But now as a freshman in the U.S. Senate, Thom Tillis has looked for ways to moderate his image. These days, he’s not shy about emphasizing that he’s reaching out to Democrats.
That was Tillis, joining Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota in pushing a program to help military veterans sickened by toxins released from burn pits.
There he was in early 2015, just weeks after narrowly winning his Senate seat, the only Republican to join 13 Democratic senators in sponsoring a bill to establish an apparatus for monitoring conflicts worldwide and detecting early warning signs that might enable the United States to prevent genocides.
“When you’re in a race like mine … you come up here, the first thing you want to do is dispel any myths about what you may be like,” Tillis said in an interview. “The only way you do that is just by building good personal relationships.
“Now what I’m trying to do is figure out how we continue to translate that into legislative initiatives.”
His shift to the center can be particularly important in a politically balanced state like North Carolina, where voters backed Barack Obama for his first term as president in 2008 and only narrowly supported Mitt Romney in 2012.
Tillis has been careful not to be drawn into the furor over votes in North Carolina’s legislature to bar the city of Charlotte from allowing transgender individuals to use public restrooms based on their gender identity. He called it a matter for the city and state to settle.
Not to say that Tillis has turned his back on party conservatives. Recently, he delivered an in-your-face Republican Party response to one of Obama’s weekly nationwide radio addresses, declaring that the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court should be filled by the next president.
And less visibly, he has been jetting across the country raising money for Senate colleagues whose holds on power and majority control could be imperiled if Donald Trump secures the Republican nomination. Tillis, who endorsed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s failed candidacy, says he will support whomever the party nominates.
Just as he made a meteoric rise from town board commissioner in the Charlotte suburb of Cornelius to speaker of North Carolina’s House five years later, Tillis is establishing himself as a Capitol Hill dynamo who can deftly navigate most any political terrain.
Back home, he’s a rock-ribbed Carolina Panthers football fan who owns a pickup truck and likes to go mountain biking, though his daredevil cycling days may be behind him now that he’s cracked two helmets and broken his collar bone.
Wearing a suit, tie and neatly trimmed beard in Washington, he oozes confidence, mixing a quick wit, flashes of fierce partisanship and an eagerness to forge legislative alliances with members of the minority.
In 2014, Tillis won the state’s junior Senate seat in the most expensive race in the country, ousting Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan in a bruising, $118-million battle dominated by outside interests that spent $82.7 million, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. The margin was 45,600 votes out of 2.9 million cast.
Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, who is chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee that provides Senate candidates with financial backing, said the committee injected a surge of independent spending behind Tillis in the final week. Tillis also used perhaps the most innovative social media model of any Republican Senate candidate, sending “targeted messages” to small audiences that motivated people to vote, Wicker said.
Tillis triumphed after presiding, as speaker, over a restive state House Republican caucus emboldened to join an even more gung-ho state Senate majority in pushing conservative legislation as the party rode control over both chambers for the first time in more than a century.
Tillis, who gave up a lucrative job as a consultant in Charlotte’s financial services industry to run for office in 2006, initially fashioned himself in the legislature as a moderate, pro-business Republican.
But on his watch, Republicans in the state House passed bills to allow guns in bars and on college campuses and to require women to watch a narrated ultrasound of their live fetuses before having abortions. A federal judge later struck down the abortion measure and ordered the state to pay the plaintiffs $1 million in legal fees.
In 2013, the Tillis-led House stirred outrage among civil rights groups by altering a host of election rules. Among them, it repealed a law allowing North Carolinians to register and to vote on the same day and adopted a requirement that every voter display one of six state-approved ID cards.
Arriving in Washington, Tillis sensed a need to recast his image. He began searching for slivers of common ground in a polarized Congress, collaborating on legislation with a growing list of Democrats, especially on issues surrounding the health and well-being of military veterans.
Mindful of North Carolina’s huge Army and Marine bases at Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune, and the presence of nearly a million veterans in the state, Tillis secured seats on both the Senate Armed Services and Veterans Affairs Committees.
Sitting on a sofa in his office, he waved a thick stack of paper and said he wants to know why the Pentagon needs 600 pages to solicit bids for a new handgun.
“We’re going to get into how this happened,” he said.
He also said he wants to bore in on systemic problems in the VA’s bureaucracy that are the underlying reasons for the months-long wait lists and other issues plaguing veterans’ hospitals nationwide.
“I’m very much a process person,” Tillis said. “That’s what I did in my professional career. I want to stay focused on that, so we can put a stake in the ground on systemic changes, improvements we will make ... and measure them and really help the VA get through that process.”
Tillis also has begun framing a relatively moderate position on one of the hottest issues before Congress: immigration reform.
He said he objects to amnesty for the estimated 10 million to 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States because the mere discussion of granting them legal status and a path to citizenship “provides an immediate incentive for people to try to get in so they could be a part of it.”
But he drew a sharp distinction between his positions and those of Trump, who wants to deport millions of illegal aliens and build a wall along the Mexican border to block any more from entering the country.
“I’m not the sort of person who thinks it makes any sense logistically or otherwise to have a program to send them all back home,” Tillis said. “That does not mean amnesty … You have to figure out some way to provide them a path to legal status, which is not citizenship.”
