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Larry Kissell: Red, white and blue


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Congressional candidate Larry Kissell says he became a high school social studies teacher because he loves America. - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE MONTGOMERY HERALD
  • Photo courtesy of The Montgomery Herald
  • Congressional candidate Larry Kissell says he became a high school social studies teacher because he loves America.

When I realized this issue of the Independent would come out on July 4, and especially when I saw our red, white and blue cover, I thought of Larry Kissell, candidate for Congress in the 8th District of North Carolina. Call me sentimental, but I still believe in an America where good people can run for office and sometimes even win, after which maybe they can help pull the country in the right direction and away from the corruption of—well, you know.

No doubt about it, Larry Kissell is good people, regardless of your political views. Or mine.

So, by way of background, here's the best political story in America that almost happened in 2006.

Larry Kissell, social studies teacher at East Montgomery High School, runs for Congress against the four-term incumbent, Republican Rep. Robin Hayes. Kissell, a Democrat, is a teacher in the first place because, after a 27-year career in the textile industry, he saw the handwriting on the wall about his job, his plant, and the entire textile industry of the Carolinas. He became a social studies teacher because he loves America and American history. He's good people because, for one, when he says he loves America, he means it without a stitch of irony or self-regard.

In Hayes, though, he's up against a formidable opponent, a wealthy heir to the Cannon Mills textile fortune who served in the General Assembly, was the Republican candidate for governor in 1996, and has easily held what should be a swing congressional district for eight years on the strength of his gregarious personality. It's not because of his record, anyway. Hayes has cast two very unpopular votes, given his district, in favor of CAFTA—the Central America Free Trade Agreement, which accelerated the departure of American textile plants to the Caribbean basin—and in favor of the "fast-track" authority that prevents Congress from amending a trade deal negotiated by the White House. (It can only vote yes or no.)

By contrast, the plain-spoken Kissell has never run for office. He's a self-described "regular guy," one marriage, two children and a cyclist. The highest post he's ever held: president of the Biscoe Lions Club.

Early on, Kissell isn't even the favorite in the Democratic primary. An Iraq war vet jumps in, and everybody's excited because, though both men are anti-war, this vet is a "fighting Democrat"—except that he soon drops out. Which causes the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), whose job it is to raise money nationally for the close, "targeted" races, to decide that the 8th district is hopeless.

Nor does the DCCC change its mind as Kissell runs a fabulous, grassroots, Internet-driven campaign, including dreaming up such winning stunts as selling gasoline for $1.22 a gallon—the price when Hayes took office.

No, the DCCC polls the race and finds Kissell way behind, so no money for him.

Aw, you know how this one comes out.

Kissell loses—by 329 votes, out of some 120,000.

And after being outspent by Hayes $2.5 million to $780,000.

But no sooner is the counting over than Kissell, without a trace of rancor, announces that he's running again in 2008.

And this time, DCCC Chair Rep. Chris Van Hollan has informed party donors, in a recent conference call recorded by "I told Larry that, come next spring when we put together our 'Red to Blue' program, that this race will be on that list from the start."

Larry Kissell could be the best political story that does happen in 2008 should he upset Hayes this time around. But win or lose, when I started thinking about patriotism this July 4, I thought of Kissell and his students. So I called him.

What do you tell your civics classes about their country?

First and foremost, it's a love of country. But to understand what that love means, you have to know the history of the country and what our beliefs are—that we're a country that has been broad-based and accepting. ... And you want them to understand how unique it is and how great it is, but that with that greatness comes a responsibility that we as citizens have not to take it for granted.

In your campaign, you say the country's gone off track. What do you tell your students about that?

One thing that motivated me [to run] was that I would look into the eyes of these kids and realize they had no idea what my generation was doing to their generation in terms of preparing for the future.... I try to remind them that when you pledge allegiance, it does not mean blind allegiance to what the leadership calls for at any particular moment. That you have an obligation to disagree when you think that is right—and that's why I was offering my opinions versus this administration and the direction they've carried us in so many different ways as basic as the environment, alternative fuels for the future, fiscal responsibility, the war, and the idea of Congress accepting its responsibility as the people's house [that comes first] in the Constitution.

So you decided to run?

I love this country so much, that when I looked at the—what I felt was the growing fear and anger that people were expressing toward their government, that I've never seen before, even through Vietnam, there was a detachment ...I said that this nation's too great for people to feel that way and one of the reasons we do is that we don't think we have options. And I said, whatever happened to the idea that a regular person could run for government? What if somebody, a teacher, ex-textile worker, came out and said this is what I believe? And whether we would be successful or unsuccessful, I felt it was important to offer.

And if you are elected, if Mr. Smith—or Kissell—does go to Washington, how can you be sure you won't become part of the problem?

I hear that question a lot. I think you have to go back to your core values. I stated them on my Web site, the very first thing I did, "Why Washington?" And nowhere does it say that I want to be part of the system, in all regards it's to try to change the system. And I, first and foremost, will always try to be what's best for the district. That will be the driving force at all times. And if that means that I'm going to be in cohesion with my party or in conflict with my party, I've said whether you vote for a bill or not shouldn't be about whether it's Democrat or Republican, it's is it a good or bad bill. And it should be based upon your people, your constituency.... No, and I'm not looking at Washington as—I'm looking to do the things that need to be done, not how do I get in here for life, or what's my next move. That's not who I am.


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