Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Joe Hackney is ideal choice for Speaker

As printed in the Chapel Hill Herald on November 18th, 2006:

With Democrats increasing their majority in the legislature and Jim Black's re-election status still unclear as a recount looms in Mecklenburg County, it seems pretty clear that a new speaker of the House will need to be selected.

It's a decision not to be taken lightly for members of the Democratic caucus. I think hardly anyone is exactly sure what's been going on in Raleigh over the past few years but it sure doesn't smell right.

So the first attribute I want in a new speaker is that he or she be absolutely beyond reproach. The individual needs to be of impeccable integrity. Whether it's fair or not, the House doesn't have a very good image right now, and its new leader will need to inspire confidence among peers and the state's citizenry.

The second attribute I want is someone with a long record of experience in Raleigh. The legislature is a remarkably complicated institution, and the state needs someone who knows how to get things done in it. Furthermore, someone who has been there a long time and never had a whiff of scandal is unlikely to have the power of the speaker's gavel tempt them into misbehavior.

The third attribute I want is someone who is a progressive leader, but also a realistic leader and one who will be well respected on both sides of the aisle. I don't see any good in having a speaker who is a knee-jerk liberal and can't get anything done. But I also think there is definite room for improvement in the progressivism of legislative leaders.

When you take these requirements as a whole, there is one person in the legislature who stands far above the rest. As an added bonus, he is one we in Orange and Chatham counties can call our own. The clear choice for the next North Carolina speaker of the House is Joe Hackney.

Joe Hackney is a model elected official. He has represented us now for 26 years, and he is one of the most influential leaders in Raleigh.

But he has never come close to getting in trouble. He has never wavered from his principles to get ahead, or subordinated the trust of his constituents for his own personal advancement. His election as speaker would send an immediate signal to the state that the House is getting its act together and committed to earning back the trust of those it has lost in recent years.

I barely know Joe Hackney but have always respected him from afar. I have hoped ever since Jim Black started getting in trouble that if it got to the point where he had to be replaced, Hackney would be the man.

But it was a meeting with local leaders of the Sierra Club last month that made me even more of a Hackney fan. Folks were giving our local legislative delegation ideas about environmental legislation they would like to see passed during the next session.

Some of the ideas weren't particularly feasible. A lot of the time when I'm in meetings with elected officials and constituents make suggestions that are perfectly valid but not likely to happen, one of two things happens. Some folks will smile and nod and say they'll work on it, knowing full well it's never going to happen. Others will say it's not possible, but do so in a way that's condescending and serves to make the person with the suggestion feel put down.

Hackney calmly and politely would explain why various things were not likely to work out. He did it in such a way that people understood the pitfalls that pursuing particular courses of actions could cause.

They appreciated the fact that he neither pandered nor preached, but gave respectful and useful feedback. And on the suggestions made that were feasible, he promised to take action. His track record shows we can count him on to do it.

I relate this anecdote because I think it puts the lie to what seems to be the biggest strike against Hackney when it comes to the possibility of his becoming speaker. Some people write him off because they think he's too liberal.

Hackney is definitely more progressive than the average legislator. It is highly unfair, however, to paint him as the stereotypical ineffective liberal. He is extremely competent and that's the biggest thing folks should be worried about in picking a new speaker, rather than where they fit in on some ideological spectrum. From his years of experience he knows what will fly and what will not in the halls of the Legislative Building and he's not afraid to say no to his allies. That should put the "too liberal" critique to rest.

Joe Hackney is as fine a public servant as we have in this state. Hopefully his colleagues will recognize that in January and make him Speaker of the House.

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