Cover Story: New NC House Speaker is Republican from Cornelius

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Two years ago, North Carolina voters checked "change" in the ballot box.  It helped send Barack Obama to the White House.

Apparently, that wasn't enough.

Three weeks ago, the electorate overturned 112 years of political tradition giving Republicans control of both houses of the North Carolina Legislature.

When the new session comes to order, a Mecklenburg County Republican will be holding the gavel in the North Carolina House.

Rep. Thom Tillis didn't travel the traditional route to his new position.

It's arguably the biggest rise to power ever seen in state government.

Four years ago he was PTA president at Hopewell High School in Huntersville.  Come January Thom Tillis will be Speaker of the House, the third most powerful person in the state.

He quit his job a year and a half ago to focus solely on getting Republicans elected to Raleigh.

His work was rewarded three weeks ago in the election with the GOP going over the 9 seats needed to control the House - getting 16.  And in the Senate adding not 6 new but 10 new seats to control both houses of the General Assembly.

Now House Republicans in the majority in January rewarded Tillis picking him to be the next House Speaker.  It caps an amazing run for a man who was a former PTA president four years ago.

"As corny as it may sound I just think it's another example of the American dream," he said.  "I really believe that our society rewards hard work, determination, commitment and results. And that's why I'm here."

But a lot rests on his shoulders, foremost of which is figuring out how to balance a budget with a $3.2 billion hole.

Education most likely will be affected.  Tillis says figuring out how not to not hurt classrooms is job one.

"One of the ways you start is by engaging the actual stakeholders. Instead of having these representatives of teachers.. we're going to get out and talk with teachers. We're going to get them actively involved in the process," he said.

The GOP will have to work with a Democratic Governor, Bev Perdue, who has veto power.  Although Republicans have the votes to override her.

Perdue has indicated she's willing to work with the GOP.

"We're going to give her the benefit of the doubt till she gives us a reason not to."

Tillis says Republicans made promises they'll have to deliver on.

They include:

  • Voter ID legislation, requiring voters to show Photo ID before voting.  A number of states already have it.  Republicans believe it will cut down on fraud.
  • Raising the cap on the number of Charter Schools in the state.
  • A resolution opposing President Obama's National Health Care plan.

Tillis will become the second House Speaker from Mecklenburg in just four years.  Jim Black, Democrat from Matthews, had the office seven years until he was forced out in a scandal.  Black was the first House speaker from Mecklenburg in more than 70 years.

"The old way of doing things doesn't work," he says.  "We need to move quickly. We're in an economic crisis. We have an opportunity to change the mindset of the General Assembly for a decade or a generation. We've got to take that seriously."

Tillis says unlike a CEO in a business who gets one or two years to turn things around, he says the legislature has six months to get it done and it starts January 26th.

How might Republicans might govern?

Tillis says they're going to be more inclusive reaching out to Democrats to fill key committee spots.

Republicans are taking about an accelerated session, holding key meeting before the session begins so they can hit the ground running.  They want to put out a budget in record-time.

Tillis is approaching this like a businessman which he is.

He won't officially have the office until January when the legislature convenes, being in the General Assembly only four years when he takes over Tillis will have the least legislative experience for a speaker in recent history.

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