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JT Wilcox is a unique partisan leader, and the legislature is better as a result

There aren’t a lot of political leaders quite like JT Wilcox.

Sure, that is said about former Speaker Frank Chopp as well as new Speaker Laurie Jinkins. I have a lot of respect for them both, which has been well earned over their careers of legislative leadership.

But, they both sort of fall from the tree of former Rep. Helen Sommers. Sommers was a strong leader, focused on retaining majorities, who was a big hearted curmudgeon that could scare even the staunchest lobbyist. Rep. Chopp learned from the master.

She was also the kind of leader that made it possible for an out lesbian to be a Speaker of the people’s House. As a leader of NOW and the feminist movement from the 1970’s onward, Sommers paved the way for strong women leaders in the decades that have followed.

That said, I’m not sure I know of any former leader, in either the House or the Senate, who could get away with saying something like what Wilcox has told folks:

If I lived in a state where Republicans had the majority for 30 years, I might be a Democrat.

Can you imaging US Senator Mitch McConnell ever saying that?

Can you name one prominent Republican leader saying that anywhere in the United States in this polarized time in America – and retaining that leadership position? Or a Democrat about Republicans for that matter…

One doesn’t have to agree with his votes to appreciate his approach to solving problems as Minority Leader.

What makes Wilcox special, in my view, is this lack of polarization as a partisan leader.

Where most leaders today are focused on holding their caucus together, Wilcox appears more interested in building the right kind of majority, rather than a majority at any cost.

Take the situation with Rep. Matt Shea for example.

While a recent study has raised concerns about Shea’s behavior while in office, an issue we’ve been covering for the last few years, Wilcox hasn’t been moved by the recent public outrage.

He was moved fourteen months ago before the headlines hit.

In November, 2018, House Republicans quietly moved Rep. Matt Shea from his position at Caucus Chair.

In his place, in a contentious election, Rep. Paul Harris assumed the Caucus Chair position.

In follow up, Shea allowed anti-vaccine advocates to organize in his office to tail Harris around the 2019 legislative session. Some included threats against Harris’s life.

In other words, Wilcox knows who Shea is, and has been working to limit his influence on the caucus for some time, likely well before the actual votes were cast in the 2018 leadership race.

It’s this approach to making sure his caucus’s own house is clean that underpinned former Rep. Matt Manweller’s resignation.

Wilcox played a quiet but key role in Manweller’s removal, just as he has in the example of Matt Shea. In both instances, Wilcox saw concerns ahead of the public. In both instances, while the caucus was likely of mixed views, Wilcox allowed due process to play out while independent investigations moved forward.

In the end, given the time to review the facts and the evidence raised by investigations, majority support developed to remove both men from the Republican caucus.

Like Chopp, Jinkins and Sommers, Wilcox is ahead of the curve in a number of ways. He was ahead of the curve on Shea and Manweller, and way ahead of many observers in the 2018 election.

He’s a unique figure in our state, with a collaborative approach that makes our politics and our state better off as a result.

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