Management & Labor

Reformer in Power

If you want to understand how Joe Hackney operates as speaker of the North Carolina House, it's worth thinking about the other things that he...
by | December 31, 2008

If you want to understand how Joe Hackney operates as speaker of the North Carolina House, it's worth thinking about the other things that he does for a living. Hackney's main source of income for 30 years has been his family law practice -- specifically, the job of splitting property between divorcing spouses. "Dividing property among people who don't trust each other -- that's 90 percent of what you do when you're in government," says state Representative Deborah Ross, a Hackney protege.

When he's not legislating or practicing law, Hackney raises cattle on the dairy farm where he grew up, not far west of Chapel Hill. Longtime colleagues say he responds to changes in the political climate the way a farmer thinks about the weather: with a sense of calm acceptance, knowing there may be nothing he can do about it, but that things will brighten up if he can wait long enough.

Farming and divorce law may not seem like perfect analogies for politics, but when you think about it, it becomes clear that Hackney has used his background to master the skills any successful legislative leader needs, particularly in times like these: a knack for dividing up the gifts and disappointments of power fairly, and the patience to wait on tough issues until the weather turns his way.

It would be hard to find anybody in politics more patient than Joe Hackney. He took his seat in the House as a Democrat in 1980 and waited more than a quarter-century to gain the speakership he wanted. "When I came to the legislature, I more or less regarded it as a long-term thing," he says. "It wasn't my plan to be there two or four or six years and quit. It was my plan to make a contribution, and I saw that those who make a contribution built up seniority and experience."

Even then, he might not have made it but for a scandal that put former Speaker Jim Black in jail and embarrassed the entire state political establishment. Although he was not exactly a back-bencher after all those years, Hackney still was viewed by many of his colleagues as an incurable do-gooder and rigid moralist, a bit of an outsider in an institution that had always operated under looser rules of conduct. He had demonstrated no real interest in the kind of fundraising that leaders in other states do. But by 2006, at a moment of crisis, he suddenly seemed like the right man. And he has made the most of it, pushing through ethics reforms stronger than anything the state had ever seen.

The way he has done this reflects another important quality of Hackney's, and one shared by the emerging generation of today's successful legislative leaders around the country. They don't ram things through at the last minute, or strong-arm committee chairmen. The old notion of autocratic speakers presiding with iron fists may have always been exaggerated, but today's leaders are fully aware that their power rests largely in persuasion, guiding and steering but rarely trying to foist ideas onto caucuses that do not share them. Like other contemporary speakers, Hackney believes that he can win over more members with his ears than with his mouth. "Today, more than was the case 30 years ago, leaders have got to pay attention to customer service," says Alan Rosenthal, an expert on legislatures at Rutgers University. "And their main customers are their members."

Customer service can be a complicated business in the North Carolina House. The Democratic caucus alone is split into at least five factions, with members sorting themselves out along both ideological and geographic lines. Hackney has to keep them all satisfied, or come as close to that as possible.

He likes to play things close to his vest. He never makes promises or commits himself to a position until he's absolutely sure about what he can deliver and about where his Democratic caucus as a whole is going to stand on an issue.

But it does Hackney a disservice to suggest that he merely referees the legislative process without influencing it. He is a hard man to read, but he's a past master at crafting bill language and seeing that parliamentary rules break his way. "It's hard to get a commitment from him," says state Treasurer Richard Moore, "but when you do, you can take that to the bank."

Although Hackney seems to spend most of his time making sure other members have their say, his behind-the-scenes influence has been keenly felt on nearly every piece of legislation that's passed through the North Carolina House over the past couple of years, from the budget to physical adjustments that have made the House more accessible to the handicapped. Hackney's fingerprints are clearly indicated on nothing, but are present everywhere. "He is not a quid pro quo type of person and he is not a haggler," says outgoing Governor Mike Easley. "He doesn't bargain. He just expects you to work with him to find the best solution and he expects everybody to understand he has to come up with a solution that can be sold to other members of the House."

