Four years ago Thom Tillis was a second-term lawmaker in the minority party, relegated to the back row of the House, about as far from power as you can get.
But he’d already set out to change that.
He had quit his job as a management consultant to devote himself to electing Republicans. Armed with a PowerPoint presentation, he wore out a set of tires driving the state recruiting candidates, raising money and persuading doubters.
“His goal was always, ‘How do we make it happen? How do we get ’er done?’ ” says GOP Rep. Ruth Samuelson of Charlotte.
Republicans won the North Carolina House in 2010 and elevated Tillis to speaker. Since then, he has used the same single-minded drive to steer North Carolina on a conservative course.
Now he is aiming for the U.S. Senate seat held by incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, in a three-way race with Libertarian Sean Haugh.
To admirers, Tillis is a natural leader – persistent, persuasive and inclusive, rarely hobbled by self-doubt.
“He’s always the one others gravitate to,” says state Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Cornelius Republican. “Thom always rises to the top.”
But Hagan has campaigned against what she and her supporters call Tillis’ extreme agenda on abortion, education and taxes.
“At every opportunity he has fought for policies that are taking our state backwards,” Hagan said at this month’s debate. “Speaker Tillis feels that those who have the most should get the most help.”
Critics say Tillis is a contradiction: A man elected as a moderate who joined ideologues in turning the state sharply right. A leader who could be both inviting and mean-spirited.
“He goes to the General Assembly as a business conservative and then votes for or enables some of the most far-right legislation in our state’s history,” says Chris Fitzsimon, executive director of N.C. Policy Watch, a liberal group in Raleigh.
Tillis, 54, of Huntersville says his record is consistent. He argues that GOP policies have helped lower the state’s unemployment rate, have made abortion safer, and have given more money, not less, to education. He says these initiatives would not have passed the House without at least his tacit support.
He dismisses those who call him and his Republican colleagues extremists.
“Labels are irrelevant,” Tillis says. “It’s the results. ... Take a look at my track record. People who truly represent an extreme on either side have a very difficult time getting bipartisan support for what they’re doing.”
Compromise and hardball
Tillis touts that bipartisan support as he challenges a senator ranked by one nonpartisan magazine as the Senate’s most moderate.
“Contrary to what a lot of people will tell you, much of our success has been founded on bipartisan support for a lot of our initiatives,” Tillis told a business group in Asheville last month.
Democrats were still in control when Tillis was elected to the House in 2006. To accomplish anything from the back row, he had to work across the aisle.
“I’ve always found him easy to work with, practical, very smart,” says state Rep. Tricia Cotham, a Mecklenburg Democrat. “He tried very hard to work with Democrats because we were in power. He wanted to get things done.”
In his first term as speaker, Tillis says, a third of the 52 House Democrats joined on one or more of the 11 Republican overrides of Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue’s vetoes.
One Democrat who voted to override her 2012 budget veto was Rep. Marcus Brandon of High Point.
“Basically, the key to bipartisanship is to start where you agree and stop where you disagree,” Brandon says. “There’s 20 percent where we agree. Hopefully you’re able to work on areas you disagree on by the relationship you develop. Me and him did that.”
After the 2012 election gave North Carolina a Republican governor in Pat McCrory and veto-proof GOP majorities in the state House and Senate, Tillis rarely needed Democratic votes.
“There really wasn’t a need to compromise with the Democratic minority,” Democratic Rep. Paul Luebke of Durham says. Other Democrats also decry any claim of bipartisanship.
“Speaker Tillis has effectively pretended Democrats don’t exist in the state,” says Rep. Susi Hamilton, a Wilmington Democrat.
Late in the 2013 session, Democrats were blindsided when Republicans gutted a motorcycle safety bill and, with no public notice, replaced it with a measure that included strong abortion restrictions. The bill eventually passed.
This year, House Minority Leader Larry Hall of Durham accused Tillis of withholding money for the Democratic caucus staff after Hall had been outspoken against new Legislative Building rules prompted by Moral Monday demonstrations.
Hall also criticized and the use of parliamentary tactics to cut off debate, saying House Republicans used such tactics this past session more than twice as often as Democrats used them over the past four sessions they led the House.
Tillis can play hardball.
In 2011, an open microphone caught him telling House Republicans that while they shouldn’t slam all Democrats, they could “gut-punch” individual Democrats.
