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Few women have risen faster or gone further in the legislature than state Sen. Kay Hagan of Greensboro.
Hagan, a 55-year-old corporate lawyer, has been philosophically in tune with the moderate Democrats who run the state Senate and readily adapting to its horse-trading, deal-making atmosphere.
She is hoping her 10-year legislative record will help propel her to the U.S. Senate.
“The key to me is we have a great state here,” Hagan said. “That is why people are chomping at the bit to move into the state.”
But Republicans, including her opponent, Sen. Elizabeth Dole, argue that Hagan has been too ready to raise taxes and increase government services, and that she is too closely tied to the entrenched Democratic leadership in the state Senate.
No matter how her rise is viewed, her record in the state legislature suggests that Hagan would be a pro-business Democrat, more liberal on social issues, willing to be a loyal team player with the Democratic leadership in the U.S. Senate, and focused on constituent issues and bringing home the bacon.
During a 10-year span, Hagan rose from a back bencher to helping write the state's $21 billion budget. She was rated the seventh-most influential member of the 50-member state Senate this past session, according to a survey by the nonpartisan N.C. Center for Public Policy.
Hagan was a protege of Senate leader Marc Basnight, the powerful Manteo Democrat who recruited her to run for the state Senate, helped finance her early campaigns and made her co-chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
In return, Hagan was a loyal member of the Democratic Senate team, headed by Basnight and Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand of Fayetteville.
“Marc Basnight is the visionary,” Hagan said. “Tony Rand is the chess player.”
Because Hagan has been a cog in the Basnight organization, it is often difficult to separate her record from that of the Senate leadership. She was part of an effort that raised teacher salaries, increased funding for the state's university system, created a new cancer research center and funded new efforts to improve secondary and elementary schools.
Hagan has an intense personality that has made her a tough negotiator and a behind-the-scenes workhorse.
“She has boundless, boundless energy,” Rand says. “Once she ties into something, she is after it full time.”
Like a lot of Southern Democrats, Hagan tries to perform a delicate ideological balancing act. She voted for a state lottery (reluctantly), for a death penalty moratorium (although she backs the death penalty) and against a constitutional amendment banning gay marriages (although she favors the existing ban in state law).
Hagan has been sensitive to business interests. When Democratic Gov. Mike Easley proposed raising the cigarette tax from 5 cents per pack to 45cents per pack in 2005, Hagan used her influence to peel the increase back to 35 cents per pack. Lorillard Tobacco is a major employer in her district.
She is also known for bringing home the bacon, which has helped make her a favorite of the Greensboro business community – $1.5 million for an International Civil Rights Museum, $500,000 for Greensboro's Center City Park, $500,000 for the International Furnishings Market in High Point, and $10 million for a joint Millennium campus being developed by UNC Greensboro and N.C. A&T State University.
While Hagan has always had good business support, liberals don't see her as one of their own. During the Democratic primary, her opponent, Jim Neal of Chapel Hill, called her “Republican lite.”
She angered some liberals in 2005 when she crafted a Senate budget that cut taxes for corporations and high income earners, and removed 65,000 aged, blind and disabled from the rolls of recipients of Medicaid, the health insurance program for poor people. The Medicaid cuts were blocked by the House.
“There are not a whole lot of things during her tenure where she led the charge for progressives or where she took on a fight that she couldn't win or where she shook her fists at the powers that be,” said Rob Schofield, policy director for N.C. Policy Watch, a progressive think tank. “She quickly became one of the powers-that-be in the Senate.”
But Hagan also takes plenty of flak from her political right.
Republicans say Hagan has been too willing to tax and expand government.
“My opponent has a long history of increasing North Carolina taxes across the board, whether it's sales tax, income tax, food tax, liquor tax, tobacco tax on the wealthy, tax on the middle income, tax on the low income,” Dole said at their only joint forum held this summer in Atlantic Beach.
The major tax hike backed by Hagan occurred during a recession in 2001, when the state faced a budget shortfall. Hagan voted with the Democratic majority to temporarily raise the state sales tax by half a penny and the income tax on households making more than $200,000 per year.
Hagan voted to extend the taxes in 2005, but later voted to repeal all but the remaining quarter-cent sales tax.
Because of the state's fiscal policies, Hagan says, the state has a reputation for being business friendly. She notes that North Carolina is one of a handful of states with a AAA bond rating, the highest possible, and with an overfunded state employee pension.
Hagan's critics say she is too close to Basnight and the Senate leadership.
“The model she followed is: ‘I'm going to go along with the crowd and move up,'” said state Rep. John Blust of Greensboro, who lost his state Senate seat to Hagan in 1998.
“She has done some good things in the legislature,” Blust said. “But I'm not ready to send her to the (U.S.) Senate. My big fear is that she would pretty much go along with things that (Democratic U.S. Senate leaders) Chuck Schumer and Harry Reid want.”
After looking at Hagan's 10-year voting record, Blust found that Hagan voted with Basnight 99.5 percent of the time, splitting with him on only 31 of 7,705 votes.
On the campaign trail, Hagan talks about her willingness to work across party lines. But her Republican colleagues say that as the Senate's chief budget writer, Hagan mainly paid attention to her fellow Democrats.
“Since I've been in the General Assembly, when she was chief budget writer, she has towed the line with the leadership and not worked across party lines,” said state Senate Republican leader Phil Berger of Eden.
Hagan says there are instances where she has bucked the Democratic Party leadership. For example, she opposed the congressional redistricting plan in 2001 because it split Guilford County into three districts. (At one point, Hagan was considering running for one of the seats.) Basnight said Hagan has been willing to argue with him when most other senators have not – heatedly demanding an apology when he chewed out another senator.
Basnight said he also saw her lose a major financial supporter, a local Budweiser distributor, because she voted to raise the alcohol taxes – and because she passed legislation to help a new brewery.
“He called her and said she lost that support,” Basnight said. “She said, ‘I don't care. I'm going to do what is right.' That told me a lot that day.”
Coming Tuesday: A profile of Christopher Cole, the Libertarian candidate for the U.S. Senate.