Kay Hagan, North Carolina's first female Democratic senator, has died

Former U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina dies

Hagan died Monday at her home after a long illness

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

"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," her family said in a statement.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president, said he saw Hagan when he visited Durham on Sunday. "She was a champion for North Carolina and a fierce defender of all its citizens," Biden said. "She stood for women's rights and marriage equality, not because it was politically popular, but because it was right."

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She was crucial to passing the 2009 Recovery Act, an economic stimulus package, and the Affordable Care Act, he said. "Her political courage helped pull our country out of recession and made life better for millions of her fellow Americans," Biden said.

Hagan defeated North Carolina's first female Republican U.S. senator, Elizabeth Dole, to become the state's first female Democratic senator. She served a single term in the Senate and lost her 2014 reelection bid to Republican North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis.

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Tillis, who is seeking reelection next year, said in a statement that Hagan had a "dedicated and distinguished record of public service to our state and nation."

Gov. Roy Cooper ordered all U.S. and North Carolina flags at state buildings, facilities and grounds to be lowered to half-staff immediately through sunset Tuesday.

"Kay was a fierce advocate for North Carolina, and she represented our state with courage and grace her entire career," Cooper said. "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. North Carolina is mourning one of our best today."

Hagan was born in Shelby, North Carolina, on May 26, 1953. She spent most of her childhood in Lakeland, Florida, where she worked on the mayoral campaigns of her father, Joe Ruthven. She also helped campaign for her maternal uncle, former Florida Gov. and U.S. Sen. Lawton Chiles. 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 later became Bank of America, where she became a vice president in the estates and trust division. After being a stay-at-home mother, Hagan launched her own political career and won a seat as a Democrat in the North Carolina state Senate in 1998.

Ten years later, the still largely unknown state legislator sought and won the U.S. Senate seat held by Dole.

Though initially reluctant, 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.

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