Fade from Black

There isn't much variance between Hackney's patient, long-range thinking and his deliberate daily demeanor. Even at the wheel of his most conspicuous luxury possession, a burgundy Jaguar, Hackney takes a go-slow approach. He avoids freeways and barely makes the speed limit on the piney-woods back roads, his GPS navigator safely stowed in the glove compartment. On one recent morning, Hackney was late on his way to a big event in the western part of the state, but he nevertheless slowed down to admire an old stone church. "Might be Moravian," he said.

Hackney's preoccupation with the institution's long-range image put him in a lonely position for a long time. The legislature and its attendant lobbyists long operated under loose ethics and campaign finance rules. The so-called "goodwill lobbying" loophole, for instance, allowed lobbyists to spend unlimited amounts of money on wining and dining members without having to disclose it, as long as the lobbyist didn't get so specific as to mention an actual bill number.

When the Center for Public Integrity gave North Carolina a grade of "F" for its weak lobbying rules a few years ago, The News & Observer of Raleigh editorialized that the state "deserved to flunk." Soon after, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall convened a top-level task force to design a whole set of new rules. When the reform ideas reached the legislature, they were quickly shelved.

But that was before the disgrace of Speaker Black. Through the course of 2005 and 2006, revelations continued to surface about Black and his corrupt rule of the chamber. The speaker's political director was serving simultaneously as lobbyist for a lottery company to which Black wanted to guide the state's business. Black himself eventually pleaded guilty to accepting $29,000 from chiropractors, much of it in cash handed over in restaurant bathrooms. Another legislator pleaded guilty in 2007 to taking $50,000 in bribe money for switching parties to help keep Black in power four years earlier

The House Democratic caucus stood by Black's side for a long time, in part because Black misled members about the extent of his legal troubles. In fact, Black was still speaker when the major ethics package finally passed, but it was Hackney who pushed it through. Hackney's legislation created the state's first ethics commission, which has oversight over all three branches of government. It tightened disclosure and reporting requirements and bars lobbyists from contributing to political campaigns or bundling donations from others. Perhaps most important, it eliminated nearly all purchases of meals and gifts for legislators. A lobbying group can still put on a feed for all the legislators at once, but the days of one-on-one dining and schmoozing are done.

The new rules were strict enough that there were pockets of resistance to the bitter end. Despite the hits the legislature was taking in the media and from the public, some legislators were simply unwilling to give up their goodies. During House debate, one representative said, "Even the baby Jesus accepted gifts, and I don't think it corrupted him." But the package went through and was embraced by the Senate.

"When Hackney took ownership of it, that was incredibly helpful," Secretary of State Marshall says. "He has a personal reputation of being incredibly ethical, incredibly clean, and also at the same time very interested in transparency and the legitimacy of government and how to get things done in the appropriate way."

Taking the Lead

When Black finally announced he would not seek another term as speaker -- he was actually reelected to his House seat three months before his guilty plea and sentencing -- Hackney was still not the consensus choice to take over the chamber. He attributes that to his cleaner-than-thou image. "When you're running for speaker," he says, "that's a help with some people and a hindrance with others." But most members recognized the chance Hackney's reputation offered them to begin rebuilding public trust. He was elected speaker after four caucus ballots.

While Hackney's image for personal probity had not changed over the years, his ideological image had. He had overcome his longstanding reputation as a "Chapel Hill liberal" -- not meant as a kind description in a generally conservative chamber. Hackney had entered politics through his interest in environmental issues, and has been perhaps the leading environmentalist in the chamber throughout his long career, promoting such ideas as solid-waste storage limits and renewable energy standards. He also was the leading champion of tougher penalties for drunk driving, and the leading opponent of the death penalty.

But in recent years, Hackney was voting in favor of more programs backed by business, including tax breaks for big corporations. He changed in part because his district changed -- it was redrawn to be dominated less by the university community of Chapel Hill and more by rural conservative constituents in neighboring Chatham County.

He also helped himself immeasurably during the 2006 elections. Hackney put to rest most of the doubts about his willingness to raise money, bringing in millions in the successful effort to increase the Democrats' majority that year.

