Richard Hanna remembered not just for what he did, but how he did it
As he was preparing to retire from Congress, Richard Hanna, who represented the Mohawk Valley from 2011-2017, said his greatest failure in office was not fitting into the divisive party politics that had come to control Washington, D.C.. He bemoaned the party extremism and endless campaign cycles.
Hanna's friend Hedy Hage said that gamesmanship was antithetical to who Hanna was - someone who had risen from humble beginnings in a single-parent household to become an accomplished businessman.
"Richard set very definite goals for himself and he would work tirelessly to achieve those goals; his way was to find a solution and I think it was all the posturing and the rhetoric and the pandering that went on in Washington that he found objectionable," Hage said. "It was remarkable that Washington didn't extinguish that in him and he wouldn't let it."
True to form, Hanna did things his own way. Unlike others in Congress, he posted an explanation for every vote he took in office, more than 900 in all. Hanna also frequently reached across the aisle to get things done. And he spent more time in Congress bucking the party line than toeing it, splitting with Republicans to support LGBTQ rights and Planned Parenthood, acknowledging climate change, and infamously endorsing Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate for president in 2016, over his own party's nominee Donald Trump, whom he called "unfit to serve."
Some critics said Hanna was a RINO: Republican in Name Only. Robert Julian, who knew Hanna for decades, disagrees. His friend was a Republican, just one from a different era.
"Richard fit the profile of the Republican Party as it existed in the 60s, 70s, and somewhat into the 80s in New York, which was a much more moderate party than it presently is," Julian said. "What he did not fit was the cookie cutter, what’s your position on various hot button issues. He was a fiscal conservative and social liberal. I do think if he had been in the House of Representatives in an earlier decade, he might have had a different arc in terms of his career because he would have been less of a centrist and a loner."
On an episode of the Campbell Conversations on WRVO, Hanna said it was not about trying to be an independent or moderate, but about being a leader.
"It means being intellectually honest, being able to explain what you do, and not looking at the direction of the party that you belong to or the other party, but saying 'what is the right thing to do in this circumstance,'" Hanna said. "When I joined the Republican Party 25-30 years ago, it was a much different party than it is today. And I can say the same about the Democratic Party in different ways, though the orthodoxy of both parties that's expected of members today I think is extremely intellectually limiting and narrow. And the lines that are drawn that you're supposed to stay in don't allow you the latitude to do and build what has always made this country do well, and that is have a pragmatic middle."
Hanna's unique style rankled some of his colleagues, but it also earned him great admiration. Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D-Utica), who now holds Hanna's former seat, said he left a lasting impression in Congress.
"He was an American first and that’s how he governed and that’s how he worked with other members of the House, never worried about what was best for the party but was more concerned doing what’s best for the country," Brindisi said. "To this day, I will still have members come up to me on the floor and talk about their fondness for Richard and how much they appreciated working with him. He is someone that drew an enormous amount of respect from both sides of the aisle."
Brindisi formed a special relationship with Hanna. The two worked together when Hanna was in Congress and Brindisi was in the Assembly representing Utica, which was in Hanna's district. Eventually, Brindisi decided to run for Hanna's old seat, challenging the Republican incumbent who had succeeded Hanna.
It was Brindisi who got Hanna's endorsement.
"The great thing about Richard is that he never treated you as a member of a different party," Brindisi said. "He always looked at everyone equally and put aside party labels and really was someone you could reach out to and get an honest opinion from and he would always do what’s right for the community. I strive to be a representative like Richard was and I think if we had 435 Richard Hannas in the House of Representatives, this country would be a better place."
Julian said Hanna was also revered in the local community for his philanthropic efforts. Hanna tried to give covertly as Julian calls it. A friend recently told Julian that Hanna would frequently call the head librarian at the Utica Public Library and ask if they needed money for books or anything else, sending a check each time with only one condition: don't tell anyone.
But the abundance of gifts eventually caught up to him.
"He had great success and was not shy about giving it away," Julian said. "When there were people in need it would not be uncommon for Richard to reach out and provide them with resources, so he had a very large presence in the Mohawk Valley and really didn’t need to be congressman to be well known."
Hanna even started his own charity called Annie's Fund, which gives small grants to women in Oneida and Herkimer counties who are struggling to pay for everyday expenses: car repairs, childcare expenses, security deposits, etc. Hage said she thinks the charity was a tribute to his late mother. The family had experienced hard times as she tried to raise Hanna and his sisters alone.
"The plight of single moms is something that always spoke to Richard, always resonated with him," Hage said.
Even so, Hanna didn't need an excuse to help people according to Hage. He was just that kind of person, generous and caring. It's one of the many reasons Hage decided to name her daughter Hanna in his honor.
Hage is co-chair of Annie's Fund, which continues to help those in the community today. To date, the charity has awarded 400 grants, nearly $200,000 in all.
But for all of his accomplishments, the one that mattered most to Hanna was his family. They were his reason for leaving Congress. And in a 2018 interview on the Campbell Conversations, Hanna said he was thoroughly enjoying that retirement.
"I missed them for six years in Congress. I suck the life out of them everyday, we have a lot of fun together," Hanna said. "My life is rich and full and I'm happy."