"Pray for us. Pray for this nation. Pray for this president. And pray that on November the 4th, we elect leadership who will go to Washington and realize the dream, realize America's greatness, and realize that nowhere else on this planet in the history of the Earth is there a greater opportunity than what we have before us right now." Thom Tillis
Story by Paul Woolverton | Fayetteville ObserverCORNELIUS - It was a Saturday evening in Cornelius, the town outside Charlotte where Thom Tillis started his political career because he liked to ride mountain bikes. And the Republican U.S. Senate candidate was getting a little teary-eyed.He was speaking to several dozen volunteers and supporters in the Cornelius Republican Party's office, delivering a variation of a speech he had made several times already on that day. Tillis had awakened in Greenville that morning, about 250 miles away, and made campaign stops in Raleigh, Greensboro and Winston-Salem before arriving in Cornelius in the evening.The audience included people who were with him from the beginning."I love you all; you're good friends. I don't want to choke up talking about you, but you mean a lot to me," Tillis said, his typically clear voice becoming uncharacteristically thick with emotion.
"Pray for us. Pray for this nation. Pray for this president. And pray that on November the 4th, we elect leadership who will go to Washington and realize the dream, realize America's greatness, and realize that nowhere else on this planet in the history of the Earth is there a greater opportunity than what we have before us right now."
Tillis' delivery in person, and especially in Cornelius, had a sincerity that has not always come across in his television ads and appearances on televised debates in an expensive and often ugly campaign. His down-to-the-wire race against Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan has pushed him onto the national stage, with partisan control of the Senate at stake.Tillis' political path has been an unusual one that has revealed him as a man who is able to recognize opportunity and realize his ambitions.Here in Cornelius, his political career had a humble beginning.
He liked to ride mountain bikes and, in the early 2000s, he wanted the town to build a mountain bike trail. He put together a proposal for the parks and recreation advisory board.After his presentation, the chairman asked Tillis to join the board."He said, 'You know, we've got an open slot on the board. This would be a great way for you to get, probably get, this thing going,'" Tillis recalled.At the time a partner in IBM's business consulting services division, Tillis stayed involved in politics to get things done.
First, he won a seat on the Cornelius town commission in 2003, then a seat in the state House in 2006.In 2009, he stepped up to become one of the leaders who engineered North Carolina's Republican revolution that knocked the Democrats out of power in the state legislature in the 2010 elections.The Republicans rewarded Tillis by electing him state House speaker in January 2011 - one of the top three positions of power in state government.Now, he is running for the U.S. Senate.While much of Tillis' campaign against incumbent Hagan is devoted to linking her to an unpopular President Obama and his health care reform law, Tillis also promises to get things done in Washington. He says he can work with Democrats and Republicans to break the gridlock that has gripped Washington since 2010.
Rise to power
Tillis' path to political leadership sidestepped the usual ladder-climbing and symbolic dues-paying that most politicians follow.In just four years, he moved up from being a nearly unknown freshman state lawmaker to state House speaker. In the process, Tillis stepped over Republican lawmakers who coveted the speakership and had bided their time for a decade or more while Democrats were in control.Three years after becoming speaker, Tillis defeated seven other Republicans to become his party's U.S. Senate nominee.His unusual route to political power echoed the nontraditional path of his career and life.
When Tillis was growing up, his family - with six kids - moved 17 times, an aide said. He never attended the same elementary school two years in a row. His father was a boat draftsman whose pursuit of work required relocations throughout the Southeast.Tillis told Charlotte Magazine last year that the family's moves taught him to be adaptable. He had to make new friends, learn a new community and work with new teachers every year. He said the skill has served him throughout his business and political life.Tillis graduated from high school in Antioch, Tennessee, in 1978 at age 17. He was the student body president, top-ranked academically and voted most likely to succeed. But he has said he was not really interested in college. Instead, he joined the Air Force.The military career was cut short by a car accident that severely injured Tillis' hand, allowing him to exit with an honorable discharge.
On the stump and in debates against Hagan, Tillis talks about his first job after leaving the service. A warehouse position paid him minimum wage.Minimum wage has been a campaign issue. Hagan wants Congress to raise the national minimum wage to $10.10 per hour.Tillis says states should determine their own minimum wage and workers should move themselves out of minimum-wage jobs. "It's a stepping stone that through education and hard work you should get past very quickly," Tillis said during a debate with Hagan on Sept. 3.It's what Tillis did with his own life.The young man left the warehouse as soon as he could for better jobs managing records. In the early 1980s, that meant moving paper records into electronic databases on computers that were primitive by modern standards. It was a daunting task. When he needed new skills, Tillis took community college classes.He built a career managing projects, moving to better jobs and new companies, while continuing his education over 16 years at five schools until he got a four-year college degree in 1996 at age 36.
