Following a commitment service challenging members at First Baptist Church in Biscoe, N.C., to make a difference in the world, Larry Kissell came to his pastor and said, “I think I’m going to run for Congress.”
“I knew it was like a call,” Pastor Larry Wilson told EthicsDaily.com.
It also set off a potential David-and-Goliath battle. Kissell, 55, an unknown and under-funded political newcomer, faced four-term Rep. Robin Hayes, R-N.C., the fourth-richest man in Congress, for North Carolina’s 8th District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Surprising even the national Democratic Party, which declined to fund the campaign, regarding it a lost cause, Kissell finished in a virtual dead heat with the incumbent in Tuesday’s election.
Hayes declared victory after an initial count showed him 468 votes ahead of Kissell, out of 120,000 ballots cast. During the night, however, Kissell picked up another 122 votes due to a reporting error, cutting the margin to 346.
With up to 1,492 provisional ballots still to be counted by 10 days after the election, the outcome remains in doubt.
Provisional ballots are used when there is some question about whether a voter is eligible. It can involve a variety of reasons, such as inaccurate or outdated information like a new address or misspelled name.
Provisional votes are counted only if a voter’s eligibility is verified. Introduced by federal law in 2002, the provisional ballot was introduced by the Congressional Black Caucus to protect African-Americans wrongly dropped from voter rolls in Republican-controlled states.
Depending on where the provisional ballots come from, Kissell remains confident that victory is still within reach, his pastor said Friday.
Win or lose, Wilson told EthicsDaily.com, Kissell has already made a difference.
“It was just a really fantastic kind of thing,” Wilson said of the campaign. “I don’t think people around here will ever feel like they just have to settle for things,” Wilson said. “That has all changed.”
Kissell, a lifelong Democrat and deacon at First Baptist, Biscoe, worked in sales and other jobs for 27 years in the textile industry. Observing the impact of free trade legislation on the domestic textile industry, Kissell saw the writing on the wall and five years ago got his teaching certificate and began teaching social studies at a local high school. Two years later the plant where he formerly worked closed for good.
“A lot of people around here were mill workers,” said Wilson, 22-year pastor at the small church affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. “A lot of people don’t have a job any more and some are working at Wal-Mart. If you work at Wal-Mart you can’t afford to shop there.”
Hayes alienated many of those constituents when he switched his vote in 2005 at the last moment to secure passage of a free-trade agreement with Central America. After saying for weeks he opposed CAFTA, Hayes saved President Bush an embarrassing defeat by helping the bill pass the House 217-215.
Hayes claimed he changed his vote after receiving concessions the U.S. would give attention to challenges posed by trade with China, but it was widely viewed as capitulation to the Republican Party.
A multi-millionaire, Hayes is owner and operator of Mt. Pleasant Hosiery Mills. He is grandson of Charles Cannon, the man who ran the Cannon Mills textile company for much of the 20th century, and an heir to the family’s wealth.
Going into the final weeks of the campaign with a war chest of $1.2 million, Hayes outspent his challenger 15-1. Kissell made up the deficit by door-to-door campaigning, a method normally used in smaller state and local elections.
“It was as grassroots as it could be,” his pastor said.
On election night, Wilson said, the only people wearing suits at Kissell’s rally were from TV news stations. There wasn’t a professional politician in the bunch, but rather “a lot of little people,” including some his church had helped financially. “A bunch of people you would never expect to make a difference,” he said.
Wilson said he believes one key to Kissell’s success is that he views disenfranchised folks like fellow former textile workers as family.
“Larry has a wide family,” the pastor said.
“Larry’s theology is far different from the Southern Baptist Convention, and mine is too,” Wilson said. “Larry’s very much a person who cares for everybody.”
Kissell is a social conservative, who opposes gun control and is pro-life. He supports withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, because he believes the mission was accomplished when it was found there were no weapons of mass destruction.
His pastor defended him in a local newspaper’s letter to the editor, which accused Kissell of opposing “family values.” The letter later appeared on the political Web log Daily Kos.
“For 27 years Larry was a mill worker,” Wilson wrote. “People who worked with Larry were members of his family. If you are out riding a bicycle with Larry, as I have in the past, you are struck by how many people stop to talk with him because they worked with him at the mill. He would share with me the numerous experiences he has had in different religious traditions, because he had gone to funerals of people who were a part of his work family. One of the reasons Larry is willing to take abuse from people as he runs for Congress is that his FAMILY has been done great injustice by trade agreements that cost so many of them their jobs.
In a story in the Stanly News and Press, Kissell said a commitment to family values means helping working families rise above the poverty line, instead of pushing millions more working families down the economic ladder while giving targeted tax breaks to idle wealth.
“Our families deserve more than empty moral posturing from an incumbent that votes to reduce efforts to collect child support for struggling families, makes it more difficult to obtain student loans and goes out of his way to vote for torture,” he said. “The hard working families of the 8th District and our nation deserve a commitment to education, economic opportunity, civil rights, personal freedoms and the safe, clean environment that we all want for our families.
“We’ve had enough of the nonsense from the incumbent aristocracy in D.C. that has proven they’d rather wedge us apart than bring us together. It’s time for an honest debate on real family values.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.