Thom Tillis Is the Strategist
In a dozen years, Tillis went from IT pro and volunteer youth sports coach to the state’s Speaker of the House. Now, after leading the Republican Party to an unapologetic romp in this year’s legislative session, he’s after an even bigger prize
Thom Tillis is one of the most confident men in Raleigh, and with good reason: He and the state’s GOP were able to pass almost any bill they wanted this year.
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On a spring day in 1999, Jeff Tarte, then director of the youth sports leagues in Cornelius, stood on a baseball diamond at Smithville Park and eyed his volunteer coaches, who were lined up against a chain-link fence. There were about 15 of them, a few veterans, some new guys. Most kept quiet and waited for Tarte to speak.
One guy stood out: a fit six-footer with a quick smile, direct manner, and close-cropped hair under, oddly, an orange-and-white Tennessee Volunteers cap. Hey, buddy, Tarte thought. You’re in the wrong state. But Tarte took to the new fellow, who had just moved to town from the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Like Tarte, Thom Tillis was an information technology management consultant and had an interest in community activities and youth sports.
Something else caught Tarte’s attention: Tillis took charge of things without bullying his fellow volunteers. While the other coaches hung back, he asked questions and listened intently, encouraging the others to do the same. “He was automatically the leader in organizing the activities for the coaches. He was just a natural,” Tarte says. “He was just front and center. And he’s just personable—that big, beaming smile, always cutting up a little bit, but in a good way, with a laugh that’s totally infectious. There’s no task beneath him, and that’s an amazing thing.”
The two became friends and neighbors—Tarte lives in Cornelius’s pricey Peninsula development, and Tillis lives just outside it, about a half-mile away; Tillis runs past Tarte’s house, and Tarte bicycles past his. In 2007, Tarte ran for Cornelius mayor and won. Tillis, who by then was already representing northern Mecklenburg County in the N.C. House, swore him in. After the brief ceremony, Tarte did something odd: He turned to the audience and said, “I want to personally thank the future Speaker of the House for swearing me in.”
Tarte was prophetic. Tillis was elected N.C. House speaker in 2011. A year later, Tarte won a seat in the state Senate. Now, as Tillis embarks on his run for U.S. Senate, Tarte thinks about that initial encounter on the baseball field in Smithville Park and what it signaled about Tillis before either of them had considered a serious run for public office.
“It told me,” he says, “that he has extreme self-confidence.”
Thom Tillis tends not to ruminate. This doesn’t mean he’s impulsive, or that he forges ahead with little or flawed information. He just moves quickly. He spent nearly 30 years in management consulting, working for big businesses such as IBM and PricewaterhouseCoopers. Business consulting places a premium on quick evaluation of available information and rapid action. Wasting time wastes money.
His ascent to the leadership of the N.C. House is one of the most rapid political rises in the state’s history. It wasn’t so much the product of careful planning but, in the strictest sense, opportunism. Tillis, 53, saw chances and placed himself in a position to take advantage of them. He enlisted prominent businesspeople throughout North Carolina for endorsements and campaign funds. That opened other doors, and he walked through them. Simple as that.
The latest doorway may lead next November into the U.S. Senate, just 12 years after Tillis began his political career by joining the Town of Cornelius’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board. Tillis explains his candidacy not with the standard politician’s bromides about how the nation has “lost its way” and is in need of “strong leadership.” It’s plainer and more practical: strategy.
“I believe it’s a critical part of Republicans gaining a majority next year,” Tillis says. We’re in his office in the Legislative Building in Raleigh. It’s early September, the day after the General Assembly has finished a brief session to override a pair of gubernatorial vetoes, and the building—host to an extraordinarily contentious legislative session, complete with mass weekly protests—is oddly quiet. “This is the swing state; it’s the only state that Romney carried that’s considered a legitimate swing state, and I feel strongly that we have to have somebody with a statewide presence who can run a credible campaign. That’s the primary reason I decided to do it.”
The North Carolina race is one of four expected to determine whether Republicans gain the majority in the U.S. Senate—which would give the GOP control of both houses of Congress for President Obama’s final two years in office. The other three races are in Alaska, Arkansas, and Louisiana, Republican-dominated states where the incumbents are Democrats. If Tillis beats first-term Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan in North Carolina, a state with more Democratic than Republican registered voters, it’s a strong sign that the other races will swing to the GOP, too.
