Incumbent Senator Thom Tillis says he rarely publicly discussed his upbringing until the 2020 election season but points to it as what he calls a “huge contrast” between he and challenger Cal Cunningham.
“I grew up with six kids. My father, my mother didn’t get high school diplomas,” Tillis said.
Tillis says his family moved seven times before he turned 16, going wherever his parents could find work. This resulted in Tillis going to five different elementary schools and three middle schools.
“Grew up in trailer parks that are still standing,” Tillis recalled. “One in Nashville and one in Jacksonville, Florida.”
When Tillis graduated from high school, he didn’t have money for college. Instead, the next step was a warehouse where he worked for minimum wage, but he never stopped working toward a higher education.
“I don’t know many other Senators, of the other 99, who went to two different community colleges, three different universities, finished my degree when I was 36 years old, almost 37 years old,” Tillis said.
After earning his degree, Tillis worked his way up to a top-level executive position at PricewaterhouseCoopers and IBM.
He also met his future wife, Susan, while working in the Boston area.
“We just happened to be in the same office complex,” Tillis explained. “She says I flirted with her. I say she flirted with me.”
Either way, he says, the couple married the following year. Next, came their two children.
“It’s one of the few things people describe that just seem too perfect to be true that’s actually true,” Tillis said.
His career in public service began with serving as the PTA president at Hopewell High School in Huntersville. Still, a greater calling presented itself.
“I saw things going on in North Carolina that didn’t make sense to me,” Tillis said. “I mean, we should be one of the top states in the nation. We were a laggard.”
In 2006, Tillis was elected to the North Carolina House of Representatives and was later selected to serve as Speaker of the House from 2011 to 2014.
“My upbringing is probably one of the most important factors in how I prioritize what I want to do in the U.S. Senate and what I did as Speaker of the House and even as a minority member in the North Carolina House,” he said.
In 2014, Tillis was elected as U.S. Senator. Now, he looks to make it an even 20 years by gaining re-election.
“First and foremost, the biggest challenge is being away from home,” he said of being a senator. “My wife Susan, my two grandkids, my family members, my friends.”
Tillis called his parents, who were married for nearly 48 years, “a rock.” He says his father passed away 23 years ago.
Today, he and Susan now have to grandchildren of their own.
“She’s called me PawPaw since she’s been able to speak. It was one of the first words she learned,” Tillis said of his 2-year-old granddaughter, who turns three in October.
However, the volume of political ads running during this election season seems to be influencing her.
“A few weeks ago, she called me Thom Tillis,” he said laughingly.
Tillis says what he experienced during his childhood gives him a greater understanding into the lives of people who are struggling.
“When you grow up on the economic bubble, and you start working when you’re 12 years old, I made my first Social Security payment in 1973,” he said. “When you grow up that way, and you see people working at night, going to school, trying to get a job, you understand. If you’re embedded in it, you really understand when government can help you and government can hurt you.”
Despite all the titles Tillis has had during his career, he says the most challenging is the one he and Susan elected to hold together.
“Being a senator I don’t find particularly challenging,” he said. “I mean, being a parent you have to be mindful of the role model you’re setting for them, and it’s a 24/7, 365 job.”
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