Republican Sen. Thom Tillis sat down for a wide-ranging conversation with the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce on Monday, in which the junior senator from North Carolina discussed a variety of local issues, including HB2, government-funded research and the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project.
Around 80 people were in attendance at the sold-out luncheon, which cost $25 a plate to attend. The Chamber, which has hosted conversations with Gov. Roy Cooper and former Gov. Pat McCrory in the past, said it had been working on arranging the event for the past six months.
Outside of the RTP headquarters, around a dozen people lined the entrance to the facility on Davis Drive to protest the senator’s appearance. Those gathered outside of the event criticized Tillis for not holding any town hall meetings with his constituents on health care reform, as some of other politicians have chosen to do.
Inside the event, a local business owner named Steve Pogoloff, interrupted the event to ask the senator why he had not held any town halls, before referring to the former speaker of the North Carolina House of Representative as “timid Tillis.”
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Tillis responded by saying he would host forums “when people will not raise their voice or call people names … what I am tired of is people shutting people down.” Tillis later added he would schedule a town hall meeting in the future where “people aren’t shouting at each other.”
The luncheon was organized as a conversation between Tillis and Durham Chamber CEO Geoff Durham with a question-and-answer period at the end.
Durham asked Tillis about his thoughts on HB2, which the senator called a “classic case of overreach by Charlotte and overreaction by Raleigh.” He urged the North Carolina 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 then I have a problem with it.”
Tillis touched on a number of local issues during his conversation.
When asked about the potential Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit 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 government-funded research.
RTP is home to the EPA’s second-largest office and many businesses as well as the universities in 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 okay 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.”
State Sen. Mike Woodard, a Democrat who represents parts of Durham, Caswell and Person counties, said he believes Tillis will be an advocate for keeping federal research funding in the state.
“I take him at his word,” he said. “He understands that issue very well. I think he knows the importance of it for RTP organizations, businesses and of course for our higher education institutions.
“Those research dollars mean business in RTP, they mean business in the communities that are host to our research universities, like Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill … he gets that.”
Tillis also took several questions from those in attendance that touched on the subjects of immigration, climate change and redistricting.
Tillis said he believes there is bi-partisan support for immigration reform but added that far-right and far-left politicians have made it too hard to get a bill in front of Congress.
"Shame on all the Republicans and Democrats that have come before us over the past 40 years to get us to this point," he said, adding that this is a subject where words matter and that people are appropriately worried because they don't know what comes next.
"Temporary protected status that can give people some certainty that they can be in this country without fear of deportation if they follow our laws, if they engage in society at some level, is something we have to ultimately get to," he said. "It doesn't make economic sense or any logistical sense to think you could deport that entire population."
On climate change, the senator said he had no expertise but acknowledged there were legitimate concerns.
"I hope we spend more time getting down to the facts, and to the extent that there are public policy decisions that we have to make, act on them," he said. "I am not, although I have been characterized a number of times, some sort of climate change denier. I think there are human factors that contributed really since the industrial revolution at some level. It's a matter the extent to which they have and what you can do to change it at this point."
On the subject of redistricting, Tillis described himself as a "political unicorn," saying he has advocated for independent redistricting when both Republicans and Democrats were in power.
"In a state like North Carolina, where we have a pretty evenly-divided state that a redistricting commission would probably produce something that would be subject to the vote of the legislature," he said. "But [it] would produce less polarizing districts or more competitive districts."