State News

N.C. Republicans choose leaders

Posted November 20, 2010
Updated November 21, 2010

— Republicans narrowly selected state Rep. Thom Tillis of Mecklenburg County on Saturday as their nominee to become the next speaker of the North Carolina House. Tillis is a relative newcomer with fiscal expertise who was the GOP's floor chief for the past four years.

House Republicans claimed 68 seats on Election Day, all but assuring sole GOP control of the 120-seat chamber and the speaker's post for the first time since 1998. The actual vote for speaker occurs Jan. 26 on the session's first day.

Democrat Joe Hackney, who loses his position as speaker to the incoming Republican majority, issued a statement Saturday congratulating Tillis.

"My Democratic colleagues and I look forward to working with him to make our state better," Hackney said.

"We will also continue to support action consistent with our principles. We will oppose policies that take North Carolina backward, that threaten to destroy the remarkable progress we have made in our public schools, our community colleges and our universities, or that threaten our outstanding and highly lauded climate for business."

Tillis, 50, who just won his third term to the Legislature, defeated three other candidates, including Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, the minority leader since 2007.

GOP leaders plot majority strategy GOP leaders plot majority strategy

Results of the private meeting, secret-ballot vote weren't released by caucus leaders, who would only say that Tillis won on the second ballot and that the final margin was thin.

Stam unanimously was elected majority leader, which Tillis called a sign of the amicable competition and the good feelings Republicans had for both candidates. Two other candidates who had sought the majority leader's post dropped out for Stam.

"We went in there unified and we came out unified, and I have every reason to believe that that's why we're going to go into the legislative session and make history," Tillis told reporters after the meeting.

Stam said the GOP will lead cooperatively and constructively. "We're still going to cooperate with Democrats whenever we can. In the past, it 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," he said.

Tillis, a former IBM business consultant first elected to the House in 2006 and became minority whip in 2009, has won points for running the campaign operation that raised money and recruited candidates who defeated more than a dozen Democratic incumbents. He said fiscal issues such as taxation and narrowing a projected $3.2 billion budget gap would be the immediate work of the new majority.

"This is a part-time legislature that's going to try and solve that crisis over a six-month period. Most CEOs would go running for the door if they had to take on the task that we've worked hard to take on," he said.

"Our priorities are going to be what they were in the campaign," Tillis said. "We're going to focus on the fiscal situation. We're going to focus on trying whatever we can to create jobs. We're going to live up to our promises."

Stam, an Apex attorney completing his fifth term, also talked fiscal matters but appealed more to social conservatives and has been involved in Republican Party politics since the early 1970s. He first joined the House in 1989 and returned more than a decade later.

Reps. Ric Killian of Mecklenburg County and Mitch Gillespie of McDowell County also ran for speaker Saturday. They were removed from the ballot after they trailed in the first round of voting.

Outgoing Speaker Joe Hackney, D-Orange, has been in the Legislature for 30 years. State GOP Chairman Tom Fetzer said he didn't believe Tillis' relative inexperience is a liability.

"He's going to bring a businessman's focus, a businessman's perspective to the job of speaker. He's not a career politician," Fetzer said. "We need to disabuse ourselves of this notion that people have to be around there forever to effectively lead."

Tillis and Sen. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, chosen Thursday as the GOP's choice for Senate leader, will become the top Republican leaders in state government, setting the tone for what legislation will be heard and which lawmakers will get plum committee assignments. They'll also serve as chief negotiators with, and likely foils of, Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue.

Tillis said he won't have all the answers leading the House but said he knows where to find them.

"I have the kind of experience that you need to lead a caucus that has tremendous institutional knowledge," Tillis said.

Unity is a sensitive issue for House Republicans, who struggled through a fracturous decade between those aligned with or against former co-Speaker Richard Morgan, R-Moore. The infighting surfaced in primary elections during the 2004 or 2006, taking out several GOP incumbents. Stam, 60, is credited with restoring the caucus.

House Republicans also agreed to nominate Rep. Dale Folwell of Forsyth County as speaker pro tempore, a largely ceremonial position but one Tillis said Folwell initially will use to help with new member orientation. Folwell still must be elected by the entire chamber January. The caucus also elected Rep. Marilyn Avila, R-Wake, as chairwoman of the joint House-Senate Republican caucus.

The day was largely a joyful one for Republicans, who have held control or partial control of the House for only six years since the 1898 elections. When asked what it will be like switching from minority leader to majority leader, Stam replied simply: "We're going to win a whole lot more votes."

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