It’s tough for reporters to gauge the substance of political campaigns in the best of circumstances.
Kay Hagan, a centrist Democrat who served in the North Carolina Senate for 10 years and a single six-year term in the US Senate, was especially difficult to pin down.
I was perhaps not the best equipped for the job in 2008, the blue-wave election when Hagan would unseat Republican Elizabeth Dole while Barack Obama became the first and only Democratic presidential candidate to carry North Carolina since Jimmy Carter.
It probably didn’t help that I had written a lopsided story comparing Hagan unfavorably to her Democratic primary opponent, Jim Neal.
I was determined to write the definitive story of the Hagan campaign in July 2008, and I logged the miles to prove it. I showed up at an appearance at a gas station near the Friendly Center in Greensboro, where the candidate was supposed to chat with drivers, but instead spent most of her time ignoring proto-tea party hecklers. I got up at 5:30 a.m. to drive to Saluda to watch the candidate in a parade. I drove down to Charlotte to hear her speak to veterans. She never seemed to have time for an interview, but I finally cornered her in Charlotte, and I remember an aide nervously thrusting a voice recorder in between us to make sure I didn’t misquote her.
A former banker, Hagan was smart. Along with Linda Garrou of Forsyth County, Hagan was the chief budget writer when the Democrats controlled the state General Assembly. She was a cautious and pragmatic politician, and as the late journalist Mark Binker once observed, Hagan never mastered the easy banter of retail politics.
Reckoning with the news of her death on Monday at the age of 66, it’s hard to believe that it was only five years ago that Hagan lost her US Senate seat to Thom Tillis. Her centrist politics seem thoroughly out of place in this hyper-partisan age. She seems like a relic from another century, when in fact she was a contender in the last election cycle.
In truth, Hagan’s style of politics was already outdated when she took the national stage in 2008. Hagan’s victory party at the Greensboro Coliseum was an exhilarating moment for Democrats, but as UNCG economics professor Andrew Brod noted in a Facebook comment, “In a sense, however, it was also the night when Kay’s relative centrism suddenly went out of style. Obama’s election led Moscow Mitch and other congressional Republicans to veer rightward and adopt obstructionism as both a goal and tactic. That forced Democrats to unify, and yet their unity just compounded the political polarization of the era.”
Rather than forge a consensus to get things done, Hagan’s cautious politics seemed instead to constantly put her on the defensive.
The Democrats held the White House and both houses of Congress for only two years, just long enough to pass the Affordable Care Act, the stimulus act and the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill.
Immigration reform was long overdue when Hagan joined the US Senate, and now more than a decade later federal inaction has opened the floodgates of xenophobic hate in the form of Donald Trump’s continuous campaign of fearmongering and scapegoating. It’s heartbreaking to recall that in December 2010, the House advanced the DREAM Act, which would have granted legal status to undocumented people who came to the United States as children. Although Democrats held 56 of the 100 seats in the Senate, they fell five votes short of the 60-vote threshold needed to bring the DREAM Act up for a final vote. Among the five Democrats who broke ranks to kill the measure was Kay Hagan. By then, the 2010 midterm elections had already ordained that the GOP would take control of the House at the beginning of 2011.
It’s illuminating to look back at local journalist Ed Cone’s January 2010 interview with Hagan. Whether admirable or maddening, Hagan’s comments reveal a preoccupation with process and disinterest in overarching political objectives. At the time of the interview, there was an imminent special election in Massachusetts to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy. Cone asked whether a loss by Democratic candidate Martha Coakley would jeopardize passage of the Affordable Care Act.
“I think people are talking about that,” Hagan responded. “I am anxiously awaiting for late Tuesday night, and then we’ll move on from there.”
But was there a contingency plan, in case Coakley lost, Cone asked.
“No,” Hagan responded.
A follow-up question by Cone about whether Congress should be acting with more urgency given the fragility of its majority prompted a ponderous excursion into arcana.
“I think what’s really interesting is the process that’s taking place in the US Senate, where just about every vote, whether it’s a procedural vote, whether it’s a nomination vote, whether it’s a Department of Defense appropriations bill, takes 60 votes,” Hagan said. “The filibuster [is not just] people talking, it’s the elapsed time of 32 hours before the clock starts again… [there are] very arcane rules within the US Senate from the standpoint of moving legislation.”
Hagan’s cautious politics could hold the line on a tolerable status quo for a while — until they didn’t any longer.
We won’t see her kind again.