Former Miss America shook up the pageant world. Now she wants to shake up Congress

Former Miss America: This is why we need more women in Congress

Former Miss America Mallory Hagan is running for the seat held by Rep. Mike Rogers in Alabama's 3rd Congressional District. These are excerpts from a recent interview with the Ledger-Enquirer's Chuck Williams.
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Former Miss America Mallory Hagan is running for the seat held by Rep. Mike Rogers in Alabama's 3rd Congressional District. These are excerpts from a recent interview with the Ledger-Enquirer's Chuck Williams.

Note: This article was originally published on February 26, 2018. On June 5, 2018, Mallory Hagan secured the Democratic nomination for Alabama's 3rd congressional district.

Mallory Hagan knows what it’s like to be a long-shot winner.

After graduating from Opelika High School in 2007 and enrolling in Auburn University, she moved to New York City, where she became Miss Brooklyn and then Miss New York. Then on a magical January 2013 night in Las Vegas, the Alabama woman wearing the sash of Miss New York became Miss America.

Talk about the road less traveled.

Now, 29 years old and the spark behind a scandal that took down the top executives in the Miss America organization for inappropriate comments and treatment of her during her tenure as Miss America, Hagan is pointed in another direction.

In January, she resigned her job as a news anchor at WLTZ, the Columbus NBC affiliate, and announced she would run for Congress in a right-leaning 13-county east Alabama district that hugs the Georgia line for more than 100 miles. Running as a Democrat with primary opposition, her target is entrenched Republican Mike Rogers, an Anniston attorney who has spent 16 years in the U.S. House, most of it toeing the party line.

Hagan’s political plan — a work in progress as she sprints toward a June Democratic Primary election against Adia McClellan Winfrey and a possible showdown with Rogers in November — is to challenge the status quo.

“That’s the hope, right?” she said. “Come in, shake things up, get people thinking, and questioning and demanding change, whether that change is through electing me or demanding change of the person who represents them.”

Hagan is working to raise money, locally and nationally, to challenge Rogers, who has nearly $1 million in campaign funds on hand, with no primary opposition.

By the end of March, Hagan would like to have $400,000 banked to show she is serious about this run. She used crowdpac.com, a crowdfunding site for politicians, to begin a fundraising campaign for the seat, raising $20,000 on the site and a total of about $40,000 since she announced in late January.

When talking about what it will take financially to challenge Rogers and get her message out in the 13-county area that is served by three large television markets —Montgomery, Birmingham and Columbus —Hagan does not back away from talk of big numbers.

“Over the course of this campaign, I know that we are going to need a couple of million,” she said. “I do fully intend to raise money both locally and nationally. On crowdpac alone we have more than 400 unique contributors. I don’t think I have seen a donation there larger than $1,000. So, that is quite a few people on board. I am going to have to have the funding or I can’t do what needs to be done to combat a career politician.”

While the money is starting to accumulate, Hagan is confident her unconventional candidacy has gotten Rogers’ attention. It has attracted national media coverage, including a recent interview with the Washington Post for an article under the headline, “The political playbook for 2018: Get angry, then get elected.”

“I will put it this way, when my crowdpac launched, less than 24 hours later ‘Mornings with Mike’ also launched, listening sessions with our congressman in Washington D.C., one day a week,” she said. “I pointed out the fact that our constituents did not feel heard and suddenly they have a once-a-week small window for breakfast with Mike in D.C. to feel heard.”

Smiths Station Mayor Bubba Copeland has watched with interest as Hagan has launched this effort.

“When she started this, my first thought was, ‘This is a new day in politics,’” he said.

And he pointed to two races, the 2016 presidential race in which Republican Donald Trump won over Democrat Hillary Clinton and the 2017 special election for an Alabama U.S. Senate seat in which Democrat Doug Jones defeated embattled Republican Roy Moore.

“There is no doubt right now that people want to be heard,” Copeland said.

Rogers’ press secretary did not respond to email requests for an interview, but Copeland is confident Rogers is taking this challenge seriously.

