Prickliness a plus

Prickliness a plus

- in Fitzsimon File

The subhead on the News and Observer story about Rep. Joe Hackney being elected as the Democrats nominee for Speaker tells much of the story, “State Democrats choose reformer.”  It could have also said that Democrats chose the heavy lifter or the loyalist or the conscientious legislator. 

That has been Hackney’s reputation in the last few years, the member of the House who has taken on the most difficult jobs, like handling the lobbying and ethics reform efforts in the wake of the scandals surrounding former House Speaker Jim Black, or holding the Democratic Caucus together as House Majority Leader as the scandals mounted and investigations expanded.

Hackney’s Judiciary Committee was where Black sent most of the contentious legislation introduced in recent sessions, which often meant that Hackney was the chief spokesperson for the bills on the House floor even if he hadn’t sponsored them originally.

His nomination is really not a surprise, as he was the frontrunner for the job from the beginning. As House Majority Leader, it was his job to keep the Democrats united and last session was a trying time for togetherness. But the position gave him plenty of opportunities to interact with individual Democrats and earn their trust.

Hackney stepped into a more prominent leadership role in the campaign after Black could no longer credibly raise money for House Democrats, at least partially proving himself capable on the campaign and fundraising trial, also seen as another important job of the Speaker.

Hackney was also elected because he has paid his dues, first elected to the House in 1980 and part of the Democratic leadership teams since 1991, when he was Co-Chair of the powerful House Finance Committee. He was almost always loyal to the House leadership on key issues, even when it meant ignoring his own views, his unfortunate vote for the lottery being the most obvious example.

He was also loyal to Jim Black publicly, possibly to a fault, but that too gained him some support for his bid for Speaker.

As a legislator Hackney is known for being well-prepared, thorough, and a vigorous defender of the institution of the General Assembly, even when criticism of it seems justified.

If there are negative things said about Hackney, they are the absurd charge that he is too liberal to be Speaker and that he has a prickly personality that sometimes makes him difficult to deal with, especially for lobbyists.

There is no question that Hackney is a progressive legislator from a progressive district, but he also understands the House he leads and that he needs 61 votes to pass anything. His support from some conservative Democrats is the best evidence that he will fulfill his promise to be a consensus builder this session. But that doesn’t mean he will or should abandon his progressive instincts to invest in education and human services and protect our land, water, and air. 

As to the prickly personality, there’s some truth to that, though he is smart enough to know he’ll need to be more engaging as House Speaker. But let’s hope not too much. 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 over steak dinners and expensive bottles of wine at Raleigh’s finest restaurants.

It’s almost impossible to imagine Hackney spending much of his time that way. Instead, if Democrats stay together on opening day, he will be leading the institution he clearly cares deeply for and has spent much of his professional serving. That’s good news for all of us.