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The Equalizer: Rep. Ed Hanes Finds Common Ground With Any Walk of Life 

By Ben Brown, NCLM Advocacy Communication Associate

The conversation about diversity, in understanding our differences and recognizing our common denominators, is clearly as alive as ever. In the newspaper. On television. In schools. In law enforcement. At the dinner table.

But Ed Hanes has an uncommon angle on it.

The legislator from Winston-Salem, son of two school administrators, grew up on the northeast side of town but attended public middle school on the west side, where the student body mix was mostly white and of wealth, while many of the black students were from hardened poverty. And that meant Hanes, a black student whose family was well provided for, stuck out – meaning it took a lot of thought to find those common denominators with anyone around him.

“So it was kind of an intense dynamic to be a part of, to find yourself in class with your economic peers but separated from your peers’ culture and heritage all day long, which led to a lot of conflict,” Hanes said during a recent interview in his legislative office. “And it kind of kept me in a position of feeling the need to
prove myself and fit in with my peers of culture and heritage – with black students.”

He found a way to prove himself, and to rise to the challenge of leadership, well before his election to the General Assembly in 2012. But he says those lessons and experiences remain huge for his style of service today.

With many of your black peers having a different background, how did they view you? And how did you find a bond?

I was different. I was white. I was much more like my peers of economic standing than (the black students), as far as this group was concerned. And I tell people all the time: basketball saved me. In middle school, I grew into the game, and I got to be very good at it. And it allowed me to interact in a different way with the kids, with my cultural-heritage peers, with black kids. And it allowed me to gain acceptance and approval, which allowed me an easier transition in middle school than even my sisters had. And so sports was the great equalizer for me there.

Did that change or carry into high school?

I left the middle school and went back to my neighborhood high school, Carver High School, which was also a pretty diverse school. Probably 60 percent white kids at that point, in the middle of a black neighborhood. We were still doing forced integration at that point. I had a fantastic, fantastic high school experience, which also really molded the way I thought about things because I was going to school with middleclass and working-class black kids who were predominantly in better financial situations than white students who went to Carver High School – which, frankly, in the United States, we just don’t see very often. Which also led to a very strange dynamic. It was a situation where things were reversed. If you were a white student at Carver High School, and you were running for student body president, you better have a number of black friends. You better know how to talk across the aisle. There was always this kind of underlying racial tension. If the homecoming queen was white, Ms. Carver was black, and vice versa. In 1991 this was going on in Winston- Salem. I was student body president my senior year. So I can tell you right now, it happened. This was going on.

So these relationships in public schools really did have a dramatic impact on who I am, what I’ve become and how I kind of approach the legislative process. I’ve always lived in diverse environments. I’m very comfortable in that regard. I swim with the sharks, and I’m not concerned with it. I’ve always been comfortable getting
in the water, seeing what could happen.

So that’s a guiding principle for you as a Democratic legislator, in the minority party.

Yeah, absolutely. And that angers some people, and some people in my caucus. They’ll say, ”That guy, you can’t trust that dude. He’ll talk with the Republicans. And not only will he talk to the Republicans, he’ll stand up in the room and give them credit for something they helped him with.” Well, you know, look, I think when you’re 27 seats on the wrong side of it, you’d better figure out how to talk to people. You better figure out where common ground is. You better figure out the environment that you’re living in and learn to work the edges. And I’m extremely proud that in this stratified environment, I was able to get with (Rep.) Kelly Alexander, who’s a former state chair of the NAACP, and get with (Rep.) Jason Saine, and (former Rep.) Charlie Jeter, and go to the House speaker’s office and say, ”This is paramount. We need $10 million for body cameras. What can we do?
How can we work together? We know this is not going to happen without the approval of your office. What can we do to make this happen?” And they gave us some guidelines. And they weren’t guidelines that meant we had to compromise who we were, what we stood for, for our constituents. And we were able to do it.

(Editor’s note: Hanes is referring to grant funding that he and fellow legislators secured in the last biennium to help local law enforcement agencies adopt body-worn cameras.)