“I absolutely know he is,” Copeland said. “I know because I have talked to him.”

Hagan said she is not going to back away from a direct challenge of Rogers, who served on the Calhoun County Commission before landing his seat in Congress in 2002 when Bob Riley left to seek the Alabama governor’s office. Asked if she would call Rogers a career politician, Hagan was quick to respond.

“I think 16 years is too long for anyone to be in the U.S. House of Representatives,” she said. “So, yes.”

If she wins the Democratic nomination, Hagan said she will take the fight to Rogers, calling for debates and other ways to show the difference between the two candidates. The voters of Alabama’s 3rd District need to see her and Rogers side by side, she said.

“I think what they will see is someone who genuinely and is authentically trying to create solutions for our district and wants to be part of the conversation rather than shutting people out,” Hagan said. “I think if you put the two of us side by side, that will be glaring.”

If needed, Hagan said she will push hard for Rogers to debate her.

“Why should he not have to?” she said. “If he wants to keep his job, he needs to be willing to fight for it and a debate is part of the interview.”

That might be tricky, Rogers has not had a debate since 2008 when he was challenged by Democrat Joshua Stegall. In 2016, Republican challenger Larry DiChiara, former superintendent for the Phenix City Public Schools, fought hard to get Rogers into a debate. When the primary race started, Rogers had a campaign war chest of about $1.4 million and DiChiara was essentially funding his own run.

“I sent three different groups at him asking for a debate,” DiChiara said. “Each time, he said, ‘Why would I validate his candidacy by debating him?’”

DiChiara lost his primary run 3-to-1. Ironically, he said Hagan has a better shot coming at Rogers from the Democratic left.

“I learned my lesson,” DiChiara said. “I will never run against an incumbent in a primary. ... A Democrat has a better chance because she can raise the money to go against a Republican.”

While it will take money to get the message out, Hagan insists the campaign will be decided on ideas. Asked if she had to put her beliefs on an index card, she said it would touch on three things.

▪  “First and foremost, I believe in creating a culture and a community that is inclusive and safe for all of the kids that live in our state and our country. We need to start looking through the lens of what will this look like for our children and what example are we setting for our children.”

▪  “I care very much about access to affordable health care. ... I quit my job, right? So, here I am having to choose what kind of health care I am going to have the next couple of months, and what is that going to cost me, relative to the fact that I am not employed?”

▪  “Another issue I care very much about is job creation and bringing industry into this space. One of the things that I am most proud of during and after my time as Miss America is the many connections I have made across several different industries.”

How does that contrast with Rogers?

“The thing that least impresses me about Mr. Rogers is his willingness to vote alongside President Trump no matter what,” Hagan said. “That is something he has stated he will do. That doesn’t speak to representing your people. That speaks to being an establishment Republican. While I understand party politics, at the end of the day you are supposed to be a representative of your entire district.”

Hagan plans to take the fight to Rogers’ backyard. She met with the Calhoun County Democrats in Anniston, Roger’s hometown and the core of his base.

“We had just about a standing-room-only Democrats meeting,” she said. “I was well received. People were very curious and asked a lot of questions, and that was great. People were excited to see someone they felt could actually challenge Congressman Rogers.”

In December, some of the problems Hagan had during her 2013 Miss America tenure came to light in a Huffington Post report that disclosed emails showing how Miss America CEO Sam Haskell and other executives’ demeaned the appearance, intellect and personal lives of former winners, including Hagan. Haskell resigned in wake of the scandal.

The emails delved into Hagan’s love life and weight in a non-flattering way.

What has happened in the past, Hagan said, has positioned her for this run for congress.

“I am a firm believer — firm — that everything happens in due time,” Hagan said. “There is no way when I won Miss America that I could have had any idea what was coming in the next five years. I had no idea that year would be so significant. I had no idea that year would follow me around for the rest of my life.

“Should I win this congressional race, you and I both know the headline will say, ‘Former Miss America wins congressional race.’ It will not be Mallory Hagan, former Miss America.”

Chuck Williams: 706-571-8510, @chuckwilliams