WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - David Rouzer spent his earliest summers working on his grandfather's farm in Johnston County, about as far away from the political world as you can get. Those experiences would foster what Rouzer thought would be a career in agriculture, and he prepared during his college years at N.C. State University to go into ag-related business, before politics entered the equation.
"I always wanted to farm," the second-term incumbent from North Carolina's 7th Congressional District remembers. "In fact, when it came time to apply to colleges, I applied to NC State, UNC Chapel Hill, UNC Wilmington, Virginia Tech and a few other places. I actually got into UNC Chapel Hill before I got into NC State. But I chose NC State because of agriculture, because I thought after school that would be the career path I would pursue."
Rouzer gained some election experience on the Raleigh campus, becoming president of his fraternity shortly after pledging. He went on to earn three degrees at N.C. State (business management, economics and chemistry) and was headed to the real world with those degrees, until a semester overseas in the Czech Republic changed his plans, and his outlook on life. Rouzer's roommate that summer, Stephen, was from Romania.
Upon his graduation in December 1994, Rouzer headed to Washington, DC. Just a month earlier, Republicans had ridden then-Speaker Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America" to a big win in the mid-term elections. Rouzer thought that would be a good time to go to Washington to find a job. After all, new members of Congress needed staffers. He knocked on doors. A lot of doors. Often he'd get the same questions. "Have you ever worked on anyone's campaign?" or "Have you ever worked on the (Capitol) Hill?" The answer to both questions was 'no'. Then Rouzer knocked on the door of the man who represented his home state, Sen. Jesse Helms.
"I met his staff first, and they really liked me," Rouzer said. "His Chief of Staff in particular. He introduced me to Senator Helms. I remember in my conversation with Senator Helms he asked me 'I guess everyone asks you if you have Hill experience?' I said 'yeah, all the time'. He said 'it's kind of like they think you ought to be born with it, isn't it?' I said 'well, yeah, you could say it like that'. He said, 'well, how about a job?' That's how it started."
That started a long relationship between Rouzer and Sen. Helms. Rouzer worked on the senator's re-election campaign in 1996, and for the next few years he worked on agricultural issues as part of the senator's staff.
In 2000, Rouzer became a political candidate himself for the first time. Long-time North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Jim Graham had announced he was not going to run for re-election after serving for more than 35 years. Rouzer said several people contacted him, urging him to run as a candidate in the Republican primary. He sought the advice of Sen. Helms, and you can hear Rouzer summarize the senator's response at 19:30 of the podcast.
Rouzer lost the primary, finishing fourth in a field of six Republican candidates. "I learned two things from that race," he said. "One, if you've been on the ballot, it helps you substantially later on. Number two, is money. If you don't have the money, you can't sell yourself. All things being equal, money can be the difference."
After taking a job at N.C. State University, as Assistant to the Dean at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Rouzer went back to Sen. Helms' office to work on the tobacco quota buyout. Rouzer stayed on with Helms' successor, Elizabeth Dole, when she took office in 2003. He worked for President George. W. Bush's Administration for a short time, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, before heading back to North Carolina to become a registered lobbyist. In 2007, when state Sen. Fred Smith of Johnston County decided to run for governor, that created an opportunity. Rouzer by that time had become active in local politics, and was approached to run for the senate seat. He won and served two terms in Raleigh. During that time, state lawmakers redrew the state's congressional districts following the 2010 census. Rouzer's backyard of Johnston County was placed in the Seventh Congressional District, represented by Democrat Rep. Mike McIntyre.
"After those (congressional district) maps were released, I started getting calls from a lot of people, even people down here (in Wilmington area) that were looking for a different alternative," Rouzer said about entering the 2012 race. "So, I decided pretty quickly. A lot of things in life are timing and just the way the ball rolls."
Rouzer won the Republican primary and challenged the then-seven-term incumbent McIntyre in the General Election. The campaign was costly, and featured negative ads against both candidates. The end result was the closest House race of the year, with McIntyre retaining his seat by 655 votes out of nearly 337,000 cast.
"I looked at it this way, I'd done the best I could with what I had," Rouzer says. "The nature of that election was interesting because in our model, if I even came close to drawing even in the coastal counties, I would win the race. Ironically as it turned out, I won Pender, New Hanover and Brunswick counties as a block by 50 votes, if I recall correctly. Where I lost was in the inner counties, particularly those like Bladen County, Columbus County. Those two counties, in particular, I just got hammered."
By 2014, McIntyre decided not to seek re-election. Rouzer entered the race for a second time, won the Republican primary and defeated New Hanover Commissioner Jonathan Barfield in the General Election. In 2016, he easily defeated J. Wesley Casteen to win re-election. As for how long Rouzer plans to keep running for office, it doesn't sound like he has plans to step away any time soon.
"I've got some things I'd like to get done for the district, particularly finding a permanent solution to dredging our inlets and waterways and our beach renourishment efforts," he said. "Those issues are so critical to the economy here. I really want to get that done. I've got some ideas that I'm exploring with my committee chairman in the House. We'll see what the future holds. As long as I can continue to make a contribution to the district, and help the country as well. then I plan to continue to serve."
You can listen to the entire interview with David Rouzer on the free "1on1 with Jon Evans" podcast:
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