In the meantime, Tillis had become a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, a business consulting firm that advises large corporations. The company later merged with IBM, and Tillis and his wife, Susan, in 1998 moved from a suburb of Washington to Cornelius. There, they raised their two children.Commercial real estate broker Gary Knox was elected mayor of Cornelius in 2003 when Tillis was elected town commissioner. Tillis had impressed Knox in their first encounter several years before at a community meeting."It's one thing to say you're an elected official and show up every other Monday night, and maybe look at your agenda package and maybe start to open it. It's another thing to dive into it," Knox said. Tillis would dive in, he said, and he knew where the community was growing and where it had shortcomings. He was prepared to dissect the staff's recommendations, "as opposed to those that are trying to play catch-up as the meeting has started."Tillis' work experience was invaluable, Knox said."His background coming from big accounting, as well as IBM and being able to process things pretty fast, and talk about how to get to core decisions was very healthy for our town board," Knox said.
The town in the next years joined with neighboring Huntersville and Davidson to create a regional business park that was not restricted to town lines "so we could compete on a regional basis. That was really stepping out there," Knox said.When there were disagreements in their discussions, "I think Thom was the very first person that actually said, 'Well this is healthy, because we'll just agree to disagree,' and kind of work through that with a respectful way the one or two times that we heard that."Called to RaleighTillis chose not to seek re-election to the town board in 2005. According to Charlotte Magazine, he was approached that year by Republican political strategist Paul Shumaker to run for the state House district seat held by Republican John Rhodes.Rhodes is a darling to people on the far right who consider Tillis to be too moderate.
They liked Rhodes so much that they recruited him this year to run for Senate as write-in candidate.But in his four years in the legislature, Rhodes passed only one bill. He was known for criticizing then-House Speaker Jim Black - a Democrat who later went to federal prison for corruption - who had the power to prevent him from accomplishing much.The nonpartisan N.C. Center for Public Policy Research rated Rhodes as the legislature's least effective House member."I think Mr. Rhodes', or John's, representation in the legislature created such an immediate opportunity for anybody," Knox said. "And in turn, Thom had already proved himself in our community 20 times over as to what a good study he was of issues, fiscally responsive, would gladly take on a leadership role."Tillis soundly beat Rhodes in the May 2006 primary.In his first two-year term, Tillis passed seven bills into law. In his second term, his fellow Republicans picked him to be their whip, which was the caucus' second-highest leadership position at that time. Another 15 of his bills became law.
In early 2009, when the country and state were stuck in the Great Recession and there was growing resentment of the Democrats and newly elected President Obama, Tillis saw opportunity for Republicans to win majority control of the state House of Representatives.He quit his IBM job - leaving behind a half-million-dollar paycheck - to pursue politics full time. Through 2009 and 2010, he traveled the state to recruit and support candidates, raising more than $250,000 for the GOP and leading a targeted and organized campaign.In the 2010 elections, the House flipped from a 68-52 Democratic majority to a 68-52 Republican majority. The Republicans solidified their majority to 77-43 in 2012.
The result of the shift in power was a wave of conservative legislation that upset Democrats.Tax cuts were passed, promoted to create jobs, but slammed by Democrats for reducing revenues that could have been used for education, to help the unemployed pay their bills while they looked for work, to care for the poor and provide other public services.Unemployment has fallen, but teachers and others in Hagan campaign ads complain about a shortage of textbooks and other resources in the schools.
Laws were passed to make it harder for women to obtain abortions and to allow some gun owners to carry guns in places where firearms had previously been prohibited. The state constitution was amended to prohibit gay marriage - a move that has since been overturned.The legislature also voted to reject an expansion of Medicaid that was called for by the president's health care law. Democrats say this decision blocked 500,000 lower-income people from health care. On Medicaid and gay marriage, conservatives question Tillis.Shortly before the gay marriage amendment was passed in 2012, Tillis predicted that the next generation would overturn it. It didn't take that long, as it was ruled unconstitutional last month even as Tillis sought to intervene to preserve it.On Medicaid, he recently said he does not have an ideological objection to expanding the program, but he thinks it has serious problems with waste that need to be fixed first.
The next step
As the race against Hagan winds to its Tuesday finish, Tillis is constantly on the campaign trail. After it is over, he will likely be back in Mecklenburg County, either planning his move to Washington or contemplating his first political setback. Either way, he'll be able to see tangible evidence of what drew him into politics in the first place.
The 1.3-mile mountain bike train in Jetton Park was not finished until after Tillis was elected to the General Assembly, he said."And it's wonderful to see it, because people are using it, they're getting out in the woods," he said. "Now what they have is this gorgeous natural trail that people jog on, they walk their dogs, they mountain bike on. And they're using public property that was otherwise just sitting there unused."
Staff writer Paul Woolverton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 486-3512.