Last week in Greensboro, as at other recent campaign appearances, state House Speaker Thom Tillis interrupted his remarks with a reflection.
“Just about every day in this campaign, I have a ‘How did I get here?’ moment,” Tillis said. “I’m having another one today.”
The story of how he got here has become part of the narrative of North Carolina’s Republican U.S. Senate candidate. By any measure, it was a long road – and fast rise.
The man who once lived in a trailer park would years later walk away from a $500,000 a year job to work full time to elect Republicans.
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Tillis and his five siblings led a nomadic life. They followed their father, a boat draftsman, to jobs in Jacksonville, Fla., and New Orleans. Tillis never went to the same elementary school two years in a row.
When his father took a job in Nashville, Tenn., Tillis settled in for junior high and high school. He was elected student body president and graduated near the top of his class. At 17, he decided to leave home and get a job. “We weren’t wired to go to college,” Tillis once said.
He had a succession of jobs until the mid-1990s, when he came to the attention of Rick Ramsden, a managing partner at what was then Price Waterhouse, one of the nation’s biggest accounting and consulting firms. He hired Tillis and gave him consulting assignments at Duke Energy and other companies.
Tillis attended five schools in three states before earning a degree at age 36 from the University of Maryland University College, a distance-learning institution, in 1997.
A transfer took Tillis, his wife, Susan, and their two children to Cornelius in 1998.
An avid mountain biker, his crusade for a local trail led Tillis to a seat on the park board. In 2003, he won a seat as commissioner in the fast-growing lakeside town.
In 2006, he was voting on fire stations and baseball fields when he ran for the state House, where he ousted another Republican, John Rhodes.
But in two prior terms in the House, he never chaired a committee. Never moved off the back row. When Republicans took control in 2010, he became House speaker.
In 2009, he left a lucrative job at IBM to campaign for Republicans. He still has up to $8.9 million in real estate and other assets, according to a personal financial disclosure filed with the U.S. Senate.
Speaking this month at a “Bluegrass, Blue Jeans and Boots on the Ground” rally in Fayetteville, he told supporters he would have been content to leave the legislature next year and go back to private business.
“I wasn’t going to run for the House again, I wasn’t going to be speaker of the House again,” he said. “I was going back to work. But I … decided we have to have somebody who will step up and help make America great again.”
Staff writer Craig Jarvis of The (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed.