Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Joe Hackney will make a great speaker

As printed in the Chapel Hill Herald on Saturday, January 27th:

"Throughout his career in the North Carolina House, Joe Hackney has always been a top-rated legislator. These high rankings are not earned by avoiding tough issues ... they are earned by clear thinking, consulting with all the players ... working in good faith to find winning solutions."

I couldn't have said it better myself. Those were just some of the words of Orange County Rep. Verla Insko in nominating her colleague Joe Hackney to be speaker of the House on Wednesday.

I wrote several columns last summer saying that it was time to clean up the legislature. It is unfortunate, but the actions of a small handful of people were allowing the image of the entire institution to be tarnished.

With its selection of the impeccably ethical Hackney as speaker this week, the members of the House have made a strong commitment to improving the image of their body, moving beyond the scandals of the last few years, and getting to work on the business of improving the lives of average North Carolinians.

Hackney struck the right note in his first address as speaker, promising to make sure the voices of all House members are heard and to always emphasize people over politics.

Hackney emerged as the choice of a highly contested race to be the speaker candidate of the Democratic caucus. For many folks there he was not their first choice, but he appears primed to treat all the voices of his caucus with due respect, regardless of where their loyalties initially stood in the speaker election. That is the mark of a noble leader.

It was also encouraging to hear him actually talk about issues during his speech! North Carolina still has a ways to go in terms of teacher pay, the environment and health care, among other items. It was good that Hackney addressed the importance of those issues in his maiden address -- it's even better that he has a record of hard work on them in the legislature.

I was glad to hear him talk about those issues of particular concern to the progressive community, but I was also glad to hear him talk about the need to maintain the state's strong fiscal health.

The knock against Hackney during the speaker race seemed to be that he would not be friendly to business interests. But he certainly knows the importance of maintaining a strong economy and I'm confident that he will be fair and accessible to all of the state's key interests, one of which is certainly maintaining profitable private enterprise.

I want to address a few faulty perceptions the statewide media spread about Hackney over the last few weeks. A common theme was that he had moved to the center over the past few years in order to move up the ladder of the House leadership.

I don't think Joe Hackney has sacrificed his principles to get ahead a bit. What I do think is that he does a good job of representing his constituents.

For most of his career, southern Orange County was the population center of Hackney's district. That meant that in acting on the priorities set out for him by his constituents, he was often pushing what might be considered "liberal" issues.

When multi-member districts were eliminated in 2002 though, he became the representative of a district overwhelmingly composed of the residents of Chatham County, with just a small handful of Chapel Hill and Carrboro residents still in his turf.

With that new constituency came a different set of priorities. When your average constituent is a Siler City farmer rather than a Carrboro peace activist, you have to change your priorities in Raleigh to continue to be an effective advocate for those who elect you. I don't think there's anything opportunistic about Hackney's behavior during the past few sessions -- he's just being a good representative for the folks in his district.

The other theme the press has pushed is that Hackney has a dour personality and is difficult to get along with. This is just a complete disconnect from what constituents of his I've spoken to have experienced as well as what I have experienced myself. He is giving of his time and always respectful and charming.

I think Chris Fitzsimon of North Carolina Policy Watch may have hit the nail on the head about this point when he recently wrote: "The people most often critical of Hackney's less than warm and fuzzy personality are the well-heeled lobbyists who are used to spending evenings with legislative leaders at Raleigh's finest restaurants."

We are blessed to have a speaker of the House who would rather come back at night and meet with his constituents than stay in Raleigh to have fancy dinners with lobbyists all the time.

You can stick whatever ideological label you want on Joe Hackney, but at the end of the day all that matters is that as speaker of the House he will be fair to his colleagues, treat all interests before the legislature with respect and govern with integrity. We couldn't ask for much more.

Tom Jensen is a local political activist and a recent graduate of UNC. Readers can contact him at tjensen@email.unc.edu or c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 106 Mallette St., Chapel Hill, NC 27516.

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