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Patrick Gannon: A lot of ifs for Thom Tillis

RALEIGH – Thom Tillis could be a great U.S. senator.

I don’t write that because of his politics — this isn’t about that. I write it because of the person I perceive Tillis to be after covering the General Assembly for five years, including the past four with Tillis as House speaker.

My experience with Tillis — who is heading to Washington after thwarting U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan’s re-election bid last week — includes occasional one-on-one interviews, numerous press conferences, hundreds of floor sessions with him at the dais, passing him in the halls of the Legislative Building and talking to others about him.

I first remember the U.S. senator-elect when he sat near the back corner of the House chamber in a seat reserved for lawmakers in the minority party with little clout. It was 2010, less than five years ago, with Democrats still in the majority. When he spoke on the House floor, I recall thinking he was a pretty smooth politician, smart, articulate. He didn’t come off as someone who debated bills to hear himself talk (and trust me, there are plenty of those to go around).

Fast forward to 2011, when Republicans took control of the General Assembly and Tillis was voted in as speaker. He held town hall meetings across the state, an unusual undertaking for a speaker. He should do it again as a U.S. senator.

Most longtime members of the Raleigh press corps — while some have better relationships with him than others — agree that his staff was generally responsive. Tillis through the years made himself available. He should take that same approach in responding to constituents’ needs from Washington. Tillis has thicker skin than other prominent politicians, which will be an asset in the nation’s capital. As much as he disliked the media at times, he seldom bashed it publicly.

Tillis has his faults. He can come off as arrogant. He is a polished businessman, which can leave the impression that he’s not an everyday guy. He’s made dumb statements that have been used against him. His response to inappropriate relationships between two of his staffers and lobbyists in 2012 was to give the employees more money as they resigned from his office. The decision was roundly criticized at the time, but my guess is that Tillis believed throwing his employees under the bus wasn’t the right thing to do.

Tillis seems genuinely compassionate, even if he was criticized for political decisions that some saw as mean-spirited. On many occasions, the speaker choked up during daily sessions as he recognized family members of a fallen soldier, police officer or deceased legislator. Tillis also was a strong advocate for payments to state residents sterilized under the former eugenics program, yet takes little credit for making that happen.

As the 2014 lawmaking session came to an end, I remember an exchange between Tillis and Rep. Marcus Brandon — an African-American Democrat from Guilford County who also is openly gay. Brandon didn’t run for re-election this year, and the exchange came after Brandon’s goodbye speech on the House floor. I don’t remember exactly what was said, but I remember thinking there must be mutual respect there.

Brandon, who campaigned for Hagan, said last week that he has the “utmost respect” for Tillis, calling him a “great person” who is “in it for the right reasons.” “Our politics don’t always agree, but I know that our hearts do,” he said. “It was an honor to work with him, and I wish him much success.”

Brandon also said history should give Tillis credit for tempering certain legislation to make it more palatable for Democrats and their supporters. “It could have been a lot worse in the General Assembly if it weren’t for Thom Tillis and his ability to mitigate some of those extreme policies from the far right,” he said.

Tillis could be a great senator if he shows he can be a moderate voice who works across the aisle in a place that sorely needs that type of politician. Tillis could be a great senator if he shows compassion for people from all walks of life and remains accessible. He could be a great senator if he remembers that he was elected by less than half of the state’s voters. He could be a great senator if he has the courage to stand up to his party leadership as a first-term lawmaker.

That’s a lot of ifs. I could write a column about how Tillis could be a bad U.S. senator, but he deserves the benefit of the doubt. He has six years to demonstrate which senator he’s going to be.

Patrick Gannon writes columns for Capitol Press Association.

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