Kit Smith will be giving up her seat on Richland County Council after nearly 20 years.
"It's just time," said Smith, whose close political allies received letters about her decision in Tuesday's mail. "Life changes, and it's just time."
Her departure from District 5, centered in Shandon, comes at the same time Mayor Bob Coble is stepping down, opening the way to a new generation of political leadership there.
The vacancy is likely to generate a spirited race to succeed her. Already, two names have emerged as possible candidates: assistant prosecutor Seth Rose and general practice lawyer Scott Winburn.
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Smith's service continues through 2010. Filing opens March 16 for the job, which pays $14,500 a year.
Smith, 64, serves as the unofficial policy analyst for the 11-member council.
Allied with environmental groups and taking a New South spin on growth and development, she has used her tenure to rail against suburban sprawl and encourage an urbane, mixed-use "town and country" model - ideas that haven't gathered much steam.
Still, she was the brains behind a successful funding plan for both a county conservation commission to encourage preservation of sensitive or beautiful landscapes and a systematic survey of neighborhood needs at the city's edge, where empty strip malls line broad lanes of asphalt.
Larry Gates, a neighborhood leader in the Granby mill village, said Smith is a woman of "finesse," unafraid to take unpopular positions.
"She stands up for what she believes," he said.
David Martin, owner of Tronco Special Events, said she sought his opinion on issues affecting small business.
"She's really looked out for our interests," Martin said. "A lot of politicians go for big business, where the big dollars are. She really cared about us."
Even before hearing she had decided not to run, Councilman Damon Jeter sized up Smith's role, saying: "Most people I've come across are reactionary or emotional. And then you have people like Kit, who likes to gather the data, develop a strategy, put it out there for the public to view and then bring it back to have a debate about it."
Data aside, he said, Smith consistently asks her colleagues a central - and seemingly simple - question: "Why are we doing this?"
But it wasn't always easy for her.
Smith, who grew up in a newspaper family in Gaffney, said there's a "cultural conformity" in local politics that causes people to consider tough questions to be rude or offensive.
"When I first got elected, I wanted to be Miss Congeniality, the peacemaker.
"But what I found was, if you really want to accomplish anything, you've got to have change - and change brings opposition and dissension.
"So you have to make a decision: 'Do I want to be popular, or do I want to be effective?' So I opted to be uncomfortable at cocktail parties," Smith said.
She was a founder of the Anita Hill Wake-up Call, an annual networking event for Columbia women who got fired up over the grilling Hill took in 1991 during Judge Clarence Thomas' screening for the U.S. Supreme Court.
She was treated for breast cancer in 1996 but said her health - "thankfully" - is good and had nothing to do with her decision.
"Right now, I am clear."
But Smith said the region's leadership is changing, and she's looking forward to spending more time with friends and family, including her 89-year-old father and four grandchildren, with a fifth on the way in mid-December.
"I just want to take care of my family and friends," she said. "I would love to draw people together and have time to do that, to have some enriched discussion about the future of our community."