Barely seven months after being sworn in as North Carolina's new U.S. senator, conservative Republican Thom Tillis is increasingly called on for comment on both domestic and national security issues.
Tillis, who unseated Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan last fall in a major upset, serves on the Senate Agriculture, Armed Services, Judiciary, and Veterans' Affairs committees and the Special Committee on Aging.
"I think the reason Thom's counsel is sought after is because of the unique experience he brings to the U.S. Senate," said veteran Tar Heel State GOP consultant Marc Rotterman.
"He was speaker of the [state] House of Representatives when North Carolina was in the middle of a fiscal crisis, and he helped get the state out of the red and in the black.
"And across the aisle, Democrats knew Thom was approachable and someone they could work with. In Washington, that’s a rare commodity."
Tillis, 55, is only the second speaker of the North Carolina House to go on to higher office. The other was conservative Democrat A. Willis Smith, who was elected U.S. senator in 1950 and hired a former radio newsman named Jesse Helms as his top aide.
Tillis now holds the Senate seat Helms held from 1973 to 2003.
"You have to make some hard decisions when you're speaker," Tillis told Newsmax in a recent interview. "We began making spending cuts when a Democrat was governor [Beverly Perdue, whose last two years as governor in 2010-12 overlapped Tillis' first two as speaker] and continued under a Republican governor [present Gov. Pat McCrory].
"We had 11 overrides of vetoes by a Democratic governor and sometimes had as many as one-third of the Democratic caucus voting with the Republicans. We eventually passed legislation that included reform of taxation and workers' compensation, and most importantly, getting rid of job-killing regulations. That's what we need in Washington."
But as much as he would like to forge the same kind of bipartisan coalitions in Washington that he did in Raleigh to amend and reform the Affordable Care Act, Tillis also admits it is a difficult undertaking because of the attitude of the Democrat in chief.
Speaking to us shortly before the Supreme Court upheld the administration in the King v. Burwell case on Obamacare, Tillis said: "I have no doubt the president will veto any changes in the healthcare legislation that Congress enacts, even if those changes have bipartisan support. He's made that very clear. Were he to accept the constructive changes coming out of Congress, it would mean he has to admit the failure of his signature policy."
So congressional Republicans, the North Carolinian feels, should continue to offer constructive alternatives to Obamacare and then wait for a Republican president in 2017 to sign a repeal of the present system and then pass a market-based replacement.
'Greece Could Learn From North Carolina'
As one who is very active in the Greek-American community in North Carolina, Tillis was recently sought out by Katerina Sokou, Washington correspondent for Greece's venerable Kathimerini publication, and asked his view on the fiscal crisis that now grips the land of her ancestors.
"Greece has to stay in the euro," he replied without hesitation. "I met with economists on the Greek situation. Everyone agreed that the euro is the common currency [of Europe] and that Greece must remain in the European Union. A Greek exit from the EU and the euro would mean the Greek economy would be difficult to sustain."
But Tillis quickly added: "Just because Greece chooses to remain in the Euro doesn't mean things can go on as they were. The Greek government has to make major changes in its spending policy and entitlements. When I was speaker in North Carolina, the state was gripped with a deficit and we made a fundamental policy decision to adopt austerity budgets for four years.
"Today, we have one of the best performing economies in the U.S. and our unemployment dropped from 10.6 percent to 6.4 percent. Greece could learn from North Carolina."
Other international issues come up often with the junior Armed Services Committee member. Tillis strongly believes the Russian seizure of Crimea last year was wrong and recalled how "a retired general told [the Armed Services panel] Russia could take Estonia in 24 hours if it chose to. It’s very important that we step up our support for Ukraine and for the NATO alliance."
As for the Islamic State, Tillis urges "training, advising, and assistance" of allies in the Middle East to "wipe ISIS off the planet." In pursuit of that goal, he feels Turkey "can be helpful."
Discussing his own career, Tillis freely admits that he didn't graduate from college until he was 36. Raised in a family of six ("our parents didn't encourage college"), Tillis graduated 14th in a high school class of 480 and went to work for an insurance company.
As he continued his career in business, married and became a father of two, he also took classes at two community colleges.
"I finally got my degree from the University of Maryland University College," he told us. "By then, I was a partner at Price Waterhouse and, I'm told, the only partner without a degree."
If offered a chance to pursue his education all over, Tillis added, "I'd do it the same way. Working while you're studying gives you a unique perspective on things."
Clearly, Thom Tillis brings a unique perspective of his own to the office of U.S. senator. That he'll be sought out and heard from on a variety of issues seems a good bet.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
Joely Friedman, a senior at Ohio State University, is a National Journalism Center intern at Newsmax's Washington, D.C., bureau.
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