Til­lis’ Se­nate bid im­per­iled by tea party toll-road dis­dain

Locked in tight race in N.C.

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY S.A. MILLER

CHAR­LOTTE | They spoke one after another at a tea party meet­ing at an up­scale pub — con­ser­va­tive vot­ers and ac­tivists vow­ing to de­rail Repub­li­can Thom Til­lis’ run for U.S. Se­nate be­cause, as state House speaker, he mus­cled through a toll road project.

“Since the cre­ation of the au­to­mo­bile un­til this point, there [haven’t] been toll roads [in North Carolina],” con­ser­va­tive ac­tivist Chuck Suter said at the meet­ing, which is an off­shoot of the Char­lotte Tea Party. “We would ex­pect this to come from Democrats.”

“I don’t want to send him to D.C,” fumed Mary Am­strong, a busi­ness­woman and Repub­li­can voter who reg­u­larly at­tends the weekly meet­ing at the Dil­worth Neigh­bor­hood Grille. “Based on what [Mr. Til­lis] is do­ing to us in North Carolina, I don’t want to give him any more power.”

The anti-toll road up­ris­ing that is frus­trat­ing Mr. Til­lis’ run re­flects a na­tional move­ment against tolls, which con­ser­va­tives de­cry as the lat­est big gov­ern­ment in­tru­sion. Un­for­tu­nately for Mr. Til­lis, the up­ris­ing in North Carolina is cen­tered in bed­room com­mu­ni­ties in the Lake Nor­man re­gion north of Char­lotte that in­cludes Mr. Til­lis’ base of support in his state House dis­trict.

Mr. Til­lis has largely ig­nored the toll road is­sue and the tea party ac­tivists that op­pose him. His cam­paign strat­egy has con­sisted of adopt­ing mod­er­ate po­si­tions and flood­ing the ra­dio and TV air­waves with ads that tie in­cum­bent Demo­crat Kay R. Ha­gan to Pres­i­dent Obama, who is ex­tremely un­pop­u­lar in the Tar Heel State.

But the back­lash high­lights Mr. Til­lis’ weak­ness with the Repub­li­can base and helps ex­plain why he con­sis­tently trails in the polls be­hind Mrs. Ha­gan, who was sup­posed to be one of the most vul­ner­a­ble Se­nate Democrats this year.

With two weeks un­til the elec­tion, Mrs. Ha­gan led Mr. Tills 47 per­cent to 44 per­cent in a Pub­lic Pol­icy Polling survey this week. The 3-point lead was within the poll’s mar­gin of er­ror, but nearly ev­ery poll for the last two months has put Mrs. Ha­gan in front. Mrs. Ha­gan leads Mr. Til­lis by the same 3-point mar­gin with or with­out Lib­er­tar­ian Sean Haugh in the matchup, a sign that his role as a po­ten­tial spoiler is di­min­ish­ing.

The con­sen­sus at the meet­ing was that they didn’t care if de­feat­ing Mr. Til­lis sent Mrs. Ha­gan back to Wash­ing­ton and foiled Se­nate Repub­li­cans’ quest for a net gain of six seats to seize majority con­trol of the up­per cham­ber this year.

“He doesn’t think he needs us,” said Cather­ine Ox­ford, trea­surer for the tea party group.

The North Carolina toll road project is a pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ship — some­times called a P3 — to build and op­er­ate a mix of tolls and high-oc­cu­pancy lanes on a 26-mile stretch of I-77 from Char­lotte north to Mooresville in the Lake Nor­man re­gion.

The state has signed a con­tract with Cin­tra, a Span­ish company that will op­er­ate the lanes for profit. Road con­struc­tion could be­gin by spring.

The same type of road projects that would add tolls or “hot lanes” to ex­ist­ing high­ways are be­ing pro­moted by Pres­i­dent Obama as an al­ter­na­tive to tap­ping limited fed­eral high­way funds. Those plans are greeted with skep­ti­cism in Congress and from gover­nors across the coun­try, in­clud­ing Demo­cratic gover­nors in Vir­ginia, Ver­mont and West Vir­ginia.

The ac­tivists said the toll roads were not only a gov­ern­ment power grab and money-mak­ing scheme — crit­ics pre­dict tolls as high as $20 for a roundtrip com­mute — but also an ex­am­ple of Mr. Til­lis’ bul­ly­ing lead­er­ship style. They com­plained that op­po­nents of the toll roads were shut out of the de­bate in the state cap­i­tal of Raleigh, as he forced through the project by strong-arm­ing and in­tim­i­dat­ing fel­low law­mak­ers and cit­i­zens.

“He doesn’t de­serve to win,” said Mary Lou Richard­son, a long­time Repub­li­can Party ac­tivist in the Lake Nor­man area who once cam­paigned for Mr. Til­lis and was his guest at his swear­ing in as speaker in 2011.

“He was our friend. That’s the hard­est part of it,” she told The Wash­ing­ton Times. “It’s very dis­ap­point­ing to work for some­one for six years and find out he’s not who we thought he was.”

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