Under the Dome

Tillis is open to town halls, minus shouting

Sen. Thom Tillis speaks with an aide after a vote at the U.S. Capitol, May 9, 2016, in Washington, DC.
Sen. Thom Tillis speaks with an aide after a vote at the U.S. Capitol, May 9, 2016, in Washington, DC. Getty Images

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis said Monday at a Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce event that he would host town hall meetings with constituents, but only if they were done without shouting or name calling.

Tillis has drawn criticism for not holding any town hall meetings during the recent recess from Congress, though he isn’t the only federal lawmaker to have not hosted one. His fellow N.C. Republican, Sen. Richard Burr, is among those who haven’t held a town hall.

Tillis said any public meetings would have to be in a format in which people are respectful and are not shouting at one another.

“It turns off the people who are not politically engaged when they see that, because they can’t make sense out of it,” he said.

That comment came after one business owner attending the $25-a-plate luncheon interrupted the event to loudly criticize the senator for not hosting any forums, even referring to him as “Timid Tillis.”

Steve Pogoloff said he did not regret referring to Tillis by that name. “He is, isn’t he?” said Pogoloff, who owns a software firm in Durham. “He’s cowardly. This is embarrassing as a resident of North Carolina. We have a proud tradition of great government here for decades.”

Outside of the event, more than a dozen protesters gathered to express their frustrations about a lack of town halls.

Most said they were concerned about the fate of the Affordable Care Act and the uncertainty of a plan to replace it.

Tony Quartararo, of Raleigh, said public meetings with politicians would help ease the frustration of the protesters.

“What they should be doing is having more interface (with constituents), because when people protest and are expressing outrage, it’s because there is pent-up frustration,” he said. “There’s no other way for the politicians to hear them.”

Around 80 people attended the sold-out luncheon. The chamber, which has hosted conversations with Gov. Roy Cooper and former Gov. Pat McCrory, said it had been working on arranging the event for six months. The luncheon was organized as a conversation between Tillis and Durham Chamber CEO Geoff Durham with a question-and-answer period at the end.

Tillis discussed issues including House Bill 2, government-funded research and the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project.

Durham asked Tillis about his thoughts on HB2, the state law dealing with transgender bathroom access that was passed to block a local Charlotte ordinance. The senator called it a “classic case of overreach by Charlotte and overreaction by Raleigh.” He urged the General Assembly to find a compromise solution.

“This is about our brand,” he said. “... I think both groups have legitimate arguments, but they just came up with really poor solutions to the problem. But at the end of the day when our brand suffers than I have a problem with it.”

Asked about the potential light rail project, Tillis praised the economic impact of infrastructure investment, adding that local officials should have more say in how infrastructure funding is spent.

“The problem that we typically get into is people object to some of these forward-looking projects, because they don't see the need today,” he said. “But I really think this is an example of where the elected officials are trying to skate where the puck is going to be, not where it is.

“If you simply wait until you need it, it’s probably too late. ... I do think, though, it has to be a decision that is made in light of a finite set of resources (and) that we have to trust the locally elected officials and regional entities on how to spend the money. We shouldn’t necessarily mandate that dollars should be spent on rail or roads.”

The chamber also asked Tillis about the future of federally-funded research in light of President Donald Trump’s decision to freeze federal grants and contracts at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Tillis said he thinks that the Trump administration is just taking inventory of federal funding to determine its priorities rather than de-emphasizing the importance of government-funded research.

Research Triangle Park is home to the EPA’s second-largest office and many businesses as well as the universities in the area receive grants and contracts from the government.

“Clearly investments in research funding are one of the most important things we can do,” Tillis said. “It creates job multiples (and) it improves the learning institutions themselves as they go through the process.

“If this is just an inventory process, I am OK with it,” he added. “If this is a sign of things to come in de-emphasizing research, then as someone who voted for the increase in funding for the National Institute of Health ... than I would have concerns.”

Zachery Eanes: 919-419-6684