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reed magazine logoSummer 2008

A Maverick Republican Hits the Campaign Trail

Congressional candidate Richard Hanna ’76 would be among the first to call himself an unlikely politician. He’d be equally quick to point out that he’s got a pretty good track record of succeeding despite tough odds.

The 57-year-old semiretired contractor is seeking the U.S. House seat in Upstate New York’s 24th District, a sprawling, elbow-shaped section of central New York’s rust belt. The district takes in all or parts of 10 counties but has only 546,000 residents scattered throughout hardscrabble farm towns and the small cities of Utica, Rome, and Cortland.

Richard Hanna and Family

In May, Hanna stepped into the race against incumbent Democratic Congressman Michael Arcuri. The Democrat, an attorney, won his seat in a surprise 2006 victory, following the retirement of Sherwood Boehlert, a Republican 24-year veteran of the House of Representatives whose career outlived his influence as a moderating presence in an increasingly right-leaning party. Local political observers called Arcuri’s win over a popular Republican state senator two years ago an upset, and Hanna’s late-entry run this year reflects Republican hopes of reclaiming formerly secure turf, even if their candidate isn’t easily pigeonholed.

Don’t look for Hanna to tout himself as a Republican standard-bearer: “I’m not an ideologue,” he says, speaking from his Cooperstown, New York, home, where he lives with his wife, Kim, and their young son, Emerson, age 1. He’s pro-choice, thinks the Iraq War was “one of the worst foreign policy decisions in the history of this country,” and is pretty much unconcerned with the personal conduct of the electorate. He’s also a union member who thinks his party has taken a few turns for the worse.

“Playing to the extreme right of the party was bad at a number of levels, and I think they know it,” he says. “They’ve pushed out a lot of the people they need most.”

A locally minded, small-town sensibility—think George Bailey with a backhoe—comes through in his political story and his life, in which Reed played both a pivotal and anomalous role. Hanna started at Reed when he was 20 years old, after his father’s death. He headed to Portland from Marcy, New York, with an eye toward getting an education that would improve life for his mother and four sisters. Three fruitless years trying to revive a faltering trailer park his father bought convinced him there were ways to do better.

“I wasn’t very well focused,” Hanna says. “But I knew I wanted to go to a serious place.”

He credits Reed’s admission staff for looking past his spotty academic record and hearing out his pitch to attend the college.

“I wasn’t a smart kid in terms of numbers, but, I told them, ‘I’m a thoughtful, responsible guy,’” he recalls. “They said, ‘You don’t belong here, but you’re welcome to come.’”

Hanna graduated in 1976 with a bachelor’s in economics and returned to Upstate New York, enriched by the experience, but facing a tough situation at home.

“I lived and breathed the steady decline of Upstate New York, but I’m one of those fortunate people who could stay where they liked. It was a risk, but I’d been broke before, and I wasn’t afraid of being broke.”

He started a small contracting business and learned the trade more or less on the job. Three years passed before he hired his first employee, but Hanna Construction eventually expanded into a major builder of schools and government buildings, and it made him rich, though he downplays his personal prosperity. As the stature of his structures rose in the community, so did his community involvement. He’s been a community activist for decades, with United Way, local hospital boards, Habitat for Humanity, and Annie’s Fund, a charity Hanna founded that provides cash grants to impoverished women in Herkimer and Oneida counties.

He says his formal candidacy, which includes a full-time campaign staff of four, hasn’t affected his basic worldview or his sense of the obligations of public service. When he says that his post-election speech will be the same whether he’s headed to Congress or back to Cooperstown, it sounds unpretentious and straightforward.

“There’s nothing wrong with railing against wrongdoing or railing against things you’d like to change,” he says. “There’s value in that voice. You don’t have to have great success to have value in terms of outcomes. Progress comes on the margins—you make progress by settling things day to day.”

—Will Swarts ’92

reed magazine logoSummer 2008