Opinion: Daily Journal

Thanks to Black, It’s Hackney

RALEIGH – So, it’s Joe Hackney.

The veteran liberal lawmaker from Chapel Hill will be the Democratic nominee for speaker of the North Carolina House – and, unless something funky happens at the start of session, he’ll lead the chamber for the 2007-2008 session. I must admit that I didn’t think this was the most likely outcome, though I also can’t say I was shocked. Democratic friends of mine had shared a number of scenarios in recent days for how the Democratic caucus vote would turn out, and several plausible ones put Hackney on top. Obviously, one turned out to be more than just plausible.

Going into a five-person race – briefly a six-person contest, but Rep. Joe Tolson dropped out quickly in favor of Hackney – the wily attorney had several things going against him. Moderate Democrats aligned with major party leaders and business groups saw him as too far left of the party’s mainstream. They feared that the picture of a Chapel Hill Democrat leading the House would turn out to be a dream come true for otherwise-dejected Republicans (which is precisely how most of the latter will see it). And some complained about Hackney’s personal style, calling it abrasive and undiplomatic.

But Hackney also brought several assets in the race. For one thing, everyone recognized him as a bright, diligent lawmaker. They respected his intellect and had to admit that he had helped to hold together narrow Democratic majorities in the House through difficult times and votes. Urban lawmakers certainly saw Hackney as one of them, but he also had developed a rapport with rural members who acted as a swing vote in the race.

Most importantly, however, there was Jim Black. Although the two were not close ideologically or personally, Black was by all accounts an ally for Hackney in the speaker’s race. I don’t mean that Black has been actively pushing Hackney. What he has spent the past several weeks doing is arguing that anyone would be better in the job than Dan Blue, the former speaker who challenged Black in 1999 and fell just short of defeating him with the help of Republican votes. Ever since, Black has seen Blue as the villain. And Black saw a 2007 election of Blue as an implicit repudiation of his four-term speakership. Of course, Blue has of late had plenty of reason to point out that he had acted presciently, and that the House would have been spared great turmoil and embarrassment had Black not won the 1999 contest.

Most of today’s House Democrats don’t agree. They believe Black, whatever his flaws, engineered and maintained a Democratic majority during tough elections and divisive political events. Some are still in denial about allegations of corruption and the possibility that Black’s political “engineering” is going to get him indicted for federal crimes. Thus Black, though widely seen as disgraced outside of the Beltline cocoon, retained significant influence and appears to have had a major hand in convincing members not to support Blue – thus, in the end, putting Joe Hackney in the speaker’s chair.

Some of the members Black contacted favored the moderate candidates, Jim Crawford and Drew Saunders. Others sided with Hackney. I understand that on the third ballot it was Hackney with 24 or 25, Crawford with 21, and Blue with 19. Once Blue dropped off the list, the liberals broke to Hackney and it was over.

As Hackney began visibly to pick up momentum this week, some of the reporting suggested that he had been moving to the center, and cited his turnabout on the state lottery and business incentives as examples. Unfortunately, those are two issues on which the Right and the Left in North Carolina have long been in agreement – against. Speaking to reporters after the vote Wednesday night, Hackney emphasized his intention to lead the full caucus. “North Carolina is a diverse state,” he said. “This is a diverse caucus. I will make sure that all parts of the caucus are represented in the appointments that I make.” He added that he looked forward to “a session with civility, with openness toward our Republican colleagues, working together for all the people of the state.”

From the standpoint of free-market folks like me who want more individual liberty and less costly, less meddlesome government, the best that can be said at this point is that a Speaker Hackney will probably do the wrong thing most of the time – but he’ll probably do it thoughtfully, fairly, and honestly.

Believe it or not, that still sounds like an improvement worth celebrating.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.