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Tom Apodaca: Senate’s enforcer uses muscle, humor to deliver GOP agenda

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, left, and Sen. Tom Apodaca, form a powerful team in the N.C. General Assembly.
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, left, and Sen. Tom Apodaca, form a powerful team in the N.C. General Assembly. clowenst@newsobserver.com

In another life, Tom Apodaca chased knife-toting bail jumpers and once found himself in a cheap motel staring into the barrel of a shotgun.

The conservative Republican used to be a Jimmy Carter Democrat. And for a long time, Tom Apodaca wasn’t even Tom Apodaca. But now the Hendersonville Republican is the North Carolina Senate’s enforcer, the muscle for President Pro Tem Phil Berger of Eden.

Along with Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, he’s one of the state’s three most influential lawmakers. As Rules Committee chair, he’s the ultimate gatekeeper. At one point last month, more than 460 House and Senate bills sat parked in his committee. Few measures become law without his blessing.

Apodaca has helped shape the policies that supporters and critics alike say have turned the state to the political right. He’s part of a Senate leadership more conservative than its House counterpart or Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.

Burley and broad-shouldered, Apodaca, 57, looks like a drill sergeant and can bark like one.

During a recent debate on a contentious abortion bill, he stood in front of a committee room like a stern teacher, scolding one lawmaker who spoke out of turn and seeming to dare others to get out of line.

To critics, he can be heavy-handed, dismissing opponents with a parliamentary maneuver or brusque retort.

When the full Senate debated the abortion bill, which extends the waiting time for women from one day to three, a Democrat sought to exempt victims of rape and incest. Apodaca’s move to table her amendment quickly passed along party lines, effectively ending discussion of it.

But in the end, Apodaca was one of only two Republicans who voted against the bill.

“I felt the rules and regulations were (already) tough enough,” he said. “Twenty-four hours was sufficient.”

Despite his standing in conservative leadership, Apodaca is more pragmatist than ideologue, a self-styled “chamber of commerce Republican” whose personal politics reflect his background as an entrepreneur who has started businesses from insurance to travel.

“My position is to make the trains run, and it doesn’t matter what I think of the particular train or where it’s going,” he said. “I just try to get it to run on time.”

Earlier this year, Republicans and Democrats in the House introduced independent redistricting bills, designed to end the practice of lawmakers drawing gerrymandered districts that help them stay in power. Apodaca greeted the bills bluntly.

“God bless ’em; I can’t wait to get it over here,” he told WRAL. “It’s dead. It’s not going anywhere.”

If Apodaca can bluster, he often softens the blows with humor.

When the Senate considered a bill to suspend wildlife laws to accommodate an annual New Year’s Eve Possum Drop, Democratic Sen. Jeff Jackson of Charlotte complained that it would take the state’s image into “the land of the absurd.”

Apodaca grabbed his mike. “As they say up in the mountains,” he said, “He ain’t from around these parts.”

“The lesson that Sen. Apodaca has taught me is that good humor will make up for a lot,” said Jackson, a Charlotte Democrat. “He maintains good order with good humor, and that’s a rare sight.”

“He’s part grizzly bear, part teddy bear, depending on the matter at hand and the time of day,” said longtime friend Peter Hans, former chairman of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors.

It’s no accident that his critics are so hard to find.

“It’s hard to get anybody to say anything bad about him because of the position he holds,” said Sen. Joel Ford, a Charlotte Democrat. “He can make or break legislation. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to work with him. And I’ve also been fortunate that I’ve not had many requests.”

Key to Apodaca’s influence is his relationship with Berger.

“I don’t think I have a better friend in the legislature,” Berger said. “May not have a better friend period.”

Negotiating his way to power wasn’t hard for somebody who’d learned to navigate two families in two very different worlds.

Growing up in Durham

Apodaca was born in El Paso, Texas. His parents were 17 and in high school. Their teenage marriage didn’t last. When he was 6 months old, his mother, Gerry McFarland, took him to live with her family in Durham.

About six years later, she married Lawrence Tilley, a bus driver for Trailways. He adopted her son, who became known as Tommy Tilley. McFarland remembers a precocious child who gravitated to adults.

“At about 8 years old, he started acting like a grown-up,” she recalls.