On the surface, it’s an ideal time for Tillis to run. It’ll be his first statewide race; if he wins the primary, Hagan will be only the second opponent he’s ever faced head-to-head. But he’s earned statewide recognition as the leader of the N.C. House supermajority in a legislature that, since 2010, has made national headlines for its aggressive shift to the right.
Tillis has helped push conservative, pro-business legislation on issues ranging from tax and regulatory reform to a rollback of environmental protections to education reform. Those efforts prompted the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate-backed organization that drafts and lobbies for pro-business legislation in statehouses throughout the country, to name Tillis its 2011 Legislator of the Year. Tillis joined ALEC’s national board of directors this spring. Those connections and accomplishments provided him with a platform for fundraising. In June, the first formal month of his campaign, Tillis raised more than $275,000, much of it from CEOs and business leaders.
Hagan is vulnerable, as first-term senators tend to be. There are other reasons, too. “She is not well-defined, so that gives Republicans a lot to work with,” says Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor for The Cook Political Report in Washington who’s covered the Senate for a quarter-century. “They can also take advantage of a situation where the president is not terribly popular, especially on issues like health care. … Voters, when you ask them about her, they can’t tell you about her, and when Republicans talk about her, they can say, ‘Well, she supported health care reform.’ She didn’t really win this race six years ago. Elizabeth Dole lost it.”
But Tillis’s candidacy carries its own complications. Tillis has publicly cautioned his own party against legislative “overreach,” which has prompted accusations from state and national tea party organizations that he’s trying to moderate for the sake of his Senate campaign. Members of his own party in the General Assembly have criticized him for leaving Raleigh to raise money for his Senate campaign in Washington during key floor debates in the House. And he’s been stung by reports that he pushed strongly for plum appointments to the University of North Carolina Board of Governors for some of his top campaign contributors, precisely because they were some of his top campaign contributors.
During this year’s legislative session, some of Tillis’s most revealing moments came not during debates in the House—as Speaker, he sponsored only five bills, none of them controversial—but outside the chambers. At the height of the Moral Monday protests in April, state NAACP President William Barber posted a video that shows Tillis chatting amiably with citizens in the Legislative building. Then, as Barber repeatedly calls, “Mr. Speaker,” Tillis ignores him and retreats to his office. “I’m afraid Dr. Barber needs to get with my office and set up an appointment,” he tells the videographer. “I have to keep a tight schedule.”
In August, during the Moral Monday protest in Marshall Park in Charlotte, UNC law professor Gene Nichol included Tillis in what he called “the Mecklenburg trio,” along with Gov. Pat McCrory and N.C. Sen. Bob Rucho of Matthews. Nichol said the three are devoted “to waging war on poor people and granting more largesse to the wealthiest North Carolinians. Our governor and our General Assembly looked at those strong inequalities and decided to make them deeper.”
In the first month of his formal campaign for U.S. Senate, Thom Tillis raised more than a quarter-million dollars. The list of donors looked like a who’s who of the state’s top business executives.
Tillis waves aside the criticism, saying he tried to guide the House in the conservative direction most voters wanted. “Those are old political standbys,” he says. “If I weren’t here, they’d be saying that about somebody else.”
His popularity with voters hinges largely on how the effects of his legislative work play out over the next year. What’s undeniable is that Tillis is corporate to the core, in style and substance: process-oriented, devoted to detail, adept at building and operating complex systems, more practical than ideological, devoted to making government operate as much as possible like the corporations he’s worked for and whose needs he serves—and focused on the endgame.
He does his homework. The day we meet in his legislative office, his communications director explains that Tillis was hesitant to grant an interview to me because I’ve written blog posts on this magazine’s website that have criticized the General Assembly’s leadership.
Tillis doesn’t mention the blog during our cordial 25-minute conversation. But as I get up to leave, he says something surprising.
“You still have Ophelia?” he asks, grinning. “I love German Shepherds. I used to have one back when I was a teenager. Beautiful dogs.”
Through social media, it’s not difficult to discover that I do, in fact, have a German Shepherd named Ophelia. But it’s telling that Tillis or someone working for him made the effort to look me up before our lone conversation—and even more telling that Tillis made sure I knew it.
“He’s sort of like a chess player,” says Tarte, his old friend. “His thinking is three-dimensional. He’s always two, three, four steps ahead. I think that comes from his management expertise. But I also think that’s innate.”