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Kay Hagan, former North Carolina senator, has died at age 66

Ex-North Carolina Senator Kay Hagan dies

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 following a prolonged illness. She was 66.

Hagan died at her home in Greensboro, her family said in a statement. "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," the family statement said.

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Kay Hagan seen Wednesday, September 3, 2014. AP

Hagan died of encephalitis, or brain inflammation, caused by Powassan virus, a rare virus spread from ticks to humans, said her former Senate spokeswoman, Sadie Weiner, who now works for Gov. Roy Cooper. Hagan contracted the illness in late 2016, and the subsequent brain inflammation made it difficult for her to speak and walk.

Dr. Jeannina Smith, an infectious disease specialist at UW Health, explained that Powassan "attacks the brain itself, causing inflammation and infections of the brain. And because of that, patients who have had this viral encepahlitis can have significant neurological problems, if they recover." 

Hagan, a Democrat, served a single term in the Senate and lost her 2014 re-election bid to Republican North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis. Tillis, who is seeking re-election next year, said in a tweet that Hagan had a "dedicated and distinguished record of public service to our state and nation."

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 sought and won the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Elizabeth Dole.

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.

"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," said Cooper, who served in the state Senate with Hagan.

U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-NC, said Hagan worked diligently for the state and the people she loved.

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

Other former Senate colleagues also mourned her passing.

"Deeply saddened by the passing of my friend Sen. Kay Hagan today. She was a dedicated public servant, unafraid to fight for the people she represented," Senator Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, said in a tweet.

In March 2011, Hagan sat on a congressional panel that questioned Army Secretary John McHugh regarding the unexplained deaths of 12 infants at Fort Bragg dating back to 2007. She also pushed for the release of documents pertaining to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune.

Hagan supported raising the federal tax on a pack of cigarettes from 39 cents to $1 per pack, noting that while she backed using the money to fund an expansion of a children's health program, she was concerned about the impact the tax would have on jobs at home.

In June, Hagan made a rare public appearance at a groundbreaking ceremony for an airport where she helped gain funding.

She helped break ground at Piedmont Triad International Airport's new air traffic control tower. The airport executive director said at the time that Hagan visited the airport during her time as a senator and helped alert others in Washington to the need for a new tower.

"She climbed up into the tower, and she learned firsthand what its limitations are," Baker said. "She then made it her charge to help get our project out of the doldrums and moving along."

Hagan is survived by her husband, Chip, and three children: Jeanette Hagan, Tilden Hagan and Carrie Hagan Stewart.

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