5 Republicans, 1 Dem seek to oust US Rep. Kissell

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 22, 2012

CHARLOTTE (AP) — Four years after being elected to Congress in the same year that Barack Obama won North Carolina, Democratic U.S. Rep. Larry Kissell faces a tough re-election contest in a district that has been redrawn to favor Republicans.
Kissell must first fend off a May 8 primary challenge from a fellow Democrat, Lumberton lawyer Marcus Williams. If Kissell prevails, he will compete against the winner of a five-candidate GOP primary in the sprawling 8th District, which extends across parts of 12 counties.
Running on the GOP side are state Rep. Fred Steen II, a two-term legislator and small business owner from Landis; Richard Hudson, owner of Cabarrus Marketing Group; Vernon Robinson, a businessman in new media marketing and sales; Dr. Scott Keadle, a dentist in Salisbury, and Dr. John Whitley, a physician and neurosurgeon.
Despite changes to the district and the heightened interest among Republicans in his job, Kissell is optimistic about his chances.
“The reason we have been successful — and the reason we will be successful again — is because I understand the issues of this district,” Kissell said. “It’s the same issues that people are concerned about. They are concerned about their jobs, their loss of jobs. And that’s what we’ve been concentrating on ever since I’ve been in Washington.”
Kissell, a former textile worker and high school history teacher, is seeking his third two-year term. He was first elected in 2008 unseating Republican Robin Hayes, the grandson of textile magnate Charles Cannon. Kissell had failed in his first bid to defeat Hayes in 2006.
But that was a different 8th District.
The new district includes more traditionally Republican areas and some of the state’s fastest growing counties, mostly on the outskirts of Charlotte. But it also still contains predominantly rural counties with some of the highest unemployment rates in North Carolina. That’s due in part to the shuttering of textile plants, once a critical part of the state’s economy.
The redrawn district includes a sliver of Mecklenburg County and takes in all or parts of the counties of Cabarrus, Union, Randolph, Rowan, Davidson, Stanly, Anson, Montgomery, Richmond, Scotland and Robeson.
J. Michael Bitzer, a political historian at Catawba College, said the newly redrawn district will benefit Republicans. With the new boundaries,  2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain would have carried the district with 57 percent of the vote.
Before redistricting,  nearly half of the registered voters were Democratic, nearly 28 percent were Republican and about 23 percent were unaffiliated. In the newly redrawn district, nearly 46 percent are registered Democrats, 33 percent are Republicans and 21 percent are unaffiliated.
“In my experiences, when a district gets to 33-35 percent GOP registered voters, that tends to be the threshold that Republicans tend to win in,” he said.
Williams said he’s challenging Kissell in part because of the redrawn boundaries. The Democrat lives in a section of Robeson County in the new district.  “I grew up here. I share many of the values of the people who live here,” he said.
Williams called himself a fiscal conservative, but he also said it’s important to aggressively approach the district’s most pressing issue: Jobs. And that could mean turning to the federal government to help small businesses expand, such as with low-interest loans.
“You can’t cut your way to prosperity — especially when you have counties with high unemployment. You have to have some capital infusion,” Williams said.
According to the Federal Election Commission’s website, Kissell had raised $527,000 and spent $185,000 as of Dec. 31, and figures for Williams were not available.
Among Republicans, Robinson had raised about $354,000 and spent $297,000; Hudson took in $260,000 and spent $22,000; Keadle had raised $173,000 and spent $65,000; