OPINION — Former Rep. Richard Hanna, who died on March 15, was not exactly a household name. But the New York Republican, who served from 2011 to 2017, was probably my favorite candidate interview — and that’s saying something, since I interviewed more than one hundred House, Senate and gubernatorial candidates per cycle from the early 1990s until a few years ago.
Hanna, who was 69 when he died, was a businessman from the construction industry with no political experience, and he first ran for Congress from an upstate New York district in 2008.
He challenged Democratic Rep. Michael Arcuri, a personable, smart and politically pragmatic freshman who had just defeated a mainstream Republican state senator who figured the seat was his, given the district’s past partisanship.
Before Arcuri, the district, which included Utica, Rome and Cooperstown, was reliably Republican, though not all that conservative.
The previous longtime occupant of the seat was Sherwood Boehlert, a liberal Republican and leading environmentalist who was despised by conservatives and demonized as a “Republican In Name Only.” Boehlert was first elected in 1982 and retired in 2006.
Arcuri looked like the kind of Democrat who could hold this normally Republican seat for years. But Hanna came from nowhere to throw a scare into the Democrat in 2008, a terrible Republican year, and two years later he beat Arcuri during the 2010 GOP tidal wave.
Mistakenly, I didn’t pay much attention to Hanna’s surprisingly strong initial bid. But he contacted me after that race and came to Roll Call’s offices for an interview in early March 2010, when his rematch against Arcuri was underway.
In a March 5, 2010, column about that interview, I wrote this: “Normally, my candidate interviews are not for quotation, but when three-quarters of the way through the interview I asked him if all of his comments were on the record, he looked at me as if I were a little dense. Of course, he answered.”
That pretty much summed up Richard Hanna. He wasn’t like other politicians. In fact, though he was running for Congress, he wasn’t a politician at all.
During the interview, Hanna told me, “I never really thought of myself as a Republican. I still don’t,” and “I don’t live in a world where ideology helps you. I live in a world of practical solutions.”
When I asked the congressional hopeful whether he would commit to supporting John Boehner for speaker if the GOP were to win back the House later that year, Hanna didn’t squirm or hesitate: “No. … I don’t know him. I’d have to meet him.” What a novel idea.
Hanna was fiscally conservative but more liberal on other issues (something he had in common with Boehlert).
He opposed a public option on health care and cap-and-trade legislation to address global warming but supported abortion rights and reversing the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays.
According to the Almanac of American Politics 2016, Hanna “played a leading role in an effort to revive a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act,” was the only House Republican to appear at a March 2012 rally for the Equal Rights Amendment, and was one of three GOP lawmakers who “signed a brief to the Supreme Court urging the legalization of same-sex marriage.”
A true independent
What I liked best about Hanna was that he didn’t fall back on political platitudes or gimmickry. Nor did he respond to questions with knee-jerk partisanship or ideological quackery.
And like Boehlert, Hanna was not easily intimidated. As Hanna’s Washington Post obituary noted, when the Republican was asked whether he would sign Grover Norquist’s pledge to oppose any tax increases, he responded, “I don’t give out my vote to some guy named Grover.”
In my March 2010 column, I wrote that Hanna “was delightful — thoughtful, down to earth and straightforward. My ‘b.s. meter’ didn’t go off even once. Many of the candidates I’ve interviewed over the past five years have called themselves independent and portrayed themselves as outsiders, but their answers to my questions told a different story. That’s where Hanna is different.”
The 2010 GOP wave was still far from shore at that point, so I was unsure whether Hanna would prevail. But I was sure an Arcuri-Hanna race would be “a very interesting contest between two quality candidates.”
Hanna ended up winning comfortably and served three terms in Congress. Not surprisingly, given his style and positions on social issues, he drew tea party-backed challenges, and Claudia Tenney almost beat him in 2014.
Hanna called it quits at the end of that term, and Tenney won the GOP nomination and the open seat in 2016. Predictably, she fell in line with her socially conservative, anti-government, tea party Republican colleagues. But she held the seat for only a single term, fired by the voters during the 2018 Democratic wave.
What we’ve lost
Hanna was a true political outsider who thought he should think for himself, not merely regurgitate party talking points.
Once, Congress had a fair number of people like that, bridge-builders who helped craft bipartisan coalitions and wild cards who thought for themselves. But their numbers have shrunk noticeably.
Now, we are left with a Congress in which too many members are cowed by loud voices and threats, whether from President Donald Trump and conservative groups, or from allies of New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and progressive grassroots groups.
For me, Hanna’s best quality was not that he was a pragmatist or that he held this view or that. It was that he was interesting — and refreshingly honest about what he believed.
Coming to Congress at 59 years of age and without any political experience, Hanna wanted to make a difference. He didn’t expect to make politics a career. That gave him the freedom to say what he thought and to vote as he wished.