Hackney's House

Within minutes of taking the oath as speaker in 2007, Hackney signaled a change in leadership style. Getting ready to call for a vote the first time out, he paused to ask if any member of the House needed more time to read the bill under question. It was a small gesture, but at the same time a clear move away from old institutional habits, such as offering late "technical corrections" that substantially rewrote bills without most members having seen the changes. Hackney has made it a point to allow at least one day for legislators to read the products of House-Senate conferences before voting on them.

He also has eliminated "floaters" -- members of the majority caucus who could be sent to vote in any committee to ensure the leadership's desired outcome. He refers nearly all legislation to two separate committees, believing that parallel sets of hearings and staff can help to iron out bills before they come to the House floor. Legislators and lobbyists have been told that they must line up advance support for bills on their own, and not rely on leadership to squeeze out the needed votes. "He's a real believer in the process," says Durwood Laughinghouse, a lobbyist for Norfolk Southern rail, "in letting people do their work and get it to the floor."

Even though he prefers to hold back and let the House work its will without strong intervention on his part, Hackney is hardly a passive observer. If a bill is difficult or complicated or controversial, he will try to game out the best approach for it, talking things through prior to formal introduction with sponsors and chairmen and, often, the minority party. "He won't hold a press conference," says Representative Ross. "He'll just make sure that it's handled well."

Hackney tried to co-opt his party's various factions by carefully doling out committee chairmanships and other plums to each one. He made sure that most of the people who opposed him for speaker were taken care of, in addition to his supporters. His attempt at finding cohesion in a caucus where it doesn't naturally exist has enabled him to reach out to Republicans as well. Hackney was able to win a majority of GOP votes for last year's budget, which did not increase taxes and boosted spending only modestly.

The budget appealed to Republicans not just on substantive grounds but because Hackney had accepted their input and entertained some of their amendments. In the days when Republicans ran the North Carolina House, Hackney used to sit in the chamber and count on his laptop the number of times the GOP leadership cut off debate. He decided that if he ever came to power, he wouldn't run things that way, and he hasn't. He even has let Republican bills go through on occasion, including a restriction on local government's eminent domain authority.

Of course, he's willing to play things the other way. House Republicans wanted to pass a ban on gay marriage; Hackney deliberately sent it to a committee he knew would kill it. For the most part, though, he sticks to a policy of appeasing both the minority party and rump groups within his own caucus by hearing them out. He meets weekly during each session with Paul Stam, the Republican leader. Sometimes, Hackney admits, it's a stretch to stay cordial when Stam comes straight to their meetings from press conferences blasting him. But the relationship they forged during their days on the Judiciary Committee continues to serve them well. "He defuses things from becoming too boisterous or argumentative," Stam said as last year's session ended, "sometimes by just saying nothing and letting you guess what he thinks."

Institutionalist

Hackney always has been markedly loyal to the institutions that matter to him, such as the family farm and the University of North Carolina. In 2007, when the Legislative Leadership Foundation gave him its annual award in recognition of his ethics package, Hackney donated the $10,000 prize to the elementary school that he graduated from in 1963. The school used the money to update its audio-visual equipment and outdoor classroom and dining space. "It's fun to see them do that," says Hackney, a wisp of a smile appearing under his gray moustache.

Obviously, the institution to which Hackney has been most devoted is the North Carolina House, where he's beginning his 15th term. He describes "restoring confidence of the public in the House" as his top priority, and with reason. In addition to recovering from Jim Black's scandals, Hackney last year had the "sad duty" of overseeing the expulsion of Thomas Wright -- the first House member expelled since 1880 -- a month prior to Wright's conviction on fraud charges. In contrast to the House's long "denial" stage in regard to Black, Hackney acted promptly to strip Wright of his chairmanship, blocked most of his bills and called on him to resign months ahead of the eventual expulsion. "I think the Democrats nominated me -- elected me -- to make some changes in the way we handle matters like this," Hackney says.

Hackney's belief in process may be the most striking thing about his leadership. He cares just as much about how a bill progresses as what it eventually contains. "The thing that I think distinguishes him as a member of the General Assembly and as a politician," says Representative Deborah Ross, "is that he understands that the process and the institution are more important than some short-term solution or political strategy. There are people who are impatient and are results-oriented who get frustrated. But the fact of the matter is that if you only care about the result and you don't care about the process, the process gets corrupted."

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