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
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
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was already outdated when she took the national stage in 2008.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 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.
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