Sen. Hagan: Obama should have praised economy during campaign

U.S. Senator Kay Hagan pauses after delivering her concession speech on Nov. 4, 2014
U.S. Senator Kay Hagan pauses after delivering her concession speech on Nov. 4, 2014 MCT

President Barack Obama could have done more to help Senate Democrats in last month’s elections if he’d spoken out about the nation’s healthy economy and its positive impact on middle-class families, Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina said Wednesday in her first interview since her narrow defeat.

“You look at the economy right now,” she said, and ticked off a list of developments that Obama could have trumpeted during the recent campaign: gas prices are low; the stock market is at an all-time high and jobs continue to grow, unlike the situation in 2009 when she first came into office, Hagan said.

“The president hasn’t used the bully pulpit to get that message out in a way that resonates with people,” Hagan said during an interview in her Capitol Hill office, which she will have to vacate this month after a single six-year term. “And I think that’s an issue that the Democrats should not cede.”

She lost her bid for a second term to Thom Tillis, the Republican speaker of the North Carolina state House of Representatives. It was largely a neck-in-neck race that Hagan lost by two percentage points. It was also the most expensive Senate contest in the country, with the total bill somewhere north of $110 million, though the final numbers aren’t yet available.

“Obviously I was disappointed with the outcome of the election because there was so much I wanted to get done in a second term,” she said.

Hagan ran on the need to increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10, which Tillis opposed. A higher minimum wage has a lot of popular support, she said, noting that voters in four states passed increases to state-level minimum wages.

But she didn’t campaign on those national economic gains.

“If you saw the tidal wave,” she said, referring to losses her party suffered round the country and up and down the ballot, “it’s obvious it needed to be a national message.”

Yet Hagan also distanced herself from Obama, as did the other Senate Democrats who lost as Republicans won control of the chamber. She met with him at the airport when he visited North Carolina to give a speech. But with his public approval ratings low, she didn’t want him campaigning for her.

As for her future, the 61-year lawmaker from Greensboro said she hadn’t decided her plans.

Predictably, as the state’s most prominent Democrat and fundraising veteran, her name is at the top of the list of potential challengers to her Republican North Carolina colleague, Sen. Richard Burr, whose seat is up in 2016.

“I am not making any decisions right now,” she said.

Instead, she said she’s thinking about her second grandchild, whose birth is expected any day, and her first one, 1-year-old Harrison. Also in the plans: “Definitely spending time with my family, who I haven’t seen a lot of in the last two years.”

First, though, there’s a busy Senate schedule through much of December. One bill expected to clear both the House of Representatives and the Senate is the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015. The legislation includes a Hagan amendment to halt the inactivation of the 440th Airlift Wing at Fort Bragg. Inactivation of the unit was part of the president’s 2015 budget proposal and would result in the loss of 1,100 full-time and part-time jobs.

The amendment would require the Air Force to issue a report outlining its justification for the decision. In the meantime, the Air Force would have to stop C-130H and C-130J aircraft transfers until 60 days after the report is submitted. The Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan agency that investigates how the government spends money, would review the report, and then there would be time for congressional review.

Hagan’s amendment was included in the Senate version of the legislation in May, but not in the bill passed by the House of Representatives. Negotiators from both chambers had to reconcile differences and her measure made the final bill. It is expected to pass both chambers this month.

“I’m really pleased because I don’t think the Air Force can justify what they’ve said,” Hagan said.

Loss of the 440th Airlift Wing would mean that the 82nd Airborne Division, the infantry division of the Army that specializes in parachute landings, would have no planes at Pope Army Airbase, the runway for Fort Bragg, she said.

Looking back, Hagan said the partisan gridlock was “very disappointing to have to fight and work around.” She said she’s proud of her five field offices, which she said solved 36,875 constituent cases, and her Washington staff, who kept her up to speed on the issues.

“And obviously, when I look back, the Camp Lejeune water issue _ the fact that when we got in office we immediately hit the trail hard on that,” she said.

The legislation, passed in 2012 with support from Hagan and Burr, provided health care for veterans and reimbursement for family members who suffered from cancer and other diseases due to contaminated water at the North Carolina Marine Corps base.

One bill she’d like to see clear Congress in the weeks ahead is the Newborn Screening Saves Lives Act, which Hagan introduced with Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah. The bill would improve programs that screen newborn babies for conditions that could cause disabilities, illness or death if left untreated.

Some Republican senators reportedly have held up the legislation over privacy concerns over the use of newborns’ DNA. Hagan said the problem is close to being resolved and expects the bill would pass.

Hagan said she’d like to see Republicans and Democrats sit down together more often. The senators separate into their party caucuses once a week for lunches, but she suggested that every other week members of both parties should eat together and talk.

The 20 women members of the Senate are already doing it. Their get-togethers have been coordinated by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. Hagan hosted a dinner for women senators in September at the Library of Congress. At those gatherings, she said, “everything’s on the table, and it stays in the room.”

The benefit is camaraderie, Hagan said, adding that a little more of that in the Senate can only be helpful.