Minnesota U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn, an outspoken second-term Republican who said he “ran to be a conservative reinforcement in Congress,” died Thursday night after a long battle with kidney cancer. He was 59.
A former congressman’s son who still lived in Blue Earth, the town where he was born, Hagedorn flipped a blue seat to red in the 2018 midterms, a bright spot for the GOP as Republicans lost seats across the country, then eked out a reelection victory in 2020.
During his time representing the First District, Hagedorn served on committees dealing with agriculture and small business. He pushed for legislation such as the Unlocking Opportunities for Small Businesses Act and the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) Flexibility for Farmers and Ranchers Act.
Hagedorn was among the House Republicans who voted against certifying President Joe Biden’s victory in two swing states after the Jan. 6 insurrection and had also faced ethics concerns involving his congressional office.
Gregg Peppin, who worked on Hagedorn’s congressional campaigns, said the Republican lawmaker was ahead of the curve on issues such as immigration and trade with China — matters that Hagedorn heard about from constituents in his southern Minnesota district.
“He kind of prefaced the Donald Trump concerns about the working man and about the people that were left behind,” Peppin said. “And Jim, I think, knew that better than anybody else, that there were people who weren’t getting a fair shake under the current system and that there needed to be a sea change in how we dealt with some of these issues.”
Gov. Tim Walz, who defeated Hagedorn in congressional races in 2014 and 2016, announced Friday that the state flag would be lowered to half-staff through sunset Saturday in Hagedorn’s memory.
Hagedorn’s wife, Jennifer Carnahan, a former chair of the state Republican Party, said in a Facebook post “there was no stronger conservative in our state” and that “it showed in how he voted, led and fought for our country.”
David FitzSimmons, Hagedorn’s campaign manager during the successful 2018 run, called the Republican lawmaker “tenacious and tireless,” but he also recalled him having a lighthearted side and being “kind of a comic.”
“He was a loving, caring guy,” FitzSimmons said.
Early in his first term, Hagedorn was diagnosed with stage 4 kidney cancer. In the aftermath of surgery, he said during a House floor speech in March 2021 that his doctor said there was “no cancer detected at this time.” He also urged people to “get looked into, because the earliest possible detection of serious illness can literally save your life.”
By July 2021, Hagedorn’s health had taken a turn when he announced that his cancer had returned. His office announced last month that he had tested positive for COVID-19 and was being treated for it at Mayo Clinic.
Hagedorn was up for reelection this fall, and despite the health concerns a campaign spokesman recently said in an e-mail that the congressman was looking “forward to campaigning for a third term.”
Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, who said Hagedorn had served his constituents with “admirable passion,” issued a statement Friday that the vacant First District seat will be filled by a special election.
According to Simon, the governor’s office will set the dates for the filing period, which will likely last for at least two weeks and must end by March 15. A primary will be held May 24 and the special election will take place Aug. 9. Voting will occur within the current district boundaries, not those established in the new state maps announced this week, and the winner of the special election will serve the remainder of Hagedorn’s term. The November race for the seat will run on the standard election-year timetable and take place within the newly redistricted boundaries. The winner of that race will begin representing the district in January 2023.
Hagedorn is the 14th member of Congress from Minnesota to die while in office. The most recent before him include Sen. Hubert Humphrey, 66, who died of cancer in 1978; Rep. Bruce Vento, who died of cancer at 60 in 2000; and Sen. Paul Wellstone, who died in a plane crash near Eveleth at the age of 58 in 2002.
Working to the end
Hagedorn was born into a farm family in 1962. His father, Tom Hagedorn, was active in Republican politics and served in the Minnesota House of Representatives before he was elected to Congress in 1974, eventually serving four terms. Much of the area Hagedorn represented overlapped with his father’s district.
Lon Firchau, Hagedorn’s campaign political director and friend for more than 50 years, recalled a childhood spent playing several sports, swimming and riding bikes. Hagedorn was a particularly good tennis player and golfer, Firchau said.
“He’d make people feel comfortable in a room or a setting, and because of that his humor could come out then,” Firchau said. “A lot of people don’t get the opportunity to see that.”
Hagedorn graduated from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and early in his career worked for Republican U.S. Rep. Arlan Stangeland, who represented Minnesota’s Seventh District for several years. Hagedorn was also a former U.S. Treasury official.
Hagedorn came up short in three bids for Congress before making it on his fourth attempt. After failing for a second time to oust Walz in a close race in 2016, he won in 2018 after Walz chose to run for governor.
“I’m humbled by this opportunity, having seen firsthand my dad do it,” Hagedorn told the Star Tribune as he started his first term in 2019.
The same election that elevated Hagedorn also saw the Democrats take the House, limiting how much he could accomplish in the Republican minority. Hagedorn was reelected to the seat in 2020, defeating repeat DFL challenger Dan Feehan.
During his first term, Hagedorn proved a staunch ally of Trump.
“I’ve said repeatedly since 2016 that of course I support Donald Trump, because I felt like if he’d lost, we’d have lost the country,” Hagedorn said in 2019.
Trump, who campaigned with Hagedorn in 2018, released a statement Friday calling him “a strong and effective legislator for the great people of southern Minnesota” and said he had enjoyed working with him. “He will be greatly missed!” Trump said.
During Hagedorn’s first term, his office spending on constituent mail drew scrutiny. It was later revealed that two companies that received around $453,000 from his office had connections to two of his staffers. In a 2021 report, the Office of Congressional Ethics said it had “uncovered evidence” that showed Hagedorn either was aware or should have been aware “there were irregularities in his franked mail practices.” The report also detailed a potential violation concerning campaign office space.
His attorney said in response to the mailings portion of the report that the Republican “had no knowledge of the underlying issues” and had reported the situation to the House Ethics committee.
Hagedorn also faced questions after his campaign and an associated committee received $21,000 in political donations from Anton “Tony” Lazzaro, who was later arrested on federal sex-trafficking charges. Hagedorn pledged that contributions made to his campaign from Lazzaro would “be donated to charities in southern Minnesota.”
Carnahan, Hagedorn’s wife, resigned in August as chair of the state Republican Party owing to her political ties with Lazzaro, as well as other allegations surrounding her leadership of the party.
Following the 2020 presidential election, Hagedorn supported a failed legal attempt to invalidate 62 of Biden’s electoral college votes. He also objected to certifying Biden’s 2020 election victory in Arizona and Pennsylvania, one of only two Minnesota lawmakers to do so.
Still, he was saluted Friday by Democrats and Republicans alike from across Minnesota. Democratic Rep. Dean Phillips called Hagedorn “a fierce advocate for small businesses.”
“I respected him because in an era where people seem to change their political stripes based on which way the winds are blowing, he was consistent while many others had changed,” Phillips said.
“I think we all know that his battle against cancer went on and on, and he showed a level of determination that should inspire all of us,” Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar said of Hagedorn in a Zoom call.
Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, who like Hagedorn turned a Democratic seat red in the 2018 election, said his colleague “served with passion.”
“He loved his district, he loved the citizens,” Stauber said. “And he worked right to the end.”
Peppin said it was Hagedorn’s “lifelong dream” to represent southern Minnesota in Congress as his father had done.
“When he got to realize that, it just was something that was very important to him and something that he just really, really longed to do,” Peppin said. “I’m thankful that he got the chance to do that, and heartbroken that he wasn’t able to continue to live out that dream.”
As of Friday evening, no information had been released about other survivors or funeral arrangements.
Staff writers Briana Bierschbach, Jessie Van Berkel, Stephen Montemayor and Jana Hollingsworth contributed to this report.