Tommy Tilley was a Boy Scout who played baseball and took apart radios to see how they worked. As a student at Durham’s Northern High, he stocked grocery shelves and umpired youth baseball.

“I was raised if you want something in life, you work for it,” he said. “Because you’re not going to get it handed to you.”

When Tommy was in high school, his stepfather’s health began to deteriorate, and his behavior grew erratic. He watched his parents’ marriage begin a downward spiral, straining the family and its finances.

“It made me grow up quicker,” he said.

With her marriage falling apart and her son about to enter college, McFarland reached out to the man she hadn’t seen in nearly two decades, the father his son didn’t know.

A plane ticket arrived. Tommy Tilley was about to enter the world of Big Vic.

Becoming Tom Apodaca

At 18, Tommy didn’t know what to expect when he stepped off the plane in El Paso, a sprawling city along the Rio Grande in southwest Texas. He wondered how he would recognize the father he’d never met.

“People who had seen pictures of both of us said, ‘You won’t have a problem,’” he recalls.

He didn’t. Victor Apodaca, dressed in cowboy boots and a leisure suit, was a 6-foot-3 version of his son. They looked alike, laughed alike, even walked alike.

Nicknamed “Happy,” Victor Apodaca was one of the most famous bail bondsmen in Texas. In 1965, when Johnny Cash was arrested trying to cross the border with hundreds of prescription pills stashed in his guitar case, it was Victor Apodaca who paid his $1,500 bail, then brought him home for dinner.

Apodaca’s lifestyle was as colorful as his Italian suits and fancy cars. Las Vegas hotels would send planes to pick him up. Friends like boxing promoter Don King laughed at his one-liners.

“He was known for his ‘larger than life’ stature and personality and for his contagious smile,” his 2013 obituary read. “His flamboyance and notoriety were legend.”

Apodaca also was a businessman whose ventures included a car dealership and a bank. As one-time president of the Professional Bondsmen of Texas, he lobbied lawmakers in Austin.

Tommy Tilley quickly found himself embraced by the Apodacas and their Spanish heritage.

“It was such a different cultural environment than I had been used to, which I was immediately drawn to,” he said. “I came from a reserved, Southern, Scotch-Irish family. There, you’re hugging. You’re crying. It was wonderful.”

His sister Missy Apodaca saw similarities between their father and his long-lost son.

“They were made from the same cloth,” said Missy Apodaca, a lawyer and health care lobbyist in Austin. “Very, very loyal, and they would give you the clothes off their back and not tell anybody.”

“They’re very smart, stubborn men,” said her brother, Trae Apodaca, who now runs the Apodaca Bonding Group.

Tommy’s first visit with his dad ended in 1976 when he returned to North Carolina to start classes at Western Carolina University, where he enrolled as Tommy Tilley. He would graduate as Tom Apodoca.

Over the years, he and his father grew closer. “My dad lived vicariously through Tommy,” Trae Apodaca said. “It made him very proud to see Tommy do well.”

Getting started in politics

After college, Apodaca moved to Hendersonville to work for a bank. He took a two-year break to help his father run his businesses in El Paso but returned to the mountains in the early 1980s.

In 1987, Tom Apodaca started his own bail bonds business, a venture that often came with risks. He faced knife-wielders and chased bail-jumpers as they ran out the door. Sometimes he packed a gun but tried to make sure he wouldn’t have to use it.

“This place doesn’t bother you after that,” he said, standing outside a legislative hearing room.

He later opened Southeastern Sureties, a company that insures bail bonds. He built it into one of the state’s largest before selling it for seven figures. Like his father, he’s an entrepreneur with varied interests. He also has a travel agency and a real estate investment company, even his own pilot’s license.

“He pushes himself to achieve,” friend Jeff Miller said. “Tom never does anything halfway.”

In 2002, a friend suggested Apodaca run for state Senate. Long removed from his days as a Democrat (“I saw Ronald Reagan and never looked back”), he ran in the Republican primary against better-known candidates. But Apodaca proved a natural.

“I enjoy campaigns,” he said. “I like people.”

“He’s the kind of guy you want to hang out with,” said Tom Fazio, a golf course designer from Hendersonville. “You’re going to have fun, and you’re going to laugh a lot.”

