Cornelius’ own Thom Tillis had such a moment this past Jan. 26, as the whirlwind, meteoricrise to the pinnacle of state politics placed him squarely at the podium of the North CarolinaHouse of Representatives meeting chamber. Banging his trusty gavel, which he named “Ray”after his father,” he called to order what he describes, in a word, the “historic” 2011 legislative session.
Less than a decade removed from his first foray into politics, Tillis had taken his no-nonsense, get-it-done-and-get-it-done-now approach from the meeting chamber of Cornelius Town Hall to arguably the most powerful position in the state, leading a combination of fresh-faced new and battle-savvy grizzled veteran legislators through an ambitious schedule of historic proportions in record time, taking full advantage of the first Republican majority in Raleigh in more than a
He had only a moment to reflect in this surreal moment before his work began.
“Everybody asks me what got me into politics, and I answer that it was a mountain bike trail,” says Tillis. “We were trying to get a mountain bike trail built in Jetton Park, and I was told that if I got onto the (Cornelius Town) Board, it would really help that trail to get built. ... And now, here I am.”
The former IBM executive and partner of Price Waterhouse Coopers, Tillis began his public service in 2002 as a member of the Cornelius Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, then as a member of the Cornelius Town Board from 2003 to 2005. During a period of turmoil in the early years of Hopewell High School, he founded a movement called Hopewell High School Project Hope, which worked to bring the issues front and center to county officials. His work was largely credited for administrative changes at the school. He also served as president of the Hopewell High PTSA from 2005 to 2006.
In 2006 he challenged and defeated District 98 Rep. John Rhodes, was elected House Minority Whip in 2008, and his efforts to help elect a Republican legislative majority in 2010 in large part earned him the House speakership.
It’s been a lightning fast ride to the top, almost as fast as the ultra-competitive Tillis likes to go when taking on challengers on a giant inflatable slip-and-slide at the annual Big Day at the Lake event. Last week, he slowed down enough to reflect on what this past legislative session accomplished under his leadership.
“The real crescendo,” says Tillis, “came last Monday when we had three veto overrides of gubernatorial vetoes.”
In all, he led a bipartisan effort to overturn five of 11 pieces of legislation vetoed by Gov. Beverly Perdue, and through a legislative procedure left the door open to revisit at least one of his most critical issues, a voter identification bill, which the House will take up when it reconvenes in a special session Sept. 12. The House failed to override Perdue’s veto during its last session, in a vote that followed political lines.
In all, the General Assembly passed 477 bills, 471 of them becoming law.
“Of the five vetoes overturned there was only one that was viewed as a social agenda item, and that was a woman’s right to information (before continuing with an abortion), that was vetoed by the governor.” Tillis says. “We were accused of having a social agenda, but how could one social agenda item be viewed as a heavily social right wing conservative agenda when it doesn’t square with the numbers?”
Tillis was asked to characterize, in one word or even one sentence, his 2011 legislative session.
“I’m one who never likes to use the word ‘historic,’ but it truly was historic because it was the shortest session since 1973, and it was the first time there has ever been a budget veto override,” says Tillis. “It was also historic because more legislation got passed sooner than at any time since they started keeping statistics, and it was historic because five veto overrides occurred over a one-week period.
“I had one member who has been (in Raleigh) more than 30 years who told me it was unlike any legislative session he has ever seen. Going forward, this will be the session that establishes the baseline by which others will be measured.”
Tillis says so much got done in so little time because of bipartisan support in reforming House rules. They included reducing the number of special committees by one-third, and limiting the number of bills that can be filed by any individual member to 10 over two years. That move alone, Tillis says, forced more collaboration among legislators in filing bills and helped eliminate “run-on” bills legislators file knowing they have no chance of getting to the House floor or being approved, but they can campaign on the fact that they tried to file them.
“When you eliminate 40 percent of the bills filed, it’s amazing how much more you can get done,” Tillis says. “We democratized the rules in that the changes specifically benefitted the minority party. Generally speaking, the party in the minority is always against the rules changes, but they benefitted from them so they voted for them. We had a (unanimous) vote on the rules changes.”
Tillis recalls one protracted debate over committee assignments, one that he settled quickly. “By statute, the rules now require proportional partisan representation on the oversight committee,” he says. “They (Democrats) never did that when they were in the majority. We had committees with only one Republican on them. We guaranteed them better representation than they ever gave us and they still debated it for an hour.
“I went to their leadership and said, ‘Look, unless they want the old rules, they get five more minutes.’ Suddenly, they were all in favor of it.
There are those who believe having your local representative in the most powerful legislative seat in Raleigh comes with certain inherent advantages. Still, it can be a challenge for the Speaker of the House to balance the needs of the constituents who elected him and the responsibility of corralling the rest of the house members.
In a way that’s true, but Tillis says it’s not quite that easy.
“Traditionally, the Speaker doesn’t run bills,” he says. “There were several bills this year that my rules chair ran for me. For the most part, though, I found that me getting a local bill approved went a lot more smoothly for me. I did my best to tee them up and my rules chair ran them for me and took care of them.”
One example of how smoothly Tillis’ bills navigated through the General Assembly was House Bill 508 codifying the funding of Visit Lake Norman which, although introduced by Rep. Beverly Earle of Charlotte, had Tillis’ stamp of urgency. The bill sailed, without debate every step of the way, unanimously through both the House and the Senate.
In all Tillis, well known for meticulous planning and thorough execution of his plans, says his first session went about as he expected.
“If you go back to my opening day speech, what I laid out and what we accomplished went pretty much according to my expectations,” Tillis says. “Doing what we did was difficult, but it wasn’t complicated. It took a lot of energy and interaction with the members to keep focused on priorities, but it really was not complicated.”
Most recently, Tillis was recognized for his work by American Legislative Exchange Council at its annual meeting in New Orleans, where he was named recipient of the ALEC award as Legislator of the Year. It is given to a legislative leader who best demonstrates the Jeffersonian principles of limited government, free markets and federalism.
Along the way to becoming Speaker and earning the ALEC award, he has been rated in the Top 33 percent of most conservative members by the Civitas Institute, a nonpartisan conservative think tank; rated in the Top 25 percent of most effective legislators by the nonpartisan NC Center for Public Policy; and was the No. 1-rated legislator for promoting a business-friendly environment in North Carolina by the nonpartisan North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation.
But mostly, as he laughs much of the way through a recent interview, he’s having a good time doing that thing he does.