It’s something that I believe in. It’s something that has guided my life. It makes some people uncomfortable, but I think it’s exactly where we need to go as a state and where we need to go as a country. We need to have leaders who kind of abide by that principle and do things that are in the best interest of the people. It doesn’t mean I’m a perfect politician. I’m not. I think it probably means (laughter) that my time as a politician is going to be limited in this environment.

You’re rounding out your second term in the House now. How has this one differed from your freshman term?

I’ve just matured a whole lot. I was determined my first term to show people how fast I could run, to show people that I could play the game and I was prepared to get in here and run legislation and it didn’t matter who was in charge and, you know, that I could swim, basically. I proved that I could swim, no doubt about it. But sometimes, when you’re a bull, you don’t necessarily have to show that you’re a bull. They recognize the bulls. I was convinced that I had to be the bull in the china shop that didn’t break the china and show that I was dexterous enough to not break the china.... But looking back on it now, I think the difference ... (pause) ... my father died right before the second session started, and I wasn’t even sure I was coming back. They say when your mother dies, you lose your number-one cheerleader. And when your father dies, he takes your childhood with him. And so all of a sudden, you’re married, you have two kids, and everybody’s gone. It gives you second thoughts about what you’re doing. And so probably that had more of a profound impact on my legislating than anything else. It made me pound my brakes and think about what I was doing and who I wanted to be. I’ve done a lot more listening during the second session. I did a lot more observing. I did a lot more of policy thinking than policy acting. We got the body cam legislation done because of it, which I thought was a tremendous accomplishment.

Your district is almost completely inside a municipality, in Winston- Salem. How does that dynamic affect your style as a legislator?

It’s nearly a 50-50 racial difference (in my district), which is again phenomenal and stakes right back to when I told you about my schooling and being raised in this intensely diverse environment. I have some of the richest people in the state of North Carolina. I have the working-class neighborhood that I grew up in. And I have some of the poorest people in the state of North Carolina. And so for me, it is living the trajectory of my life – every single day. From the ‘hood, to homes behind gates. So it’s been interesting in that way. I find myself dealing with a lot of Republican businessmen, and stay-at-home Democratic moms, and then dealing with working class families. And having to balance those realities. And what I find is everybody’s got the same problems. People just have different priorities. And that’s been interesting....It’s helped me. It’s been painful in some regards, but it’s helped me tremendously in terms of giving me an outlook on what society ought to look like and what the possibilities are and understanding the pain of the single black mother and the concerns of the wealthy white businessman. While not the same, they can coincide and meet at some point on the life trajectory, then trying to convince these folks, hey, you eventually will run in to this person. And what
happens when that arises? That’s kind of the reality of living and legislating in my district.

What about your communication with local government?

It’s growing. It’s blossoming. And I think it’s because we’re all very young.... I’m 42 and I’m going into my third term....The relationships have had to grow and
we’ve had to get used to each other’s rhythm. Some has been good. Some has been bad. I tend to be a little more introspective in terms of what I do and how I do it. And I think that can be misinterpreted sometimes as being a little aloof. And I get that. But it’s got to grow. We’re learning each other. And we’re all friendly.... But we have to know that the city council folks are absolutely our shields against things that could go really bad for us quickly with our local constituents. And I think
there’s been acknowledgement and growth. There’s a lot of stuff that could go sideways in my district if I didn’t have (good relationships with city council members). It would be tough. We have to keep an open eye and open ear and have respect for one another.

Regardless of your style or approach, legislators’ days are always busy, hectic. Early mornings, late nights. How do you step back and relax?

I don’t. I tell my people that I’m probably in the worst health that I’ve been in my life. Seriously. Having said that, you know, the session days, that’s where it’s
fun. The session days are great. But what I’ve kind of discovered is that when you become known as someone who wants to work, that’s when the days get difficult, because you’re on interim (legislative) committees and you feel that you need to be there, and you start to see how one committee connects to another, and because you’re always around, you start to see how the dots connect. And then all of a sudden you’re going to committees you’re not even a member on.... So now, you’re in the interim (between legislative sessions), but you’re still here days out of the week. And so that’s what gets difficult. And because I’m someone who wants to be successful, and I am kind of a go-getter, I am a competitor, these are positions that become dangerous for guys like me (laughter). Because I could do this every day.