Building Consensus a Key to Leadership
By Krista Rinehart, CSG Leadership Center Coordinator
Many things about Nebraska Sen. Beau McCoy aren’t traditional.
Even though he exhibited his leadership potential at an early age as a senior patrol leader for his Boy Scout troop, McCoy didn’t follow the typical straight-to-college, high profile internship-filled path to the state legislature.
Instead, McCoy, who first ran for office just four years ago, started a small family construction business and slowly worked his way through college one semester a year while building his business. As a result, it took him a lot longer—seven years—to finish his degree, a BA in leadership from Bellevue University, which he did just five years ago.
It was his experiences as a business owner and father of four young children—all under age 9—that spurred his political ambitions.
“I was one of those kids that could very easily have not ended up staying in Nebraska,” said McCoy. “So I wanted to do whatever I could to improve our state’s business environment and economy and our general quality of life so that my kids would have the chance to stay in Nebraska when they’re adults, if they want to.”
The most recent legislative session in Nebraska found McCoy and his colleagues debating a number of bills related to the issues that brought him to office, including child welfare reform, expanded gambling, prenatal care for illegal immigrants and a bill allowing municipalities to increase their sales tax. The fate of the last three issues came down to the wire as the legislature closed with veto override votes on all three bills. The expanded gambling bill failed narrowly to gain the needed votes, while the prenatal care bill and the sales tax bill each passed with the minimum number of votes needed to override the governor’s veto.
McCoy credits the unique unicameral design of Nebraska’s legislature with allowing his state to come to a decision on these contentious issues that can cause gridlock and bring other states to a standstill. He believes the legislature’s small size and the inability to blame a majority or minority party for gridlock leaves every individual legislator much more accountable than in other states, thus forcing the doors for compromise to stay open.
“When it comes time for a hard vote, there is no running and hiding,” said McCoy. “Everyone has to be there and it’s sink or swim. You have to take a vote and nobody else, no other branch or house, is there to take care of it.
“I might disagree vehemently with colleagues on a given issue,” he said, “but you’d be surprised how much camaraderie there is when you know you are all in it together and have to make a decision.”
Every bill requires 25 votes for passage and that forces legislators to work across party lines, said McCoy.
“When it comes to the hard decisions, we can’t kick the can down the road or point the finger at the other house and blame them for inaction,” he said. “One way or another, there’s nobody else that can take responsibility for legislative success and failure but the 49 of us.”
McCoy credits his hands-on, personal leadership style as being a product of Nebraska’s system and the type of governance it requires.
“I am always counting votes,” said McCoy. “But in addition to talking about votes, I try to get to know people for more than their politics. I like to know about their families, their kids—the stories and backgrounds we all share.
“When I first took office, a colleague and friend told me ‘Get to know people before you need them,’” said McCoy. “I try to do that not just for votes, but because with just 49 of us, we are close and have to work together.”
McCoy’s ability to work with colleagues regardless of party affiliation has led to his rapid recognition as a rising star in the state. During his first term in the legislature, McCoy was nominated for the 2011 Toll Fellows Program. He names several state and national leaders as role models. He said Nebraska Chief Justice Mike Heavican and former President Ronald Reagan provided a mix of skills he has tried to adopt as his own.
“I’ve admired Chief Justice Heavican for a long time, long before I entered the legislature,” said McCoy. “He is from a different branch, but he is a wonderful guy and I admire his leadership style. He has been very impactful for me with how selfless he is in giving of his time and through his work for kids.”
McCoy has studied Ronald Reagan, but for different reasons and from a different perspective than most people. While Reagan sometimes provides a partisan example, McCoy said, “he also had a unique way of bringing folks along from the other party, people with a different ideology. And he did so without being heavy-handed. I have tried to learn from this model as I try to accomplish similar bipartisan success and consensus-building here.”