State Rep. Debra Conrad said Monday she will not seek a fifth legislative term, expressing readiness for the next chapter of her business and Republican political careers.
Conrad, the owner of a marketing firm in Winston-Salem, confirmed she will finish her current term in the legislature.
“Representing the people of Forsyth County is a tremendous honor, and I will continue to stand up for their conservative values as long as I serve them,” Conrad said.
Conrad, 68, timed her announcement to coincide with the decision of four-term Lewisville Town Councilman Jeff Zenger to pursue the GOP nomination for what will be an open District 74 seat.
Zenger, 55, has owned real estate, building, and development businesses for three decades. He is currently president of Lisha Construction LLC.
“I have been thinking about this step since January, talking with key advisers back home and colleagues in Raleigh about opportunities that might come up over the next 12 months,” Conrad said.
Conrad did not mention any political statewide office she may be considering.
“I’m not the retiring type,” Conrad said. “I have lots of energy and passion about politics and enjoy being around Raleigh and sorting out state issues.
“It’s just time to transition into something new and exciting.”
Conrad’s decision comes as the latest redrawing of the state’s legislative maps may make District 74 more competitive in 2020 than it has been in recent elections.
Conrad won re-election in 2018 with 54.5% of the vote to Democratic challenger Terri LeGrand’s 45.5%.
The District 74 configuration would take in southwestern Forsyth County and reach into Winston-Salem at various points.
Although the proposed district includes strongly Republican parts of western Forsyth, it also includes substantial areas of dependably Democratic voting on the southwestern side of Winston-Salem.
Democrat Dan Besse, a Winston-Salem city councilman, announced in September plans to “vigorously contest” Conrad for the District 74 seat. Besse unsuccessfully ran against GOP Rep. Donny Lambeth in 2018 for District 75, which contained Clemmons but not Lewisville.
District 74 would be pivotal to Democrats’ chances of regaining control of the state House for the first time since 2010. Republicans currently have a 65-55 advantage.
Of the state’s five urban counties, Forsyth is the only one where Republicans have an advantage, at 3-2. Democrats hold all 10 House seats in Mecklenburg and Wake counties, all four in Durham County and have a 4-2 advantage in Guilford County.
Conrad said the redrawn District 74 did not play a major role in her decision, nor the length of the 2018 and 2019 sessions.
“If I chose to run for re-election in 2020, I have no doubt that I would win,” Conrad said. “The newly drawn 74th District still leans Republican, and I previously won election to the General Assembly by overwhelming margins in all four campaigns.”
However, Conrad said “it has been a juggling act running my business, given the time commitments the recent sessions have required.”
“I wanted to wait until the dust settled with the legislative redistricting maps so to see what District 74 looked like and who might be interested in serving.”
Besse said Conrad’s decision to not seek re-election is “definitely an interesting announcement.”
“I had been looking forward to a great debate over our contrasting view on access to health care, fully funding public schools and clear air and water.
“It’s likely the winner of the GOP primary will represent similar views as Rep. Conrad.”
Besse said “we already knew District 74 would be a toss-up. That speaks to the competitiveness of the race and how hard we will have to campaign to be successful.”
Conrad said she stressed to Zenger the realities of running for what would be an open seat, particularly the expense, given she said there was nearly $1 million spent on the 2018 campaign by herself and LeGrand.
“I am pleased to announce that (Jeff) will be running for the General Assembly, and he is a solid conservative,” Conrad said.
“He is well known and well liked in Lewisville and Clemmons. He seems to have a lot of energy and passion to serve in the legislature.”
Zenger said in a statement he believes Conrad’s endorsement will resonate with District 74 voters.
“I want to go to Raleigh to fight for the traditional values and conservative principles that make North Carolina great,” Zenger said. “I will work tirelessly to win this campaign, and continue to work hard for the people of Forsyth County as their state representative.”
Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College in Salisbury, rates both Conrad’s and state Sen. Joyce Krawiec’s (R-31st) potential districts as competitive districts that lean Republican. Bitzer published his analysis of the new districts on his Old North State Politics blog on Sept. 18.
Bitzer “predicts” the Republican should get 54.5% of the vote in House 74, and 54.1% of the vote in Senate 31. The prediction word is in quotation marks because Bitzer takes pains to point out that his model isn’t attempting to say who’ll actually win. He’s only looking for patterns based on 2016 voting.
Mitch Kokai, senior policy analyst with Libertarian think tank John Locke Foundation, said that “it’s entirely possible that new district lines helped prompt Rep. Conrad to consider a change.”
“Rather than relearn her reconfigured state House district constituency, it sounds as if she’s ready to tackle a new challenge.
“Given that more than one statewide Council of State position will have an opening next year, it’s possible that she figured now was a good time to make a move.”
Two of Conrad's Forsyth Republican colleagues praised her legislative work, particularly with constituents.
"I have witnessed first hand her passion for less government, lower taxes, less regulations, yet a champion for economic growth for our region," Rep. Donny Lambeth said.
"I am proud of her accomplishments and the passion she brought to the different positions she has held."
Sen. Joyce Krawiec said she considers Zenger "as an excellent replacement" for Conrad.
"He knows the district well. Having served as a councilman, he has gained valuable experience that will be a valuable asset in the N.C. House."