in us all these years,” she wrote.
Friends and colleagues say she and her husband, Ed, plan to travel. She will be replaced by Robert Pittenger, a former Republican N.C. senator, who defeated then-County Commissioner Jennifer Roberts, a Democrat, in the November election.
“She just said, ‘I had enough,’ ” said Jim Pendergraph, who is both a former Mecklenburg County commissioner and the former sheriff. Pendergraph is a longtime friend who unsuccessfully ran in the Republican primary to replace Myrick. “She said ‘I want to spend time with my family. I spent too much time away from my husband.’ ”
Myrick will receive a pension of approximately $48,000 annually, according to estimates by Peter Sepp, executive vice president of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Taxpayers Union.
A former advertising executive, Myrick was an elected official for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg community across three decades. She joined the Charlotte City Council in 1983. Four years later, she became the city’s first female mayor.
She ran for the U.S. Senate in 1992, but was beaten in the Republican primary. Two years later, she won the 9th Congressional District – a position she held for 18 years.
U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry, a Lincoln County Republican who is starting his fifth term after joining Congress at age 33, called Myrick a mentor. He said her experience in local government, particularly as mayor, helped shape how she approached her job in Congress. Her highest priority was to serve people in the community.
“I don’t know of a Republican member of Congress who has been mayor of a city bigger than Charlotte,” McHenry said. “That experience is invaluable.”
At the time of her election, Myrick was part of the famed “Republican revolution” that made Newt Gingrich Speaker of the House and restored Republican power in the House after 40 years of Democratic rule.
Myrick was a leader of her freshman class in 1995 and acted as a liaison with leadership.
“They really upended the place when they came in,” said Eric Heberlig, a political scientist at UNC Charlotte. “Much like the Tea Party faction today, they came in to clean the place up and put the breaks on spending.”
She joined the powerful Rules Committee that decided which bills and amendments go to the floor. She was the first female chair of the Republican Study Committee, which is a caucus of House members that supports a conservative agenda.
Myrick was one of the most socially and fiscally conservative members of the House. But after surviving breast cancer, her focus shifted a bit to health care and women’s issues. She led efforts to provide Medicaid coverage for mammograms for low-income women. She also co-sponsored a bill that required research on possible connections between cancer and environmental pollutants.
Myrick may be best remembered for her outspokenness on illegal immigration and terrorism.
She had her share of both supporters and critics. Her supporters were plentiful, turning out to hear her speak at various events and repeatedly casting their ballots to keep her in office. Her critics accused her of fomenting hate against immigrant and Muslim communities.
She penned the forward to a book – “Muslim Mafia” – whose researchers called Islam a disease.
Citing the book, she joined other Republicans in 2009 calling for an investigation of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a pro-Islam nonprofit, accusing it of planting “spies” within national-security committees to shape legislative policy.
“She’s just seems caught up in this phobia about who Muslims are,” said Jibril Hough, a spokesman for the Islamic Center of Charlotte. “I honestly believe that she really thinks there is a conspiracy behind almost any Muslim in public life. That’s what her legacy will be. Someone who promoted Islam-o-phobia and thinks there is a conspiracy behind every Muslim in public life. That we’re infiltrating.”
As a member of the House Intelligence Committee, she publicly criticized the U.S. intelligence community for failing to stop Charlotte resident Samir Khan, who was promoting al-Qaida’s principles online. Khan moved to Yemen and edited an online magazine for al-Qaida. He was later killed in a U.S. drone strike in which the primary target was U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who recruited terrorists.
Despite her criticism of intelligence work at times, Myrick was presented this month with the National Intelligence Distinguished Public Service Medal for “extraordinary contributions” in support of the intelligence community. It is the highest award someone who is not officially part of the intelligence community can receive.
Weatherman, Myrick’s longtime aide, acknowledged the controversies that surrounded Myrick, but he said those troubles came with the territory.
“Did she champion causes that were high profile? Yes,” he said. “Did she butt heads when those things happened? Of course. If you believe in something and you’re going to stand for something, you expect criticism to come with it.”
But he said what really made Myrick tick was helping people like those affected by Hurricane Floyd.
When a popular teacher from her district was killed in a 2005 car wreck by an illegal immigrant who had prior drunken driving convictions, she introduced legislation to deport any illegal immigrant convicted of drunken driving. The bill passed the House but died in the Senate. She reintroduced the “Scott Gardner Act” – named for the teacher – in 2011, and it has made its way to a Senate committee.
And she helped Pendergraph implement the popular but controversial 287g program, which allowed the sheriff to place arrested illegal immigrants into deportation proceedings.
“She was the one who actually greased the skids to get the 287g lined up for me in a very quick manner,” Pendergraph said. “Usually those things take a long time to get through all the red tape. She cut through the red tape. Because she knew how big an issue that was here in Charlotte, Mecklenburg County.”
Critics like Maudia Melendez, head of the Charlotte advocacy group Jesus Ministry, said the program was used primarily to nab minor offenders. Data for Mecklenburg County’s deportation effort shows, for example, that in 2010 only 12 percent of the deportation proceedings were for felons.
But Melendez said despite Myrick’s anti-immigrant talk and policies she championed nationally, the congresswoman helped immigrants locally, another sign of Myrick’s commitment to constituent service.
In one example, Myrick stepped in during the summer of 2010 and helped a Brazilian pastor get his green card, which had been stalled in bureaucratic paperwork, Melendez said. And Myrick helped a former undocumented student who had left the country to study abroad return to Charlotte on a student visa for a visit, Melendez said.
“It was a tough relationship,” Melendez said. “Even though she was against immigration, we had some tough cases that she helped us with – immigration cases. And that is why I have mixed feelings right now.”