Tillis said he believes political leaders pushing for broad immigration reform are chasing a rainbow.
“The reality is, comprehensive immigration reform has been tried, and it has failed,” he said.
Rather, he said, all visa programs should be studied to see whether visa recipients are taking jobs that could have gone to qualified American job candidates. He would make an exception for one visa program that he said is keeping North Carolina’s coastal seafood industry alive.
The H2B visa program allows seafood packers and other employers, who face a shortage of domestic workers, to provide temporary work visas to foreign workers.
Even if a foreign worker gets one of those jobs, Tillis said, the industry creates jobs both among its suppliers and its customers.
He harkened to the labor shortages of the 1990s, when some industries could grow only “by bringing in people.”
If we don’t get this right,” Tillis said, “it will be one of our greatest impediments to economic growth and economic expansion.”
While Tillis has pursued narrow legislative initiatives with the likes of Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, he is one of only two members of North Carolina’s congressional delegation to receive a “lifetime” rating of 100 percent from the arch-conservative nonprofit group Americans for Prosperity, formed by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.
“I think a lot of people are really happy with what he’s doing so far,” said Donald Bryson, the group’s North Carolina state director. Tillis “clearly has aims” for a greater leadership role, he said.
Sued by the Obama justice department
Tillis, who also was named to the Senate Judiciary Committee, has held onto several positions he took in the legislature, including on the volatile issue of voting rights. Within weeks of taking office, he sat face-to-face with a home state native, Loretta Lynch, at a committee hearing on her nomination to replace Attorney General Eric Holder – a black woman seeking to succeed the first black man to lead the Justice Department.
When he got the microphone, Tillis made clear his disdain for Holder, whose stewardship of the department had won the enmity of many congressional Republicans. The department also had joined a suit by the NAACP challenging North Carolina’s new voter ID law as discriminatory. The suit, which recently went to trial and now is in the hands of a federal judge, named Tillis among defendants.
Tillis told Lynch that when he was speaker, he “took great care to make sure that we made heroic efforts to preserve everyone’s right to vote,” including delaying for two years the effective date of the ID provision while educating the public about it.
Although Lynch grew up in Greensboro and Tillis recently praised her as a brilliant attorney, he voted against her confirmation on grounds there was little distinction between Lynch and Holder.
After the interview, Tillis was asked why North Carolina needed the 2013 voter ID law, given that prosecutions for vote fraud — punishable by up to five years in prison — have been rare in the state.
“The mere thought that someone can simply walk into a voting booth and cast a vote on behalf of someone else fosters the perception that our electoral system lacks integrity,” he said in a written statement.
However, the Rev. William J. Barber II, president of the state NAACP chapter, charged that Tillis “led in passing the worst voter suppression law in the country and the worst one since Jim Crow.”
“As the speaker, he controlled the legislation, he chose the chair of the committee that oversaw voting and he determined what the debate would look like,” Barber said in a phone interview.
In the Senate, Tillis has lined up with Republicans who have spurned an invitation from the Supreme Court for Congress to update a key section in the Voting Rights Act that it struck down as outdated. The 1965 law had specified that proposed electoral changes in parts of North Carolina and all or portions of 14 other states must receive federal approval – a way to ensure they wouldn’t impede minority voting. The court decision nullifying that requirement set off a rush of election rules changes in Raleigh and across the country.
“As long as states work to protect the constitutional right to vote, then the administration of election laws should be left to those states,” Tillis said.
But a former Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Wisconsin Rep. James Sensenbrenner, disagrees and has urged Congress to adopt a new formula to curb abuses.
With a wave of electoral changes sweeping North Carolina and other states, Sensenbrenner wrote in a March 31 item in The New York Times: “One of the most effective ways to suppress voting is to change the rules.”
Just as he did upon winning a seat in the state House, Tillis has become a booster for fellow Republican senators and congressional candidates. Wicker, who chairs the Senate Republicans’ fund-raising arm, said Tillis has “helped us enormously,” traversing the country to to attend colleagues’ campaign fundraisers.
Will Tillis seek to succeed Wicker in the post, which can serve as a springboard to higher leadership jobs?
Wicker said the North Carolina freshman would be “well received by the current membership of our Republican Conference if he were to become a candidate.”
A FEW THINGS ABOUT SEN. THOM TILLIS
Born: Aug. 30, 1960, Jacksonville, Fl.
Married: (Susan) with two grown children
Education: B.S. from University of Maryland University College, 1997
Professional experience: 22 years as consultant for PriceWaterhouseCoopers, IBM Corp.
Political experience: North Carolina State Rep. 2007-2014; House Speaker, 2011-2014
Elected to U.S. Senate: 2014
Senate Committees: Agriculture, Armed Services, Judiciary, Veterans’ Affairs.
Net worth: $2.88 million-$15 million as of Dec. 31, 2014 (based on wide asset and liability ranges in Senate financial disclosure reports)
Campaign war chest: Raised $1 million in 2015; ended year with $154,000 in cash.
Hobbies: Mountain biking; disc golf
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