Thom Tillis is all business.
Where other candidates emphasize personal stories or ideological purity, the U.S. Senate candidate is running on his resume, casting himself as a results-oriented executive who became House speaker and drove the state’s new Republican majority to implement a sweeping conservative agenda.
In a recent pitch to a meeting of diehard Republicans in this North Carolina foothills town, Tillis projected confidence. He gave a speech forecasting what he plans to say to them in a couple of years, after he’s elected, about balancing the budget and reducing government regulations.
“The reason I’m convinced I can do that is that’s exactly all the things we’ve done in North Carolina in the last three years,” he said.
His stature and huge fundraising totals put him atop a field of eight candidates competing in the Republican primary to challenge Democrat Kay Hagan.
The narrative the Tillis campaign wants to tell focuses on his fast rise through the ranks, whether in the business arena, where he started as a warehouse records clerk and rose to partner at a premier consulting firm, or in politics, where he moved from town commissioner to House speaker in seven years.
Less known is the story of his sometimes difficult upbringing and how it shaped his career and his personal convictions. It helps explain his dichotomy, a crisp-suited executive who once made north of $500,000 a year but still refers to himself as a redneck; a health fanatic who mountain bikes and eats sushi, yet talks with smokeless tobacco tucked in his cheek.
“I think he undervalues his personal story,” said Ruth Samuelson, one of his Republican lieutenants in the House. “I think he has always been a little more forward-thinking and doesn’t dwell on the past.”
Work ethic ingrained
Tillis credits his rise to his work ethic, and his work ethic to his namesake and late father, Thomas Tillis.
“I think it has just been ingrained in me since an early age that the harder you worked, the more successful you were,” Tillis said in a recent interview between campaign stops.
An itinerant childhood put him in different elementary schools each year and three middle schools, as he and his five siblings followed their boat draftsman father from job to job – Jacksonville, Fla., where Tillis was born, to New Orleans, where he landed one of his first jobs at age 9 walking a cat for a neighbor. (“It can be done,” he said.)
The family eventually moved to Antioch, Tenn., 10 miles outside Nashville, where his father settled into work as a home repairman and lived in what he calls a trailer park.
“I think about the people who live on the economic bubble,” he said, “because we were there.”
His parents worked two jobs at times to make ends meet. In Florida, he remembers his father smelted metal fishing sinkers to sell, doing anything to make extra money for school clothes and Christmas presents. His older sisters helped raise him.
“My dad would much rather work a couple jobs than be on government assistance,” Tillis said.
His roots stand in contrast to a main line of attack on Tillis and GOP legislative leaders as indifferent to the needs of the poor. Tillis helped drive legislation to block the expansion of Medicaid health care coverage for thousands of low-income families and a measure to trim unemployment benefits to those laid off from work.
Tillis doesn’t often talk about his past. But those who know him say they see his upbringing reflected in his career.
“He’s very tenacious and very persistent,” said Jeff Tarte, a Republican state senator and former Tillis neighbor in Cornelius. Tillis recently moved to a $870,000 home on Lake Norman in Huntersville.
Another part of his life Tillis rarely, if ever, mentions is how it nearly went an entirely different direction. Despite being a top student and student body president his senior year of high school, Tillis opted to enter the Air Force.
“I saw the structure and opportunity to go in and probably be successful,” he said. “In our life it was either go to work or go into the armed services.”
Weeks before he planned to report for basic training in 1978, a car crash left him injured, and his right hand required surgery. Unable to serve, he received an honorable discharge from the Air Force, according to court documents. A lawsuit claimed a permanent partial disability, though Tillis now said he is fully recovered.
He remained in Antioch, where he married his high school girlfriend at age 19. They divorced after a year and a half but later remarried, only to divorce again a short time later. “It was really sad,” he said. “It was tough to go through.”
Right place, right time
With the Air Force out of the picture, he entered the workforce. One job led to another as Tillis’ career capitalized on new opportunities created with the emergence of the personal computer and big-dollar consulting industry. Like his father, he moved for better jobs, living for a time in Boston, in Atlanta and outside Washington, as he specialized in working with major companies to meet their IT needs.
“I think that you find out what your boss wants you to do and you do more. To me that’s work ethic,” he said. “Because, if you demonstrate that your capabilities extend past your current job, they’ll probably give you a better job.”
A move in 1990 to what became PricewaterhouseCoopers as a consulting manager led to his eventual promotion to partner in 1996, a year before he received his college degree at an online, distance learning program through University of Maryland University College, an unusual feat.
“Timing is everything. He’s been in the right place at the right time,” said Alex Deaton, a fellow PwC partner and friend from Charlotte.
Deaton said Tillis is motivated in his work to solve problems, and that translated well to politics. “Because of this consulting background, he’s been able to bring ways of doing business that are different … to the legislature,” he said.
In 1998, Tillis moved with his wife, Susan, and their two children to the Charlotte area and later transitioned into IBM’s consulting division when it acquired PwC’s consulting practice.
Tillis soon began to focus on politics, making a bid for the Cornelius Board of Commissioners in 2003. Three years later, he defeated an unpopular Republican incumbent for a state House seat. In 2008, he took a GOP caucus leadership position and narrowly won the speaker’s race in 2010, stepping away from his career to focus exclusively on the job.
Such a quick move requires an intensity that Tillis considers one of his assets. But it also gets him into trouble at times, such as when he was caught describing the need to “gut punch” political opponents. In other instances, members of his own Republican caucus questioned whether he was more dedicated to his personal ambitions than the conservative cause.
Tillis blames the pressure cooker situation for his “bad word choice” and dismisses concerns from within his caucus. He’s not shy about his ambitions.
“Intensity is a good word,” he said. “It’s like ambition, if it’s not ambition at expense of someone else. When you’re leading a caucus of this number … leaders need to be assertive sometimes.”