Politics & Government

Tim Moore set to jump from small town to big stage of N.C. House speaker

Tim Moore still lives and works near the heart of this old textile town, not far from the Bethlehem community where he was born.

He practices law in a modest bungalow on King Street, with a staff as small as his office.

“It’s generally me going to talk to the other lawyer and my two legal secretaries and saying, ‘I need ‘X’ done.’ And oh, by the way, can somebody grab a pack of paper towels at the CVS?’ ”

Now the small-town lawyer who first visited the General Assembly as a teenage page is poised to return as speaker of the N.C. House, one of the state’s most powerful positions.

Moore, a 44-year-old Republican, will be elected speaker when the General Assembly convenes Wednesday. He’ll succeed Thom Tillis, who was elected to the U.S. Senate in November.

Moore expects to bring a different leadership style than Tillis, a former corporate consultant. But his politics, shaped in his hometown, are likely to echo those of a speaker who helped steer the legislature sharply to the right.

It was a tumultuous two years that brought national headlines and thousands of Moral Monday protesters to the capital. Moore was part of a GOP leadership team that passed sweeping legislation to lower taxes on business, tighten rules on abortion and voting, and decline to extend Medicaid coverage to 500,000 uninsured North Carolinians.

Affable and unassuming, Moore can disarm critics. But in pursuit of his politics, he has clashed with adversaries.

While at UNC Chapel Hill, his bid to add members to the student Congress sparked a legal fight that went all the way to the school’s supreme court. Around the same time, he sponsored a bill to stop funding for the Carolina Gay and Lesbian Association.

As chairman of the powerful N.C. House Rules committee, he abruptly ended many floor debates.

“(He) smiles as he cuts off debate,” says Democratic Rep. Paul Luebke of Durham. “He’s a nice guy and very conservative and uses his power to push an agenda.”

Once voted “most ambitious” by classmates at Kings Mountain High, Moore would be the youngest speaker in a quarter-century. Quietly driven, he’s made a habit of rising fast.

At 20, shortly after transferring to UNC Chapel Hill, he became speaker of the student Congress. At 26, he became the youngest member of the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors. He was elected to the state House at 32.

Generations of his family have lived in Kings Mountain. And Moore is rooted as deeply in politics as he is in his hometown.

When he was 10, he put up signs for Ronald Reagan. He visited Congress during high school. He was elected to student government at two colleges and interned for a state senator.

Politics runs in the family: His father, Rick, sits on the Kings Mountain City Council, and his cousin chairs the Cleveland County commissioners.

“Tim has had a passion for politics all his life,” says longtime friend John Harris of Kings Mountain.

Chris Fitzsimon, executive director of the progressive group N.C. Policy Watch, says Moore had a big hand in the legislature’s conservative agenda.

“He was part of the leadership team that pursued it,” Fitzsimon says. “He was in the back offices that helped plan it.”

And though Tillis seemed to soften his opposition to expanding Medicaid coverage to as many as 500,000 uninsured, Moore continues to oppose it, saying it could ultimately cost the state more than it can afford.

He believes the state spends too much on health and human services, including Medicaid. For the 1 in 5 North Carolinians who live in poverty, he says jobs are a more lasting benefit.

He knows the legislature he’ll lead hasn’t been popular. Its policies sparked protests from the left with “Moral Monday” protests. A survey by the conservative Civitas Institute showed only 28 percent of voters thought lawmakers acted in their best interests.

Moore, however, has admirers on both sides of the aisle.

“I’m just sorry he’s a Republican,” says Betsy Wells of Kings Mountain, chair of the 10th District Democratic Party and a former teacher who cast Moore as “Radar” O’Reilly in a high school presentation of “M*A*S*H.”

From fatback to politics

It was behind the counter at Rick’s Ole Country Store that Moore got his taste for politics.

Rick Moore put his son to work at the family market sweeping floors, working the register and cutting what they bragged was the county’s thickest fatback.

“A lot of the folks that were in there were always talkin’ politics, and so I was interested in listening … and learning and occasionally offering my unsolicited opinion as a teenager who knew everything,” Moore says.

After high school, Moore went to Campbell University, where he joined the College Republicans. He also became state chair of Students for America, a conservative group started by Christian Coalition founder Ralph Reed.

“He was a very outspoken and passionate conservative,” recalls Republican Rep. David Lewis of Harnett County, who served in student government with Moore.

After two years, Moore transferred to UNC. It didn’t take him long to get involved in student government – or controversy.

When he introduced a bill to stop the gay and lesbian association from getting its $2,000 appropriation, The Daily Tar Heel ripped him in editorials and cartoons.

