Kay Hagan served as a U.S. senator from North Carolina between 2009 and 2015. She is currently a resident fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University.
Harvard Political Review: Why you decide to come to the Institute of Politics? What draws you to this particular fellowship?
Kay Hagan: It’s interesting. I have three adult children. I always wanted them to go to school in Boston. One got into MIT and went to Cal Tech instead, so when I was invited to do this I said “Alright. Since you didn’t go to Boston, Mom’s going.” I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The students are an inspiration to me. The commitment to our country, to politics, to policy is something that has truly been inspired by the words of JFK. The banners around this area that ask “What you can do?” spell it out.
HPR: What goals did you have coming into this fellowship?
KH: I wanted to share with these students that we need more people engaged in politics. We need to encourage young folks across the country to go exercise their constitutional right to vote. It is something that our Constitution gives us, but not enough people exercise it. What I’m seeing across the country is the Republican Party trampling down on the constitutional right to vote. Our general assembly in North Carolina has passed the most restrictive voting access law in the country. We’ve got to be sure that people understand that this is infringing on our constitutional rights.
HPR: The focus of your study group at the Institute of Politics is money in politics. How does voting rights fit into this theme?
KH: It’s one of many issues. First of all, money in politics is so pervasive right now because of the Citizens United decision. Democrats had a bill in the Senate that I was a co-sponsor of called the DISCLOSE Act. That means there has to be transparency. Every dollar that is given you have to know who gave it, what’s the employment status. Let’s follow the money. Let’s be able to trace the money—have it be transparent. That’s the disclosure: do away with the secret, secret corporate money that flooded North Carolina. Having just come off the most expensive Senate race in U.S. history, I know the issues that are involved in that. Unless you get engaged, unless you run for office, unless you get elected, we’re not going to be able to fix all the things that our country needs to be fixed right now. That’s where money in politics is so important: to understand it and to be able to say “we got to make change,” and I got to get young people engaged.
HPR: I’m glad you mentioned the last election because some might find it a bit amusing that you went from the most expensive election to a study group focused on money in politics. How might you respond to people that might view this as a bit ironic?
KH: I think it’s factual. I worry how we are going to get good people to run for office if you have to spend so much time raising money. I worry about the Koch brothers and individuals like that using, what’s according to the Supreme Court, their first amendment right of free speech meaning that unlimited money can come into the political fray. They have already committed $900 million for the 2016 elections. Do you have $900 million to commit, and if you don’t, what does that say? That says that their ability to get up on air to use their megaphone of $900 million trumps your right to free speech. I don’t know anybody that has that kind of money that they’re willing to put forward to win elections. That’s a huge, huge issue.
HPR: How much time would you say, rough estimate, did you have to spend raising money for the Senate race?
KH: Too much. I live in North Carolina. I have to travel to Washington, D.C. four to five days a week. In any competitive race you’re doing fundraisers at breakfast, at dinner, and it’s just so much time that should be spent on policy, on drafting legislation, on engaging with constituents back home.
HPR: You talk about partisanship a lot. You’ve been in politics since 1999. How have you seen partisanship evolve in the 16 years that you’ve been in public office?
KH: It has gone from being able to work across the aisle in state legislature for 10 years to an incredibly polarized Senate in Congress that we have right now. […] Now it’s not everywhere. I have Republican Senators who I’ve worked with on many issues, but I think that the Senate is different than the House.
HPR: That said how do you go about addressing these crucial issues in a bicameral system at the state and federal level? What do you see in terms of tangible steps? How do you see progress being accomplished? Does it need to come from grassroots movement and the people?
KH: I think the public needs to get more engaged and they need to understand how crucial these issues are.
HPR: What does engagement look like?
KH: It means definitely showing up to the polls to vote. It means encouraging more people to run. The women of the Senate, Democrats and Republicans, would get together every six weeks for dinner. You became knowledgeable about what other positions were, why they felt that way. It was congenial camaraderie that Democratic and Republican women have, and I think there needs to be more of that across the board. I think one of the things that needs to take place in the Senate—you have these weekly caucuses on Tuesdays and Thursdays not together. I think that once a week the Senate Democrats and Republicans should sit down for lunch with no staff. I think the more you get to know somebody, the easier it is to work together.
Why is a committee dais divided between Republican and Democrat? Why isn’t it Democrat and Republican just around the table? You can sit in these committees for hours on end. If you had the opportunity to discuss things elbow to elbow, I think those things are minor, minor, minor, but could make a difference.
HPR: The 2016 elections have essentially been upon us since before 2014. Now with the recent Ted Cruz announcement, it is very much within the national conversation. One, how do you see yourself involved, and two, what does the message need to be for the Democrats in 2016?
KH: I think the issue is how does any race impact the voter. For me in North Carolina, it’s jobs, jobs, jobs. We as Democrats have got to take hold of the economy and do a much better job of explaining to the people of North Carolina and the national public that we’re better off with Democrats in charge. When I came to the US Senate in 2009, we were hemorrhaging 700,000 jobs a month. The economy had tanked. The Dow had gone to 6,000. Gas prices during my tenure in the Senate had gone up to close to $4/gallon. You look at happened in those six years. We’re now producing more oil than Saudi Arabia. The stock market is at an all-time high at over 18,000. Gas prices are $2.40/gallon. We, meaning Democrats, need to take hold: 12 million new jobs, unemployment rates from 12.5% down to 5.5%. We didn’t sell that as Democrats, and we need between now and 2016 to show the American people that the auto industry has been saved. There’s 365,000 new jobs in the auto industry in this country. We need to take hold and really put that forward to the American public.
HPR: People on the Democratic side seem to be pushing for a woman, whether that is Hillary Clinton or Elizabeth Warren. Do you think 2016 could be an opportunity to galvanize women and get them into politics? Do you think that you yourself would want to get involved either by running or by supporting a female candidate?
KH: I think that your premise is incorrect. I think people look at elections and think how about how it’s going to impact me, as in the voter. Right now, Hillary Clinton is an incredibly qualified individual who happens to be a woman, and the Democrats certainly see her as someone who can help this country. At the same time, I hope to have our first female U.S. president. I think women need to get engaged. I think women need to open up their pocketbooks. I think that women need to be sure to help with campaigns across the country at the school board level, the city council, the state legislature, all the way up to the president. One thing I’ve found through research is that women still need to be recruited to run for office. I still tell every group that I talk to, there’s never a perfect time to run. You can’t wait for that perfect time to run. You also are qualified. I think that sometimes women feel, “Oh I need to get my M.B.A., or I need to do this or that before I’m qualified.” Typically, men don’t have that issue. I always encourage women that we need you, you’re qualified, and the only way you’re going win is to register to put your name on that ballot to run.
HPR: Do you have an interest in serving in public office again?
KH: I’m at the stage right now where I’m not saying yes and I’m not saying no. It has been a great honor to serve, and I think I’ve truly made a difference in other people’s lives.
HPR: Do you see yourself getting involved without necessarily running?
KH: Again, I’m not saying yes and I’m not saying no, but you better believe that I’m involved.
Update (4/16/15): On April 8, 2015, this interview mistakenly mischaracterized content from an Oct 10, 2011 New Yorker magazine article. The HPR interview incorrectly characterized the New Yorker article as attributing over $40 million in spending on North Carolina state politics to Mr. Art Pope. In actuality, the New Yorker article in question attributed $40 million in spending to the Pope family, its family foundation and business—the vast majority of which was directed toward “nonpartisan policy groups.” The HPR interview also mistakenly characterized a past professional position held by Mr. Pope. This interview has since been corrected.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Image Credit: The Institute of Politics at Harvard University