Interview with Sen. Tillis: On his cancer, prospects for police reform and infrastructure

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It’s been a difficult health year for Sen. Thom Tillis.

The North Carolina Republican contracted the coronavirus in October toward the end of his reelection campaign. He missed the inauguration after undergoing foot surgery from injuries sustained mountain biking.

And in March, the 60-year-old senator underwent surgery to remove his prostate after being diagnosed with prostate cancer earlier in the year.

“A week of just unpleasant experience,” he said.

But the surgery looks like it was a success, Tillis said during a recent sit-down interview with The News & Observer in his Senate office in Washington.

His prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test number has dropped from the intermediate risk area before surgery to nearly non-existent. Doctors found no evidence of cancerous cells in six lymph nodes.

And at his four-week check-up, doctors cleared him for physical activity. He’s back to hiking, mountain biking and playing disc golf.

Tillis, a former N.C. House Speaker who won his second Senate term in November, has spoken publicly about his cancer, from announcing his diagnosis, releasing information about his surgery and talking about his recovery.

“We’ve heard from a lot of people that thanked us for going public, because either the guy finally decided to get his PSA tested or the spouse finally encouraged them to do it,” Tillis said. “Men in particular don’t like talking about this.”

Each year in the United States, there are nearly 250,000 new cases of prostate cancer and almost 35,000 deaths, according to the American Cancer Society.

“A good number of those, if they’d gotten early detection and some form of treatment — whether it’s what I got, radiation, hormone, other treatments — their prognosis for living 10, 12, 15 years is pretty high, even for people in the higher risk category,” Tillis said.

We also talked about a number of issues confronting the Senate and nation this year. Tillis spoke freely about his preferences in the 2022 U.S. Senate race in North Carolina as detailed in this story.

Here are his remarks on two contentious issues the Senate could deal with this summer:

Police reform: It’s been more than a year since George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by now-former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was convicted of murder. Floyd’s death set off a summer of protests across the nation. Despite efforts to pass police reform packages, including the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, nothing has gotten passed into law nationally.

Rep. Karen Bass, Sen. Cory Booker and Sen. Tim Scott are working to reach a bipartisan agreement on policing reform. Republicans, including Tillis, are taking their cues from Scott, the Senate’s only Black Republican on the issue.

Qualified immunity is one of the hang-ups. It protects law enforcement officers from personal liability in the course of their work, except in very specific circumstances. Some Democrats want to remove it for officers.

“My walk-away on police reform is removing qualified immunity, because if we do that, no young man or young woman is going to enter a job when many of them are going to make split-second decisions,” Tillis said. “It may not necessarily result in death, but it could result in harm — knowing that their entire livelihood could be stripped away from them.”

He pointed to a recent case in Columbus, Ohio, as an example, where an officer shot and killed a Black girl who had a knife and was attacking others.

“How do you think that split-second decision would be influenced if you knew you could lose everything by trying to save the life of someone else, and you’re making this decision in a matter of seconds? I think it’d be dangerous for the communities, and it would be horrible for recruiting people to law enforcement,” Tillis said.

One idea that Scott has pitched, Tillis said, is making the government entity — not the individual officers — liable. Tillis also said he is focused on additional funding for training, particularly in economically challenged communities.

“If you want to get the police to be best qualified to deescalate, they need to be trained at the highest levels,” Tillis said. “... That’s part of police reform. And making either the counties or the towns or the states liable at some level is something I’m at least willing to talk about.”

Infrastructure: President Joe Biden proposed a $2.5 trillion infrastructure package, called the American Jobs Plan, in late March. He planned to pay for it by raising the corporate tax rate and the individual tax rate on high-income earners — the exact taxes that Republicans cut in 2017 under President Donald Trump.

Negotiations are ongoing between the White House and Republicans, who offered close to $1 trillion in infrastructure spending Thursday — though much of the money is from previous COVID relief packages.

“I’m not prepared to open up the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act to try and get revenue,” he said.

Tillis said increasing the corporate tax rate could have hampered the economy. He said he would not support even a 1% raise in the corporate tax.

“If the president wants to talk about $600 (billion) or $800 billion in real infrastructure versus I think he used the term ‘human infrastructure,’ count me in — as long as you can figure out a way to pay for it and not inhibit other economic activity,” Tillis said.

He said he considers roads, bridges, water and sewer systems and broadband as “legitimate infrastructure.”

— Brian Murphy, Washington correspondent for The News & Observer


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— Lucille Sherman, state government reporter for The News & Observer. Email me at