“I’m not trying to make a moral judgment,” Moore told the paper. “I’m simply trying to adhere to the letter of the law.” He claimed the group advocated a lifestyle illegal under the state’s “crimes against nature” law (later invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court).

“At the end of the day, it was just about whether you should use student fees for political activities,” he recalls now.

Moore returned to Cleveland County in 1995 with a law degree from Oklahoma City University. He joined a Shelby firm, where he stayed until opening his own practice in Kings Mountain in 2009, representing business and individual clients.

Back in Cleveland County, he entered real-world politics.

Rise in politics

In 1997, Moore was elected county GOP chairman. He also ran for the UNC Board of Governors and was chosen by the Republican-controlled House, becoming the second-youngest person ever elected.

It was a pivotal time for the board.

A month after he joined, the board chose University of California administrator Molly Broad to succeed C.D. Spangler as UNC system president. The board went on to oversee the largest bond issue in state history: a $3.1 billion construction program passed by voters in 2000.

On a board where Democrats held a slim majority, Moore worked across the aisle.

“At that point you could see that Tim had potential to be a leader,” says former board Chairman Jim Phillips, a Greensboro Democrat.

In 2002, Moore won election to the House and spent his first four terms under Democratic leadership. “He was one of the few Republicans who worked well with Democrats and who Democrats tried to win over sometimes,” says Rep. Tricia Cotham, a Mecklenburg Democrat.

Moore’s fortunes changed in 2010 when the GOP won control of the House. Tillis gave him the delicate task of reassigning House office space and named him Rules chairman.

Opposing gay marriage

Though Moore has traveled to the corners of the world, his politics hasn’t changed from the conservative philosophy that formed in Kings Mountain.

In the past four years, he voted with his party on issues such as tax cuts and voting law changes. He also voted, with other Republicans, to take Charlotte’s airport from city control, a matter tied up with federal regulators.

In 2012, he supported the amendment banning gay marriage. Though courts have overturned it, he says, “we owe it to the voters” to defend the ban. Last week, he joined GOP Senate leader Phil Berger in petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to hear legal arguments in defense of the amendment.

“I believe what folks do in their own lives is their business, and I don’t try to impose on that,” Moore says. “But I do think … marriage ought to be what it’s always been, between one man and one woman.”

North Carolina’s turn to the right made national headlines, as did the Moral Monday protests led by the NAACP featuring big crowds in downtown Raleigh. “Some people protesting have a liberal ideological bent, and that’s not the present majority of the legislature,” Moore says.

Democrats acknowledge Moore’s partisanship but say they hope he’ll work with them.

“He has been a party guy … so you pretty much know what you will get from him,” says Minority Leader Larry Hall of Durham. “I think he’ll have a different style, more open, more inclusive.”

Dealing in business, politics

Moore loves a deal.

In recent years, he has bought a Jaguar and two Porsches, sometimes on eBay. When the real estate market dropped, he bought rental property in Kings Mountain and Huntersville. He also bought a small interest in a Forsyth County scrapyard.

It was an aborted deal that drew the attention of government watchdogs.

During state budget negotiations in 2011, Moore applied for and won a $30,000 grant from the state Commerce Department and one for $32,000 from the N.C. Rural Center, a nonprofit economic development group funded in part by the legislature.

He planned to use the money to renovate a vacant bank building in downtown Kings Mountain and move his office there. Moore says he cleared his request with the state ethics office and won the grants through a blind award process.

But N.C. Policy Watch questioned the grant awards to a prominent lawmaker. Its article did say Moore made no effort to influence the grants. Moore says business reasons made him reject the grants and stay in his current office.

“At the end, it seemed it was too much of a hassle to deal with the politics of it, too, getting raked over the coals for a grant,” he says. “As a legislator, I shouldn’t be treated any better than anybody else. But I ought not be treated any worse.”

Sometimes business interests pose potential conflicts.

One legal client, for example, is an investor in a casino that the Catawba Indian Nation wants to build in Cleveland County.

Moore says the state could enter into a compact with the tribe and share profits. But many lawmakers oppose the expansion of Vegas-style gaming in the state. Moore says he told colleagues about his conflict and recused himself from any discussion.

Last year, he helped pave the way for his election as speaker by being one of the chamber’s biggest campaign fundraisers. Political action committees, many that will have business before the legislature, gave him nearly $300,000, two-thirds of the money he raised. He gave GOP colleagues more than $250,000.

Moore says his new job won’t change who he is.

“I’m just a small-town lawyer – that’s all I’ve been,” he says. “I won’t change at all from the way I’ve been all these years. What you see is what you get.”

Staff writer Jennifer Rothacker contributed.

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