WASHINGTON – Former U.S. Rep. Richard Hanna, a fiercely independent Republican from Upstate New York who championed LGBT and women’s rights, died Sunday at a hospital in Oneida County. He was 69.
Hanna’s family said in a statement that he died surrounded by loved ones “after a private and courageous battle with cancer.”
Hanna, of Barneveld in Oneida County, served three terms in Congress representing an eight-county district that stretched from Lake Ontario to the Pennsylvania border.
He decided to retire at the end of his term in 2016. Before leaving office, he gained national attention as the only House Republican to publicly endorse and vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.
During his six years in Congress, Hanna also stood out as the only House Republican to support same-sex marriage, a woman’s right to an abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment, guaranteeing equal rights for women.
Hanna repeatedly battled the far-right of his party, criticizing Republicans for becoming too intolerant and extreme. He lamented that the extremes of the GOP in Congress had drowned out moderates like himself.
“I never left the Republican Party that I originally joined,” Hanna told syracuse.com | The Post-Standard in a 2016 exit interview. “I can only say that they’ve left me. It’s really gone to the far extremes on social issues. They’ve become judgmental and sanctimonious and authoritarian on their approach to people.”
Hanna said he never regretted drawing the ire of GOP leaders on high-profile votes where he split with the party. He also criticized his fellow Republicans for what he viewed as a partisan investigation into the 2012 attack of U.S. government facilities in Benghazi, Libya that killed the U.S. ambassador.
“I have a bad habit,” Hanna once said of his direct manner. “If people ask me a question, I give them an answer. It’s the old story: If you never lie, you never have to remember what you said. In politics, people are always trying to figure out what they said. I don’t have to do that.”
Hanna also tried to bridge the partisan divide, working with Democrats and Republicans to try to pass substantive legislation. He said he was proudest of his work in 2012 to build a bipartisan coalition that fought to renew an anti-domestic violence bill, the Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA.
Before he was elected to Congress in the 2010 election, Hanna had become a millionaire after starting his own construction company, Hanna Construction, and building it into a powerhouse that did business across New York. He was among the wealthiest members of Congress.
He traced his independence to his early 20s, when he took care of his mother and sisters after his father died. He worked construction jobs to put himself through Reed College in Portland, Ore., where he graduated with a degree in economics.
One of his best friends, former New York State Supreme Court Justice Robert Julian, said he’ll remember Hanna as a “Renaissance man” who was equally comfortable talking about literature or construction.
“I will remember him as a man of courage and character who put country and community ahead of partisan politics,” Julian said in an interview Monday. “He was a warm, loving wonderful friend with a wry sense of humor and real humility.”
U.S. Rep. Anthony Brindisi, D-Utica, who now represents the 22nd Congressional District, said he lost a friend whom he consulted with every couple of weeks. It didn’t matter that they belonged to different political parties.
“Richard was a personal friend and a professional mentor to me,” Brindisi said in an interview Monday. “He was a public servant who talked the talk and walked the walk. I think our community and country is better for his service, and he will be missed.”
Brindisi has tried to model Hanna’s approach toward building consensus in Congress.
“If the House of Representatives had 435 Richard Hannas, the country would be better off,” Brindisi said.
U.S. Rep. John Katko, R-Camillus, called Hanna an “impactful mentor” whom he looked to for guidance.
“A strong and independent voice for Upstate New York, Richard was always willing to work with both parties to deliver results for our region,” Katko said Monday. “He was a true leader who was never afraid to stand up for his values and for what he believed in.”
Hanna’s family issued a statement Monday asking for privacy as they grieve.
“His life and work will remain an inspiration for generations to come – from the structures he built through Hanna Construction to his charitable works that continue to benefit the lives of many in our community, and the indelible mark he left on the U.S. House of Representatives standing for tolerance, personal freedom, and equal rights for all,” the statement said.
“Richard was honorable, he led by example, and always stood for what he believed was right,” the statement said.
He is survived by his wife, Kim, a son, Emerson, 12, and a daughter, Grace, 11. A memorial service and celebration of Hanna’s life is planned later this spring.
When Hanna announced he would retire from Congress, he cited his desire to spend more time with his wife and young children. He said his children were upset when he had to leave for Washington, D.C., at the start of each work week.
“When all is said and done, if you haven’t raised your family well, you haven’t accomplished anything in life,” Hanna said at the time. “I’ve got good kids and a great wife, and they simply don’t want me to do this anymore.”