Sen. Kay Hagan Faces Tough Choices as a Tobacco State Democrat

Early on, Kay Hagan faced a vote on paying for children's healthcare by boosting cigarette taxes.

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Kay Hagan is the new senator from North Carolina who famously sent Elizabeth Dole packing. But winning an election is one thing—and balancing your state's interests against the nation's is entirely another.

Thus, the 55-year-old Democrat seemed tied in knots just weeks into office. At issue: a $32 billion measure to grant healthcare coverage to millions of poor children.

Hagan saw a glaring downside. Uncle Sam planned to hike the cigarette tax by 62 cents a pack—a rise of $6.20 a carton—to fund and expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program. "Outrageous," she fumed. "In these tough economic times, I don't want to do something to hurt the industry in North Carolina."

The Tar Heel State, though bleeding jobs in textiles, furniture, and tobacco, still grows more tobacco than any other state. Economists count 255,000-plus tobacco-related jobs there and say the sector packs a $7 billion economic punch.

Hagan, a lawyer, ex-banker, and former state senator, has been around the crop heralded as the state's "golden leaf" all her life. As a girl, she strung tobacco on a grandfather's farm in small-town Chesterfield. As an adult, she's lived for more than 30 years in Greensboro, where a top employer is the Lorillard Tobacco Co.

Lorillard, which makes for Newport, Kent, Old Gold, and other cigarette brands, has 1,600 employees in North Carolina. The third-biggest tobacco concern in the United States, the company recently ran an ad in the Wall Street Journal decrying the proposed increase, arguing that taxes "should not be used to engineer societal changes or punish a small segment of society for the benefit of the majority."

Hagan wanted a smaller increase in the cigarette tax, but, after an amendment she cosponsored was withdrawn, she voted for children's health insurance, explaining that the needs of disadvantaged children trumped tobacco. The measure passed in the Senate 66 to 32, with nary a Democratic "no."

Ahead: A renewed push in Congress to have tobacco regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Critics call it a death knell for cigarettes. Supporters of regulation include Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Hagan says she plans to give the effort a thumbs down, saying the FDA has enough on its plate and too small a staff as it is.

Will she part company, then, with Reid and other Democratic Party leaders? "I'm here representing the constituents of North Carolina, and that's who I am, first and foremost, a voice on their behalf," Hagan says, adding she's sure there will be times that she'll buck the party leadership.

Her need to be a senator of, by, and for North Carolina is magnified by a key Dole failing: being an absentee senator. Dole, though a household name, took heat for not tending the home fires until the months leading up to last November's election. The Winston-Salem Journal reported last fall that Dole had visited the state for only 13 days in 2006. Hagan says there's no chance she'll follow suit.

Her political bloodlines run deep. She is the niece of the late Lawton Chiles, a Democratic U.S. senator from Florida and governor. Her father had been mayor of Lakeland, Fla. Both schooled her in decision making. Their credo, now hers: "You've got to go with what your gut tells you to do."

Hagan was a Washington intern for Chiles in the summer of 1975, when there was not a single woman in the Senate. Today there are 17. Among her tasks then: operating a Senate elevator and helping constituents. Did she imagine herself a senator one day? "I can't think that far back," she replies. "I certainly was very interested in business and politics and government."

She earned a degree in American studies at Florida State University and a law degree from Wake Forest University, then worked for 10 years for the North Carolina National Bank, now Bank of America. She and her husband, a lawyer, have three children in their 20s.

Her campaign was buoyed by Barack Obama's massive ground operation, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and groups such as EMILY's List. Obama carried North Carolina by a slim margin, but Hagan trounced Dole, 52 percent to 44 percent. It was a stunning achievement; the seat had been in GOP hands for 36 years (and held by archconservative Jesse Helms only seven years ago).