Live the American dream.
Inauguration Day--January 17, 1998--was unique and inspirational for all of Virginia's citizens, but especially for those with mobility impairments. I can't imagine anyone not being moved while watching John H. Hager push his wheelchair up the ramp to the stage in front of the State Capitol Building. There he was sworn in as Virginia's thirty-fourth lieutenant governor.
Hager was elected on November 4, 1997, as part of a Republican trio that swept three statewide offices. The other two candidates were James Gilmore, who was elected governor, and Mark Early, who became attorney general. Hager carried 88 of Virginia's 135 jurisdictions; his final margin of victory exceeded 80,000 votes.
Prejudice does not seem to be an issue when it comes to politics in Virginia. Douglas Wilder was the first African-American governor, Mary Sue Terry was the first female attorney general, and now John Hager is the first lieutenant governor with a visible mobility impairment.
Hopefully, this state's citizens are becoming less prejudiced in their views--not just in politics but in general. The majority voted for Wilder, Terry, and Hager during three different elections. These voters need to pass their unprejudiced views to their children. Today's youths need positive role models, and Lt. Governor Hager has certainly proved an excellent example for anyone--no matter what their physical ability.
The lieutenant governor's long list of affiliations and accomplishments is impressive. A question may arise as to whether he has been successful because of or in spite of his disability.
"Unlike FDR, I haven't tried to hide my disability, nor do I see it as an issue when it comes to performing my duties," he quickly replies. This attitude of "nonissue" has been with Hager since he contracted polio in 1973.
Born in Durham, N.C., in 1936, Hager earned a B.S. in mechanical engineering from Purdue University in 1958. Two years later, he completed a masters in business administration at Harvard.
In 1960-1961, he served in the U.S. Army as a second lieutenant, Ordnance Corps. He was a captain in the U.S. Army Reserves for 6% years and is a member of the American Legion.
In 1961, following military service, Hager began working for the American Tobacco Company (Richmond). He started at the bottom, loading boxcars, but quickly rose within corporate ranks to become executive vice president. At this time, he contracted polio.
Because of the attitudes and misconceptions toward people with disabilities in the early 1970s, the company's management did not believe Hager could maintain the rigorous schedule required of the executive vice president. This ignorance forced Hager to start over as a department manager. Due to his inner strength and convictions, he went on to become senior vice president-Leaf & Specialty Products, from which he retired in 1994 without missing a day's work.
In the 1970s, friends and associates encouraged Hager to get involved in politics. "I had a lot of time on my hands after contracting polio," he says.
He became a Republican Party volunteer, then worked as an activist, and ultimately decided to run for lieutenant governor--his first elected office.
Although Lt. Governor Hager prefers to keep his disability a non-issue, he freely answered the following questions about its role in his campaign as well as his goals while in office:
Do you feel you had the support of the disability community throughout your campaign?
"We made a great effort to develop a unique disability coalition and try to offer a message of opportunity and hope for everyone, including the disabled. It was still an uphill climb. Many people in the disability community have been locked into the Democratic Party and to many of the old-fashioned approaches and programs for a long, long time. And so I was a bit of a new factor, a bit of a new cause, and not everybody jumped on the bandwagon immediately.
"On the other hand, I believe a lot of disabled people in Virginia said, `Gosh if he can do it, I can do it, and we are going to back him, regardless.' Once they learned more about me and began to believe in me, I think they now feel they have been rewarded. They have learned that we can be a potent force for the disabled but at the same time do it in a consistent fashion that affects all people. So I guess the answer is yes and no.
"`The experience to care and the courage to lead' was our byline. We repeated that over and over, and we felt we had the credibility to back it up. We rose to a higher level than worrying about a dumb wheelchair. We rose to the level of what is really important to people and ... in politics."
(Note: Hager says that during the recent campaign he did not automatically have the support of the disability community because of his mobility impairment. He makes it clear he had to earn this population's votes along with everyone else's. His campaign ran on the premise that he would work just as hard for them as he would for the other citizens of Virginia. The fact that he uses a wheelchair would not mean he'd spend any more time on issues facing people with disabilities than he would on those for the rest of Virginia's citizens or any other identifiable group.)
Now that you are in office, do you plan to push any special programs for people with disabilities?
"We have already done several things. I have a program to do more, but I am not "the disability lieutenant governor." I work in a number of areas and arenas. In the disability arena we helped support the vehicle lemon-law passage because it made sense and it was right for the time. We got behind the Commonwealth Neurotrauma Initiative [see sidebar], and I pushed that through for funding in the legislature because I thought it was only right and that it added up and made sense.
"As chairman of the Disability Commission, I want to hear everyone out and find out what people's ideas are and what initiatives they are putting on the table. And as a businessman I want to prioritize and go after the [ideas] that make the most sense--particularly those that affect opportunity, quality of care, and people's transition to a friendly environment (mainly de-institutionalization)--and make sure people have a level playing field. [We have to] do a strong job of bolstering the economy, because that allows everyone to participate with jobs, [and ensure they have] opportunities to get the help they need to have jobs---opportunities to get a better education and have work-force training--and make sure [people with disabilities] are included."