He was also overheard saying the House would take up a bill to prevent the N.C. Association of Educators from having dues to the organization taken directly from their members’ paychecks. It was, Tillis indicated, payback for the teachers group sending out mailers attacking Democrats who had supported the GOP budget. “We just want to give them a little taste of what’s about to come,” he said.
That year, while speaking to a GOP crowd, Tillis suggested that not everyone who receives government assistance deserves it, such as a “woman who has chosen to have three or four kids out of wedlock.
“What we have to do is find a way to divide and conquer the people who are on assistance,” Tillis said.
In 2013, Tillis did engineer bipartisan support to win money for victims of North Carolina’s forced sterilization program. He had to overcome opposition in both parties to pass the nation’s first eugenics compensation law.
That he made it a personal cause illustrates two things, says John Hood, president of the conservative John Locke Foundation.
“One, he will do what he thinks is right even if his (party) caucus does not immediately agree with him because he believes that he can convince them to follow him,” Hood says. “The other is that he really is doggedly persistent. You can see it in the way he overcame some of the obstacles in his life. He can clearly stay fixed on a goal.”
Education becomes issue
Tillis came to the General Assembly in 2007 with a reputation as a moderate. He’d beaten a GOP firebrand in the primary for a House seat the previous year and earned a reputation on the nonpartisan Cornelius town board.
“He definitely listened to people, but he set a course and stood by it,” says Jim Bensman, who served with him on the town board. “He’s not an ideologue. He’s very pragmatic.”
For critics, it’s hard to reconcile Tillis’ legislative record with pragmatism.
“Speaker Tillis’ record in Raleigh is effectively pulling the ladder up behind him, making it harder for working-class North Carolinians to succeed,” says Ben Ray, a spokesman for Forward NC, a group affiliated with the Hagan campaign.
He says Tillis cut spending on education, a frequent charge by Democrats as education has emerged as a major issue in the Senate race.
In fact, education spending has risen under Republicans, according to the state Department of Public Instruction. This year’s budget, for example, spends $300 million more on education than in the previous year.
And Tillis argues that he fought for one of the biggest teacher raises in state history, an average of 7 percent. Under a new salary schedule, early- and mid-career teachers see the biggest pay increases. But the raises are much smaller – as little as 0.29 percent – for more experienced educators.
According to DPI, most education money since 2008 has gone for benefit and salary changes at the expense of classroom spending.
“Total funding has remained essentially flat since ’08-’09 despite an increase of 43,739 students,” the department says in a new report. “As a result, districts have had to accomplish more with less money per student.”
Tension with Senate
It was education that marked one of Tillis’ biggest battles. And it wasn’t with Democrats.
Republican state House and Senate leaders butted heads over several issues, including Medicaid. But as much as anything, it was teacher pay that threatened to derail budget talks. Senate leaders grumbled about the speaker, particularly his absences to raise money for the Senate race.
“It’s obvious the speaker’s been traveling a lot, and we need his leadership,” GOP Sen. Tommy Tucker of Waxhaw said in June.
Last week, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, an Eden Republican, downplayed personal disagreements, instead blaming institutional tension.
“There’s always tension between the House and Senate,” Berger said. “I don’t know that it is necessarily attributable to one person.”
Berger says it was Tillis who opened the door to last month’s agreement on coal ash. Berger and the Senate’s leading negotiator had accused three “rogue” House members of trying to kill a compromise.
“He called me and said, ‘I think there might be a way for us to work this out,’ ” Berger says. “He injected himself into the process. (He) basically got us talking again.”
Sometimes Tillis had trouble holding his own caucus together.
Last month, he backed a bill sought by McCrory that would have funded incentives to attract business. A majority of House Republicans helped defeat it.
But Speaker Pro Tem Paul Stam, an Apex Republican, says Tillis didn’t strong-arm other Republicans to vote his way.
“I’ve heard him say about 20, 30 times: Vote your conscience first, your constituents second and your caucus third,” Stam says.
GOP Rep. Charles Jeter of Huntersville says Tillis engenders loyalty.
“Tillis gives people the freedom to do what they want to do,” Jeter says. “He trusts people. And he’ll back you up.”
Colleagues, Jeter adds, “would walk through a brick wall for Thom Tillis.”
(Raleigh) News & Observer reporter Amanda Albright contributed.