Former U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, a one-time Capitol Hill intern who went on to become North Carolina’s first Democratic female senator, died Monday at her Greensboro home. She was 66.
Hagan died in her sleep after a three-year battle with encephalitis, caused by Powassan virus.
In 2008 the former state senator beat Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole. She lost to Republican Thom Tillis in 2014 in what was then the nation’s most expensive Senate race.
“We are heartbroken to share that Kay left us unexpectedly this morning,” her family said in a statement.
“Kay meant everything to us, and we were honored to share her with the people of North Carolina whom she cared for and fought for so passionately . . . Most of all, we already miss her humor and spirit as the hub of our family, a role she loved more than anything. Nobody could light up a room and make people feel welcome like Kay.”
Hagan had made a rare public appearance just Sunday, when she went to Durham to see former Vice President Joe Biden, now a presidential candidate.
“I am grateful that I had the opportunity to see her in person just yesterday during my visit to Durham, and to spend time privately with her and Chip,” Biden said in a statement. “(She) was a courageous soul who lived every day of her too-short life with incredible dignity and character, even as the days became more difficult physically.”
Morgan Jackson, a Democratic strategist, said he saw Hagan on Sunday night in Durham.
“She had good spirits, bright eyes,” Jackson said. “It’s very tough. Very sad.”
Hagan, the niece of a former U.S. senator, spent 16 years as a lawmaker in Raleigh and Washington. Before the onset of encephalitis in 2016, she had an active lifestyle. An exercise junkie who loved yoga and Pilates and early-morning runs, she took the same energy to politics in Raleigh and Washington.
“Susan and I are absolutely heartbroken,” Tillis said in a statement. “We extend our condolences and prayers to her loving family and many friends. We join all North Carolinians in remembering her dedicated and distinguished record of public service.”
Dole told the Observer that her “thoughts and prayers are with her family at this very difficult time.”
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper called Hagan “a fierce advocate for North Carolina” who “represented our state with courage and grace her entire career.”
He ordered flags to fly at half-staff through Tuesday.
Corporate lawyer to politician
Kay Ruthven was born in Shelby, the second of three children. The family moved to Charleston when she was 2 and later went on to Lakeland, Fla., where her father would serve as mayor. Hagan went to public schools and learned survival skills from her brothers.
“Being the girl in the middle,” she says, “I had to fight for everything I got.”
Hagan went to Florida State and law school at Wake Forest. There she met fellow student Chip Hagan. After their first date, she called her mother.
“I told her I met the man I’m going to marry,” she once recalled.
They moved to Greensboro, where the Hagan family was well-established. Chip Hagan led the local Chamber of Commerce and the Guilford County Democrats. Kay Hagan, a corporate lawyer, served with groups such as the YWCA and the arts council. She was an elder at her Presbyterian church.
In 1992 and ’96, Kay Hagan chaired Democrat Jim Hunt’s Guilford County gubernatorial campaigns. In 1998, he helped recruit her to run for the state Senate. She was, he would say later, “a real dynamo.”
With strong business support, liberals didn’t see Hagan as one of their own. During the 2008 Democratic primary, her opponent called her “Republican lite.”
During 10 years in Raleigh, Hagan rose from a back-bencher to a lead budget writer. By the time she left she was rated the seventh-most influential member of the 50-member state Senate by the nonpartisan N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.
In the state Senate, Hagan impressed Democratic leaders who made her co-chair of the budget committee. She become known as a hard driver, a pro-business Democrat who supported her party’s majority. Critics such as then-Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger called her “a lapdog of the Democrat leadership.”
But Chris Fitzsimon, then-director of the liberal N.C. Policy Watch, said at the time that she was “in the mainstream” and “very competent.”
Long before she ran for the U.S. Senate, Hagan had gotten a taste of the Capitol — and a bug for politics.
During an internship in the mid-’70s, she operated the bronze elevator that ferried senators to and from the chamber. She carried members such as Ted Kennedy, Biden and her uncle, Lawton Chiles of Florida. At the controls, the senator’s niece daydreamed about a political career of her own. “It’s infectious,” she would later say.
Hagan entered the 2008 U.S. Senate primary after higher profile Democrats passed and she lagged Elizabeth Dole in early polls.
The campaign grew heated in the final days over Dole’s so-called “Godless” ad. The ad said Hagan had attended a fundraiser at the home of a man who headed the Godless Americans Political Action Committee, a group lobbying to end official references to God. Hagan “took Godless money,” the ad said. “What did Hagan promise in return?” Hagan sued for defamation.
In an ad in response, Hagan called the attack on her faith offensive.
“She even faked my voice in her TV ad to make you think I don’t believe in God,” Hagan says in the ad. “Well I believe in God. I taught Sunday school. My faith guides my life.”
In unseating the nationally prominent Dole, Hagan out-polled Barack Obama, the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry North Carolina in three decades.
In Washington she became a strong backer of the Affordable Care Act and generally adhered to mainstream Democratic policies. She also continued to advocate for women.
“As President, I deeply appreciated her reasoned, pragmatic voice, whether we were working together to pass the Affordable Care Act, reform Wall Street, support working families, or just make Americans’ lives a little better,” former president Barack Obama said in a statement. “...We’re all better off because of her.”
Not long after she was elected, Hagan said she learned the U.S. Senate pool was “only for the men.” She persuaded Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, then head of the Rules Committee, to end the practice.
Tributes pour in
Former Senate colleagues remembered her Monday.
“She will be remembered for her tireless work on behalf of . . . the people she loved,” Republican Sen. Richard Burr said in a statement. “In our time as Senate colleagues, we worked across the aisle together frequently on issues that we both knew would determine what type of country our children would inherit, from conservation to our common defense. She tackled everything she did with a passion and a sense of humor that will be missed.”
U.S. Rep. Alma Adams of Charlotte, a longtime Guilford County lawmaker who served with Hagan in the General Assembly, called her friend “an inspiration to women across North Carolina.”
“As the first Democratic woman to represent the Tar Heel State in the United States Senate, she broke even more barriers as the first woman to defeat an incumbent woman in a Senate election,” Adams said in a statement. “North Carolina has lost our champion.”
U.S. Rep. Mark Walker, a Greensboro-area Republican, said “Hagan was dedicated to serving North Carolinians and especially to the men and women of the Armed Forces.”
In its own statement, Hagan’s family said they appreciated the support she’d gotten since falling ill.
“We are deeply grateful for the support shared with our family as Kay worked to regain her strength . . . and we appreciate your continued prayers,” their statement said.
Others recalled when Hagan herself was the one offering the support.
“When my brother, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), had a stroke, Kay frequently checked in and was one of his biggest cheerleaders when he returned to the Senate,” tweeted Robin Kirk, a cultural anthropologist at Duke University. “True bipartisanship and humanity. Blessings on her family and friends, who are many. Thank you, Senator Hagan.”
Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @JimMorrill
Brian Murphy: 202-383-6089, @MurphinDC