Do you think that your being a wheelchair user brought accessibility issues to the attention of people within the state?
"The answer to that is definitely Yes! I have been bumping around in a wheelchair for 25 years, and most places I go are accessible--some of them fairly recently so. I am sure that my disability has helped with people's awareness and attitudes, and, as you know, in this game, those are the only two things that really matter. Attitude and awareness can accomplish so much more than laws and lawsuits. If you get people to have a positive vision about something, and acceptance, they will bend over backwards."
Have you run into many eases where you have gone somewhere on official business and found it not accessible?
"Generally, if you are flexible you can make it accessible. My point is, if you don't climb the mountain one way, you are going to climb it another."
Since you have taken office, you don't seem to throw your weight around and demand "I want this truly accessible and this done and that done."
"I don't believe in wasting taxpayers' money. I believe there is a commonsense way of doing things."
What are some of your major goals while you are in office?
"First, to do a fine job of presiding over the Virginia State Senate, upholding the legacy of my predecessors. Second, to partner with the governor and to achieve with him as a teammate and follow his strong agenda--the hallmark of his administration. Third, to pursue several independent initiatives I either had talked about in the campaign or thought made good sense. Those were the three key goals I announced prior to the inauguration. I have [compiled] a report card on what we did to achieve these goals.
"I travel a lot. I spend about a third of my time performing official duties (work within this office) and another third on civic, charity, and community-type activities all over Virginia. The last portion is the political third of my time, which is involved with all the various Republican committees around the state: fund-raisers, keeping in touch with people, [fulfilling my obligations] with time and events, attending party functions, and working for candidates for the General Assembly for next year."
Being able to sit and speak with Lt. Governor Hager was an honor not only because of his office but also because he works so hard and has such a busy schedule, yet could find time for this interview. I don't think I've ever met anyone who displays as much determination and passion, whatever the job, opportunity, or commitment.
Every member of Hager's staff is amazed at his long hours and rigorous schedule, not only throughout his campaign but also--to his staff's dismay-during his term as lieutenant governor. This commitment has already earned him the Legislator of the Year Award.
"By definition, the lieutenant governor's office is a part-time job officially for the state government, and primarily focused during the General Assembly session," Hager says. "But I have taken full time, more than full time, to work everyday. When you are serving the people, it is a high honor, and you should pursue it with vigor."
As we neared the end of the interview, Lt. Governor Hager said, "I think a lot about the American dream and the fact that I am not a special person. I have just been fortunate that I had a good education and reasonable financial means so that when I took a big blow I was able to survive it.
"The fact is, we live in America, and people should have great dreams. If they are willing to work hard and to focus, and if they are willing to try, there is no reason why all readers of this magazine shouldn't be able to live out their American dreams. Theirs may not be as big as some of mine, but they may be very important to these individuals. That's the greatest thing we have in this country--and I hope in this Commonwealth of Virginia. Regardless of where people are or their status in life, they can still dream and do better. We can help them. We cannot do it for them, but we can help make sure they have a chance.
"That's what motivates me as an officeholder, as a, politician. As I said, I don't really view myself as any different. I try just to encourage people to have their dreams--and to believe."
RELATED ARTICLE: A Matter of Commitment
During his state's 1998 General Assembly, Virginia's Lt. Governor John Hager worked hard to follow up on campaign commitments and to carry to completion the priorities he announced last January. The following issues are on the agenda:
[right arrow] Leading the Senate
[right arrow] Fighting for the state's taxpayers (e.g., phasing out the personal-property tax on automobiles to reduce the tax burden on Virginia's citizens)
[right arrow] Improving children's education
[right arrow] Planning for future transportation needs
[right arrow] Promoting travel and tourism
[right arrow] Working for safe teen driving
[right arrow] Obtaining funding for neurotrauma research and rehabilitation
The lieutenant governor played a major role in helping pass the Commonwealth Neurotrauma Initiative. This funding raised fees from the reinstatement of licenses from convicted drunk and reckless drivers to establish a trust fund for research into brain injury and SCI as well as for community-based rehabilitation for people with these disabilities.
[right arrow] Fighting for Virginia's workers
[right arrow] Work-force training initiative
[right arrow] Future initiatives
Lt. Governor Hager will continue to work hard by chairing the Disability Commission; acting as subcommittee chairman, Commission to Prevent Family Violence; and co-chairing the Commission on Public School Infrastructure. These commissions will develop legislative recommendations to the General Assembly.
Richmond businessman Gary W. Melton is a regular contributor to PN (the monthly column Mobility & More," as well as the feature article "Dream Machines" [March 1998]).