RALEIGH — After just four years in the General Assembly, Mecklenburg County lawmaker Thom Tillis was chosen Saturday to lead the new Republican majority as speaker of the House.
Tillis beat out current minority leader Paul "Skip" Stam, an Apex attorney, in what Tillis called a close vote. Stam was picked as majority leader.
Tillis' victory over Stam means that not only will the leader's gavel pass from the Democrats to the Republicans but also that it will leave the Triangle: Joe Hackney, a Chapel Hill Democrat, had held the post since 2007.
Republicans won a majority in the House and in the Senate on Election Day, giving the GOP control of both chambers for the first time since 1898. With a 68-52 edge over the Democrats, it also assures them control of the speaker's position for the first time since 1998.
Tillis, 50, won in the second round of the Saturday's voting. Mecklenburg Republican Ric Killian and Mitch Gillespie of McDowell County were eliminated in a first round. Rep. Dale Folwell of Winston-Salem was chosen to become speaker pro tem and Rep. Marilyn Avila of Wake County was picked as chairwoman of the joint House-Senate Republican caucus. The party's choices will be approved by a vote by the full House when it convenes in January.
With four candidates, the fight for the top House job was in contrast to the smooth ascension this week of the new GOP Senate president pro tem, Sen. Phil Berger of Rockingham, who was unopposed. Still, there was no acrimony at any point, Tillis said, adding that he and Stam worked together on transition issues daily even as they campaigned.
Because the election went so smoothly, House Republicans will be productive quickly when they take over in January, Tillis said.
"We went [into the leadership election] unified, we came out unified and I have every reason to believe that's why we're going into the legislative session and make history," he said.
Dealing with the state's expected $3.5 billion budget shortfall has to top the House agenda, Tillis said, along with measures aimed at creating jobs and reducing taxes.
Despite the certain spending cuts, Tillis said he would work hard to keep them from harming teachers and classrooms. He plans on bringing education leaders to Raleigh next month to help identify areas to reduce spending.
"I actually am optimistic that we can find ways to reduce funding that may be in the education category that won't have devastating impact in the classroom," he said.
The Republicans also have a priority list of legislation that got nowhere under the Democrats, including a constitutional amendment to limit eminent domain and legislation to limit the effects of the federal health care overhaul on North Carolinians.
Tillis' selection as speaker may mean that some social issues won't have the same priority they might have under Stam who, for instance, is a dogged abortion opponent. Wake County government temporarily removed abortion coverage from its health plan earlier this year after he questioned it.
Tillis, a 50-year-old management consultant who has worked for Fortune 500 companies, is congenial and polished, and he has the reputation for focusing on the big priorities.
He quit his job as an IBM management consultant 19 months ago to concentrate on helping Republicans win the House. Tom Fetzer, the state GOP chairman, said Tillis will bring a private-sector eye to his new role.
"He spent his whole life in business," Fetzer said. "He's going to bring a businessman's focus, a businessman's perspective to the job of speaker. He's not a career politician; he's tough, he's innovative."
Tillis was first elected just four years ago but has moved quickly up the leadership ladder in his party. He is currently minority whip and generated good will among fellow GOP members during this year's campaigning by raising more than $350,000, most of which was given to help fellow Republicans. By comparison, Stam raised more than $240,000.
Fetzer said that Tillis had proven himself and that a House leader with a fresh perspective would be healthy.
"We need to disabuse ourselves of this notion that people have to be around there forever to effectively lead," Fetzer said.
Tillis said his relatively short stint in office wouldn't be a hindrance, in part because he would rely on other GOP members, such as Stam, who had served longer.
"I think that you have the kind of experience that you need to lead a caucus that has tremendous institutional knowledge," he said. "I think that the problem that we've had maybe with past speakers is that they thought they should be doing it all on their own, or that they had the Rosetta Stone, the answers to a lot of the questions. I don't. I think most of the answers to our questions lay in the hearts and minds of our caucus members, not the leader."
Every member of caucus, he said, would have a meaningful role, and the GOP majority also would reach across the aisle to involve Democrats.
Tillis' comments echo efforts by Rep. John Blust of Greensboro, who last week sent an e-mail to his colleagues asking them to consider rule changes that would limit some of the speaker's power and put more decisions into the hands of caucus members.
Currently, the speaker makes appointments to state panels, appoints committee chairmen and members, assigns offices to other members, hires staff and controls the flow of proposed legislation through committees.
Stam said Saturday that a GOP house committee would meet in December to propose rules that could water down the speaker's role, based in part on Blust's suggestions.
Stam didn't specify the changes that the committee would consider but said that all of them would actually be to the advantage of House Democrats, though the real winner would be democracy in general.
Stam also vowed that the Republicans would work with the other party.
"We're still going to cooperate with the Democrats whenever we can," he said. "In the past that was out of necessity, because it was the way to get our bills passed. But in the future we'll do it because it's good government. We don't have a monopoly on all the good ideas."
Political consultant John Davis said the two make a powerful political tag-team: Stam as the policy wonk and Tillis as the political war general. Stam is a team member who makes sure the party appeals to the base, and Tillis has appeal to independents, Davis said.
Republicans need both to be successful, Davis said.
It's important to keep the party committed to social issues, Davis said, but if Republicans are seen as too preoccupied with those issues, they lose the independent voters they need to win elections.
"Stam can't do it by himself, and Tillis can't do it by himself."
Charlotte Observer staff writer Jim Morrill contributed.
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