Bringing The World Home To You

© 2023 WUNC North Carolina Public Radio
120 Friday Center Dr
Chapel Hill, NC 27517
919.445.9150 | 800.962.9862
91.5 Chapel Hill 88.9 Manteo 90.9 Rocky Mount 91.1 Welcome 91.9 Fayetteville 90.5 Buxton 94.1 Lumberton 99.9 Southern Pines
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Former U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan Dies At 66

Kay Hagan
Gerry Broome

Updated at 9:11 p.m.

Kay Hagan, a former bank executive who rose from a budget writer in the North Carolina Legislature to a seat in the U.S. Senate, died Monday. She was 66.

Hagan died of encephalitis, or brain inflammation, caused by Powassan virus, a rare virus spread from ticks to humans, her former Senate spokeswoman Sadie Weiner said.

Kay was a fierce advocate for North Carolina, and she represented our state with courage and grace her entire career. -Gov. Roy Cooper

In a statement, Governor Roy Cooper described Hagan as a legislator with "courage and grace."

"I've known Kay since our days in the Legislature together," Cooper said. "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. North Carolina is mourning one of our best today."

Condolences also poured in Monday from others like Republican Sen. Richard Burr who served alongside Hagan during her only term in office. Burr said he remembers Hagan for dedicating much of her life to serving North Carolina. 

"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," Burr said. "She tackled everything she did with a passion and a sense of humor that will be missed."

Hagan was born in Shelby, North Carolina, on May 26, 1953. She earned her undergraduate degree from Florida State University in 1975, then earned a law degree from Wake Forest University three years later.

For 10 years, Hagan worked for NationsBank, which was to become Bank of America, where she became a vice president in the estates and trust division. After being a stay-at-home mother, the niece of former Florida governor and U.S. Sen. Lawton Chiles launched her own political career and won a seat as a Democrat in the North Carolina state Senate in 1998.

Ten years later, Hagan defeated North Carolina's first female Republican U.S. senator, Elizabeth Dole, to become the state's first female Democratic senator. She served a single term in the Senate and lost her 2014 reelection bid to Republican North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis.

Tillis, who is seeking reelection next year, said in a statement that Hagan had a "dedicated and distinguished record of public service to our state and nation."

Although she initially showed reluctance to lend her support, Hagan backed the Affordable Care Act pushed by President Barack Obama. She also worked to limit payday lending, continuing the work she began as a state senator.

Former Governor Mike Easley described Hagan as having a bubbly personality.

"Everybody saw her as a lady first and it wasn't until a little later on you realized what a shrewd politician she could be and how tough she could be," Easley said.

Easley, a fellow Democrat, said Hagan was on the state Senate's appropriations committee and used her position to help fund programs like North Carolina's More at Four, a pre-K initiative.

He recalled a gathering of legislative leaders at the governor's mansion – and the way she dealt with an older, male colleague who opposed the program.

"Kay jumped up, put her hands on her hips, and walked over and got into his face and told him up one side and down the other," Easley said. "It was pretty funny to watch her back those men down and they all left there supporting it and we got pre-K for the first time in North Carolina history and she was a big leader on that for us."


Elizabeth “Liz” Baier is WUNC’s Digital News Editor. She's a first-generation Colombian-American fluent in Spanish. She has two decades of experience than span print, audio, and digital reporting and editing.
Will Michaels is WUNC's Weekend Host and Reporter.
Rusty Jacobs is WUNC's Voting and Election Integrity Reporter.
The Associated Press is one of the largest and most trusted sources of independent newsgathering, supplying a steady stream of news to its members, international subscribers and commercial customers. AP is neither privately owned nor government-funded; instead, it's a not-for-profit news cooperative owned by its American newspaper and broadcast members.
Related Stories
More Stories