Politics & Government

Once skeptical of Trump, Charlotte Catholic grad’s in line to be his budget director

Trump's White House

President-elect Donald Trump is shaping his White House staff. Here's a look at the individuals he's offered positions to.
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President-elect Donald Trump is shaping his White House staff. Here's a look at the individuals he's offered positions to.

As he watched the raucous crowd at Donald Trump’s rally in Rock Hill last January, Mick Mulvaney confessed his skepticism of a candidate who offered plenty of bluster but few specifics.

“‘I’m-gonna-do-good-deals’ is not a policy,” he told a reporter. “It doesn’t preclude policy. But it’s not a policy.”

Now Mulvaney is Trump’s choice to head the Office of Management and Budget, a job in which he would oversee federal regulations as well as a budget fast approaching $4 trillion. Senate confirmation hearings could begin as early as this week.

The job would make the Charlotte native, who for six years has represented South Carolina’s 5th Congressional District, the Carolinas’ most influential official in the new administration.

It also would team one of Congress’s biggest spending hawks with a president who promised to spend a trillion dollars on infrastructure alone.

He’s going to end up having to fight a lot of battles on a lot of fronts.

U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican

“He’s going to end up having to fight a lot of battles on a lot of fronts,” says U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican.

Mulvaney, 49, is no stranger to policy battles.

Elected in 2010 on a wave of tea party support, he cast a vote the next year that enabled a 16-day government shutdown. He fought efforts to raise the debt ceiling and supports a balanced budget amendment. He’s a founding member of the Freedom Caucus, an anti-establishment group that has bucked mainstream GOP leaders.

A graduate of Charlotte Catholic High School, Mulvaney practiced law uptown and later ran his own real estate development business as well as a pair of Salsarita’s in southeast Charlotte. He’s the father of teenage triplets and once raised chickens at his home just across the state line in Indian Land, where he moved 15 years ago.

Admirers describe him as smart, affable and accessible, encouraging constituents to call his personal cell. Though unwavering in his beliefs, he likes to engage in intellectual debate. He’s detail-oriented but able to translate complex policies into layman’s language.

To critics he’s ideologically rigid, resistant to compromise and exceedingly confident in his own abilities.

“The nickname I heard from Republicans is ‘Mulvanity,’ ” says S.C. Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, a Democrat who lost a 2008 Senate race to her fellow Lancaster County resident.

With confirmation hearings looming, Mulvaney wouldn’t comment for this story.

President-elect Donald Trump is shaping his White House staff. Here's a look at the individuals he's offered positions to.

He is nothing if not a policy wonk.

Mulvaney once invited his political consultant, Walter Whetsell of Columbia, to attend a Washington Nationals baseball game with him and a few college friends from Georgetown University, where he got a degree in international economics and finance.

“They were all just like him,” Whetsell says. “They sat there and discussed foreign policy issues and complex debt and policy stuff. The guy loved that.”

New career, new home

At Charlotte Catholic, Mulvaney played golf, performed on stage, edited the student paper and helped lead the chess club. For two years he managed the varsity basketball team, lugging equipment, keeping stats and handing out towels.

“Mick did jobs that needed to be done,” says then-assistant Coach Ken Hazen. “He didn’t have to do only the glorious jobs.”

We all knew he was going to go somewhere. He was top five in our class, very driven and a good friend.

Charlotte Catholic classmate Carolyn Tillman

In his senior year Mulvaney was president of the student council. Four years later he would be student body president at Georgetown University.

“We all knew he was going to go somewhere,” says Carolyn Tillman, a classmate at Catholic. “He was top five in our class, very driven and a good friend.”

At Georgetown he studied in the School of Foreign Service, once taking a course from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. He went on to law school at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Returning to Charlotte in 1992, he took a job as a litigator at James, McElroy & Diehl, where he’d worked as a runner in high school. He liked to argue politics with colleagues who disagreed with him.

“He and I disagree on just about every political question you could ask, but we’ve been very close for a long time,” says Richard Fennell, a partner with the firm. “Mick is who he is and comes to the positions he has honestly. So it’s hard to get mad at him.”

In 1996 Mulvaney was about to make partner himself. Instead, he left to try other things.

“He’s always been ambitious, not in a bad way,” Fennell says. “He’s always wanted to see where the limit was for him and he’s worked really hard to try to achieve it. He also wanted to make a difference on a big scale.”

Mulvaney opened his own law practice but eventually went to work for his father’s home-building business. In 2002, with 2-year-old triplets in tow, he and his wife, Pam, moved across the state line to Indian Land.

There he caught the eye of Al Simpson, then Lancaster County GOP chairman. He enlisted Mulvaney to run for the S.C. House in 2006. He won by 209 votes. Two years later, the freshman lawmaker beat Norrell for an open Senate seat.

And in 2010, he took on one of Congress’s senior members, Democrat John Spratt, who chaired the House Budget Committee and in 1997 helped negotiate the nation’s last balanced budget.

In a tea party year, Republicans saw a net gain of 63 House seats and took over the House for the first time in four years. Mulvaney ousted Spratt with 55 percent of the vote.

A ‘civil tone’

In 2015, Mulvaney and the Freedom Caucus forced the resignation of House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican considered part of the GOP establishment. The move put him at odds with Republicans such as Cole, a member of Boehner’s leadership team.

“Mick was probably more impatient and probably willing to push the limits, ” Cole says. “That’s good if it works, but I didn’t see a lot of time it worked.… If you can’t compromise up here you can’t get anything done.”

But Cole says disagreements were never personal with Mulvaney.

“You’ve got a guy trusted by most of the conservative members in the House and frankly respected by everybody,” he says.

Two classmates in the state’s Liberty Fellowship, a leadership class affiliated with the Aspen Institute, describe Mulvaney as convinced of his own positions but willing to listen. “He would listen with a rational and civil tone if you disagree,” says Kathleen Wilson, a member of the Charleston City Council.

I don’t think he’s as strident as when we were young. He’s more willing to listen. But his basic philosophical bent is the same.

Richard Fennell, friend and former law partner

“I don’t think he’s as strident as when we were young,” says Fennell, who knew him in law school. “He’s more willing to listen. But his basic philosophical bent is the same.”

S.C. Rep. Norrell, Mulvaney’s former opponent, says the two have been able to work together on behalf of constituents. “I’m thankful there’s somebody smart Trump has put in this position,” she says.

Mulvaney would be joined in the administration by S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley, Trump’s choice to be United Nations ambassador. The two have never been close. In 2012 Haley notably omitted him from a shortlist of possible replacements for departing U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint. She ended up nominating GOP Rep. Tim Scott.

Mulvaney came late to supporting Trump. Originally a fan of Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, he jumped in with Trump shortly before last summer’s convention, which he did not attend.

In nominating Mulvaney, Trump called him “a very high-energy leader with deep convictions for how to responsibly manage our nation’s finances and save our country from drowning in red ink.”

“With Mick at the head of OMB,” he said, “my administration is going to make smart choices about America’s budget.”

Conservatives have applauded his selection as OMB director. Cole, the Oklahoma Republican, says he expects Mulvaney to continue pushing for budget cuts, even if Trump is resistant.

“The good thing,” Cole says, “is he will tell the president what he needs to know, not what he wants to hear.”

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill