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Politics & Government

Thom Tillis’ primary challenger is putting up $1 million of his own money. Who is he?


Raleigh businessman Garland Tucker has poured more than $1.2 million of his own money into a bid to oust incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis in North Carolina’s GOP primary.

The big investment from the prominent business leader turned political newcomer has gotten the attention of Tillis and his campaign.

Now Tillis is firing back, marking an escalation in the fight for the Republican nomination less than six months before GOP voters will decide among Tillis, Tucker and Ayden farmer Sandy Smith.

Tillis, a former N.C. House speaker who is seeking a second term in D.C. in 2020, launched radio ads and a website Tuesday aimed at discrediting Tucker as a “Never-Trumper” who tepidly supported the president in 2016. President Donald Trump endorsed Tillis in June.

“Garland Tucker has spent over $1 million with false attacks on Senator Tillis in order to cover up for his anti-Trump, pro-swamp record,” campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo said in a statement. “We are no longer going to sit back and let him trick the people of North Carolina.”

Tucker has been hitting Tillis with television ads for several months, charging that the senator’s record on immigration and spending in Washington is different from what he promised during his campaign.

“He took a strong stand on both of those,” said Tucker, who donated to Tillis’ first campaign for U.S. Senate. “But his voting record since then has been very different from what his stand was. I think that’s what the primary voters in North Carolina are looking for — someone who will be consistent.”

That’s what the former CEO says Republicans would get if they pick him.

Business fortune and record

The 72-year-old Tucker, who grew up in Wilson and earned a master of business administration from Harvard Business School. amassed his fortune as CEO of three companies in Raleigh — Carolina Securities, First Travel Corp. and then Triangle Capital Corp.

Tucker founded a predecessor of Triangle Capital Corp. in 2002 and took it public in 2007. The company largely raised money from investors, then used the money to make loans to private companies with between $20 million and $300 million in annual revenue, according to the Triangle Business Journal and a 2016 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

During Tucker’s tenure, from 2002 to 2016, the assets managed by the company grew from $60 million to $1.2 billion and revenues increased from $6 million to $100 million per year, according to news reports.

The company, headquartered on Glenwood Avenue in Raleigh, employed nearly 30 people in 2016, and the company was ranked No. 12 by the Triangle Business Journal in its “Best-Run Public Companies” in North Carolina. It enjoyed a stellar reputation in the finance community, according to analysts at the time.

“Look at the record,” Tucker said in an interview this summer. “My record as CEO speaks for itself.”

In his final three years as CEO, Tucker made between $2.3 million and $3.7 million per year, a figure that includes a $2.5 million bonus when he retired in 2016, according to SEC filings.

But in 2017, the company ran into trouble. A poor earnings report led to its stock price falling by 25%, according to reports at the time. The stock, which hit an all-time high of $29.96 in October 2013, fell to a low of $9.60 in November 2017. It was $18.34 at the end of 2016, and $11.96 when the company was sold.

The company’s CEO Ashton Poole, who replaced Tucker, and Chief Financial Officer Steve Lilly blamed decisions made while Tucker was in charge for the company’s downturn. Specifically, in calls with analysts, they blamed Tucker for sticking with a risky investment strategy despite warnings. They pointed to investments made in 2014 and 2015 for causing the company’s slump.

It “was the wrong strategy call,” Poole said, according to reports at the time.

Tucker served on the board of the company until its August 2018 sale of its investment portfolio for nearly $1 billion plus a stock purchase and other payments. The top executives received combined payments of about $17.2 million at the time of the sale, according to the Triangle Business Journal.

The company and Tucker were named in at least seven lawsuits filed in 2017 and 2018, but all of the cases have been dismissed, according to a court records database and Warren Pope, whose law firm represented Tucker in the cases. A class action lawsuit filed in 2018 called the sale deal “unfair” to public stockholders, according to reports at the time. Tucker was named in the lawsuits.

“I would say look at the record of what I produced up to 2016. I was disappointed with the company’s record after I stepped down as CEO,” he said.

Poole declined to comment when reached by McClatchy.

The Tillis campaign, in its anti-Tucker website that launched Tuesday, said Tucker “made his fortune on the backs of the U.S. taxpayers under the Obama Presidency by exploiting big government handout programs.”

Triangle Capital used Small Business Administration loans as part of its business plan, and reported having $250 million in loans from the federal government agency in 2016, according to an SEC filing. Campaign co-chairman Francis De Luca told Real Clear Politics that all of the loans were paid back with interest in line with the terms of the loans.

“Not only the owners of the business (shareholders) but the customers (North Carolina businesses) prospered, and hundreds of thousands of jobs were created and retained!” De Luca told the outlet.

Tillis tops in fundraising

Tucker has also written two books, both on politics. He wrote one about the 1924 presidential election between Calvin Coolidge and John Davis, which, he said, was the “last time that both parties nominated a conservative candidate.”

His other book is about 14 conservative leaders throughout American history. It features well known politicians like Thomas Jefferson and Ronald Reagan, as well as lesser known ones — like former U.S. Sen. Josiah Bailey from Raleigh.

Bailey, a conservative Democrat, pushed back on President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies and proposal to pack the Supreme Court.

“Trying to look at those leaders in terms of what I would call pretty basic conservative principles. The same since the country started. The issues certainly have changed over the last 250 years or so, but the principles have stayed the same,” Tucker said.

Tucker is now running for the seat held by Bailey from 1931 until his death in 1946.

He had served on the board of Civitas Institute and was a senior fellow at the John Locke Foundation, two conservative policy organizations. He and wife Greyson are active gardeners. They have two children and six grandchildren. Tucker plays tennis.

It took Tucker a while to decide to run.

“It wasn’t a rash decision. There were discussions with a number of people,” De Luca told McClatchy in a telephone interview. “He had to be convinced that it was not a suicide mission, not foolhardy. He had to come to a comfort that he could actually win.”

An August poll from Public Policy Polling found Tillis with a 37-31 lead over Tucker with 31% undecided. The poll found Tillis had a 34% favorable rating and 38% unfavorable. Tucker was at 28% favorable and 12% unfavorable with 60% not sure. Several national political analysts have moved the general election race toward Democrats in recent weeks with some calling the race a toss-up.

The Tillis campaign, whose first ad touted his endorsement from Trump, pointed to the $1.2 million it raised in July, August and September — a number that topped all the others in the field.

“The third quarter of the North Carolina Senate race was a rough one for those trying to challenge Senator Tillis,” campaign manager Luke Blanchat said.

Tucker raised $254,788 in the third quarter of 2019 apart from the $425,000 he put into the campaign in that period. Smith, the third candidate in the GOP race, raised $133,003 in the third quarter.

One candidate for the Democratic nomination, former state Sen. Cal Cunningham, reported raising more than $1 million in the third quarter. Cunningham faces state Sen. Erica Smith and Mecklenburg County Commissioner Trevor Fuller for the Democratic nomination. Fuller raised $576, according to FEC reports. Smith raised about $40,000.

North Carolina’s primary is scheduled for March 3, the same day as the state’s presidential primary.

For more North Carolina government and politics news, listen to the Domecast politics podcast from The News & Observer and the NC Insider. You can find it on Megaphone, Apple Podcasts, iHeartRadio, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

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