Apodaca was elected to the Senate that fall. At the start of his second term in 2005, he became deputy to Berger, the minority leader. When Republicans took over in 2011, Berger made him Rules Committee chair.

Apodaca would turn for advice to the Democrat who’d long held the position. He and former Sen. Tony Rand of Fayetteville not only had worked together for three terms but were longtime friends, having met two decades earlier. They shared a love of golf and politics.

“He’s just a funny, funny guy,” Rand said. “He’s much more thoughtful than other people would think.”

Apodaca says Rand and his wife “have been as good to us as any couple I’ve ever known.”

“I consider (Rand) my only living father,” he said. “I guess I’m his bastard Republican son.”

Some compare Apodaca and Berger to their Democratic predecessors, Rand and former President Pro Tem Marc Basnight.

“They were ruthless when they needed to be, but they were very efficient,” said GOP Sen. Jerry Tillman of Randolph County. “The (president) pro tem needs to be the good guy. You’ve got to have a bully.”

Apodaca’s position has made him a magnet for campaign money. Last cycle he raised more than $500,000. Of that, $335,000 came from political action committees representing corporations or trade groups. In the Senate, only Berger got more.

Republican tax cuts have benefited those corporations and their executives.

Apodaca and Berger insist they don’t cut off debate. Though Apodaca blocked Democratic amendments to the abortion bill, the debate ran a full hour. But critics say the leaders can stifle ideas when they want to.

“Democrats pioneered ways not to have a democratic process, and Republicans have refined them,” said Chris Fitzsimon, executive director of the liberal NC Policy Watch. “Dissent is just not tolerated.”

Deal-maker

In politics and in business, Apodaca is a deal-maker.

The courtship of Sierra Nevada had been going on for years when he joined a group of anxious Henderson County leaders in 2014. They were sitting across from Ken Grossman, the billionaire owner of the craft brewery.

Everybody knew it was decision time. But it was Apodaca who brought it to a point.

“It seems like we’ve been courting and dating,” he told Grossman, according to the weekly Hendersonville Lightning. “…We need to get engaged and get married.”

Last month, Apodaca joined Duke Energy officials at the Asheville power plant on the shore of Lake Julian. They announced a $1.1 billion project to replace the coal-fired plant with one that runs on natural gas. Earlier this year, Apodaca learned that a gas pipeline was going to be built near the plant. He called Duke and suggested the conversion.

“He just forced the question,” said Lloyd Yates, an executive vice president of the utility. “It only takes one conversation with him.”

It took more than one last year when he led Senate negotiators on coal ash legislation. In the end, the Coal Ash Management Act was the nation’s first comprehensive response to the problem of leaking ash ponds. Records show Apodaca got no campaign money from Duke last cycle. “I didn’t feel comfortable having them contribute,” he said. He did get $4,000 from the company’s PAC in 2013.

Apodaca says he has no plans to run for higher office. He’s not even sure he’ll run for re-election in 2016.

“The reality is, this is the job I always wanted,” he said. “People say, ‘What are your political aspirations?’ I say I’ve already met ’em. I do not want to be the No. 1 guy. I like being in this position, running the trains, the operations guy. That’s the fun part to me.”

Researcher Maria David contributed.

Morrill: 704-358-5059

“The Great State of Tom Apodaca”

That’s the headline Raleigh blogger Paula Wolf used to detail Sen. Tom Apodaca’s duties.

How busy is he? Here are the committees he’s a member of:

▪ Chair: Rules and Operations; Select Committee on Nominations; Select Committee on UNC Board of Governors; Ways & Means, Legislative Research Commission; Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on the North Carolina State Lottery.

▪ Co-chair: Committee on Market Based Solutions and Elimination of Anti-Competitive Practices in Health Care; Insurance; Pensions & Retirement and Aging.

▪ Member: Appropriations/Base Budget; Commerce; Education/Higher Education; Finance; Judiciary I; Redistricting; Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee; Joint Legislative Elections Oversight Committee; Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations; Legislative Services Commission; Committee on the Assessment of Regulated and Non-Regulated Industry Utility Fees; Committee on Civilian Credit for Military Training and State Adjutant General Selection Criteria; Committee on Common Core State Standards; Committee on Cultural and Natural Resources; Committee on Health Care Provider Practice Sustainability and Training/Additional Transparency in Health Care; Committee on Jordan Lake.

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