THE Mrs Nice Guy of Welsh politics who holds the nation's purse strings is quitting politics after almost 25 years.
Sue Essex, the Assembly Finance Minister, made the surprise announcement yesterday that she plans to step down at the 2007 election.
Officials expressed their dismay at losing "the nicest woman in Welsh politics".
The Cardiff North AM made history when she became the first and only woman to lead Cardiff City Council.
Her loss could be costly for Labour. She scraped a victory in the 2003 election by just 540 votes, in front of Tory regional member Jonathan Morgan.
Labour will struggle to retain the highly-marginal seat without her.
She is a staunch ally of First Minister Rhodri Morgan and shares her constituency with his wife - Julie Morgan MP.
Ms Essex's job involves controlling the Assembly's £12bn budget.
Yesterday she said her proudest achievement was introducing free bus passes for pensioners.
But she admitted the Assembly Government has not done enough to connect with the people of Wales - a fear shared publicly by the First Minister.
"I think that has been one of the real problems, but it has been difficult to establish ourselves as a new institution and for people to understand what we are doing," she said.
Ms Essex, a mother of two who turns 60 on August 29, is the minister responsible for the controversial new debating chamber in Cardiff Bay.
A former planner and lecturer in planning, she said, "I have been involved in buildings long enough to know that not everybody is going to be happy about spending money on a new government building.
"But I have to make a judgement about what is needed in the long term."
Critics would grow to love the £65m debating chamber as they did Cardiff's distinctive City Hall, she said.
Having cultivated a reputation among the Labour group as one of its most competent and friendly ministers, her exit came as a shock to even her closest colleagues.
Mr Morgan said, "Obviously, I tried to dissuade Sue, because she is such an excellent local and national politician, but I respect her decision. It is a matter for her and her family."
Originally from Tottenham, north London, she settled in Wales in 1971 when husband Richard's work brought him to Cardiff.
She has been an elected politician almost throughout the lives of daughter Ruth, 32, and Joel, 30.
One of the longest-serving politicians in the Assembly, she started her political career as a councillor in Cardiff's Riverside ward.
She ousted council leader John Phillips in May 1994.
Ms Essex was elected Assembly Member for Cardiff North in 1999.
In February 2000, soon after he became First Minister, Mr Morgan appointed her Minister for Environment, Planning and Transport.
She has served as Finance and Local Government Minister since being re-elected for the Cardiff North constituency in May 2003.
She added, "I am going because I think it is time.
"I will have done eight years here. I have done four years longer than most and it just feels like it's long enough."
She made the announcement yesterday to give her constituency party time to select a new candidate for the 2007 Assembly elections, she said.
"It's just that I feel that is the right time. I will be 62 - not old enough to get a pension."
Tory rival Jonathan Morgan, who twice lost to Ms Essex at the ballot box, said he would apply to stand in Cardiff North in 2007.
"We have always viewed her as the deputy first minister because of the enormity of her brief," he said.
"She is an individual for whom we have a great deal of respect in the Conservative Party."
Welsh Secretary Peter Hain described her as a "really warm" and "capable politician".
He said, "Sue will be a big loss to the Assembly after 2007, but in the meantime, she continues to make an outstanding contribution and I am delighted to be continuing to work with her.
"I wish her all the best for the future."
Page 2: Essex on women shortlists
Page 3: Essex on Wales
Page 4: Essex on the Chamber