- Associated Press - Saturday, April 5, 2014

WILSON, N.C. (AP) - As an engineer of the 2010 Republican takeover of the North Carolina General Assembly, Thom Tillis takes credit or shoulders the blame for what he and his GOP colleagues have accomplished since.

Despite vocal criticism from Democrats and their allies about the Republican agenda in Raleigh, it’s all about Tillis accentuating the positive before Republican groups across the state in his bid to win the party’s U.S. Senate nomination.

Since becoming House speaker in 2011, Tillis reminded GOP activists recently Down East, the legislature has passed laws cutting tax rates and regulations, broadening gun rights, setting additional hurdles to abortion and helping make clear gay marriage is illegal. The unemployment rate has fallen dramatically in the past year, Tillis says, and he’s fought the federal health care overhaul at every turn.

“I’ve been trying to repeal Obamacare since the first day I got on the job,” he told Wilson County GOP convention delegates last month.

The Cornelius business consultant says it’s those accomplishments that differentiate him from the other seven candidates seeking to challenge Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan in November. The first-place candidate in the May 6 primary must get at least 40 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff.

“When I get into groups like this and remind them of the promises we’ve kept, it resonates, and that’s how we get the support we need to win the primary,” Tillis said in an interview in Wilson.

Tillis has been acting like the primary’s front-runner, bypassing events attended by top rivals Greg Brannon and Mark Harris, who argue he’s not conservative or honest enough for GOP voters. Hagan apparently thinks Tillis is her likely opponent, contrasting herself with him at every turn and saying his legislative agenda has harmed the public schools, eroded voting rights and decreased unemployment benefits.

Tillis‘ GOP rivals point to actions he’s taken while speaker they say prove he’s too moderate or can’t be trusted. Others, particularly within the tea party movement, say Tillis‘ comments show he’s not that committed to eliminating the federal health care overhaul and that he’s supported by tea party adversaries U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Karl Rove.

“This is not the kind of person that we want representing us, regardless of party affiliation,” said Vallee Bubak, co-founder of Lake Norman Conservatives north of Charlotte.

Harris, Brannon and other candidates have had difficulty building momentum without full campaign coffers of their own to buy TV and radio commercials. Tillis, meanwhile, had run two TV ads before the final full month of the campaign.

“I think he’s well-qualified for the job. He did a fantastic job in the legislature in Raleigh,” Roger Lucas, a Wilson County commissioner, said after hearing Tillis speak. He hadn’t yet made his primary choice.

Despite complaints that he’s not conservative enough, Tillis largely “takes down-the-line conservative positions. He’s not leaving a whole lot of room on his right,” said Eric Heberlig, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Tillis, 53, has attempted to complement his record as speaker with a life story that he says affirms the American dream.

Tillis was one of six children in what he labeled a poor family that moved often through the South. He lived in the Nashville, Tenn., area as a teenager. He prepared to enter the Air Force after high school, but a car accident and related hand surgery scuttled those plans.

He entered the workforce instead and married his high school sweetheart. “I was 20 years old. I was working in a warehouse and I was living in a trailer park,” he said. Tillis said a supportive work manager agreed to give him more responsibilities, which in turn led him to a new job. He was later recruited by Wang Laboratories and moved to Boston.

By about age 25, Tillis and his wife divorced, only to get remarried to each other and divorced a second time. “It was just two young kids getting married too soon,” he said. Tillis and his current wife, Susan, have two grown children.

He joined the Pricewaterhouse consulting firm in 1990 and became a partner while not earning a bachelor’s degree until his mid-30s. After stops in Atlanta and northern Virginia, he and his family moved to the Charlotte area in 1998. A corporate acquisition brought him under IBM a few years later.

Tillis served on the Cornelius town council for two years, followed by one year as PTA president of his children’s high school.

Denise Carter, who preceded Tillis as PTA president, appreciated his ideas to get more parents and students involved and his willingness to roll up his sleeves. “He sees a need and if that need’s not being fulfilled, he thinks that he’s the one who has to do it,” Carter said.

Tillis defeated an incumbent Republican in the 2006 primary for a state House seat, and by his second term became minority whip. He quit his IBM job to find legislative candidates and money for the 2010 elections, when Republicans won majorities in the House and Senate for the first time in 140 years. He was rewarded by being elected speaker.

Heberlig said it may be more difficult for Tillis to run on his record in a general election because many voters believe Republicans in Raleigh have gone too far. But Tillis argues his governing style is working and Hagan hasn’t fulfilled her promises, especially one she repeated from President Barack Obama about people being able to keep their health insurance if they like it.

“I believe that the promises that I helped keep and the results that I helped produce qualify me for you all hiring me for your next U.S. senator,” Tillis told Republicans.

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Online:

Thom Tillis for U.S. Senate: http://thomtillis.com/

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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