Congress

Former Sen. Kay Hagan dies after health struggles caused by encephalitis

‘North Carolina is mourning one of our best today’ N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper said

Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., leaves an event at a campaign office in Statesville, N.C., Sept. 24, 2014. Hagan died Monday at age 66. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Former North Carolina Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan has died at the age of 66.

Hagan died Monday after battling encephalitis caused by rare tick-borne Powassan virus, a statement from her family said. Hagan was diagnosed with encephalitis in late 2016, and suffered from failing health for the remainder of her life.

“We are heartbroken to share that Kay left us unexpectedly this morning,” Hagan’s family said in a statement. Hagan died peacefully in her sleep at her home in Greensboro, North Carolina.

“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 as an elected official. 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, who served one term in the Senate, was born in Shelby, North Carolina, but later moved to Lakeland, Florida, where her father became mayor. Hagan beat Republican Elizabeth Dole in 2008 but lost after only one term to Republican Thom Tillis in what was then the most expensive Senate race.

Hagan went to college at Florida State University, before spending six months interning in Washington for her uncle, Democratic Florida Sen. Lawton Chiles. Hagan learned the literal ups and downs of the Capitol — she operated a senators-only elevator.

Hagan returned to North Carolina to attend Wake Forest University’s law school, where she met her husband, Chip. The couple settled in Greensboro and had three children. 

She was recruited into politics by four-term Democratic Gov. James B. Hunt, who selected her to lead his Guilford County organization in his 1992 and 1996 campaigns. In 1998, Hunt and state Sen. Marc Basnight recruited Hagan to challenge a GOP state senator. She won and served five terms.

Hagan was first uncertain about jumping into the 2008 U.S. Senate race against Dole, announcing in October 2007 that she would not be a candidate, then changing her mind a short time later.

Hagan won 60 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary and blanketed the state with campaign appearances as the national Democratic Party spent heavily in support of her. Emphasizing her North Carolina roots, she frequently jabbed Dole — wife of 1996 GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole — for a life spent largely in Kansas and Washington.

Hagan also benefited from Barack Obama’s name at the top of the ticket.

On Monday, the former president offered his family’s sympathies, saying the country will miss Hagan’s perspective and is better off because of her. 

“She was, quite simply, a terrific public servant—eager to find common ground, willing to rise above the partisan fray, and always focused on making progress for the people she served,” Obama said. “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.”

Hagan did not succeed in getting a second Senate term, losing to Tillis who eked out 48.8 percent of the vote while Hagan captured 47.3 percent.

Hagan was hired by Capitol Hill lobbying and law firm, Akin Gump after her loss and before becoming ill.

Tillis released a statement Monday, expressing support for Hagan and her family. 

“Susan and I are absolutely heartbroken by Senator Kay Hagan’s sudden passing and we extend our condolences and prayers to her loving family and many friends,” Tillis said. “We join all North Carolinians in remembering her dedicated and distinguished record of public service to our state and nation.”

Hagan suffered from poor health in the last years of her life, having trouble speaking and using a wheelchair. Hagan’s family said she contracted the Powassan virus, a rare condition transmitted by ticks that can lead to encephalitis or swelling of the brain. 

In 2018, she was unable to attend a tribute to her in Raleigh because she was hospitalized for pneumonia, the News & Observer reported.

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper, whose long history in North Carolina politics overlapped with Hagan, said he and his family were deeply saddened to learn of the passing of his friend. 

Cooper was Hagan’s counterpart with Hagan in the late 1990s while serving as state senators.

“Kay was a fierce advocate for North Carolina, and she represented our state with courage and grace her entire career. She made it a mission to inspire young people — especially young girls — to enter public service, and she served as a role model to so many,” Cooper said in a statement. “North Carolina is mourning one of our best today.” 

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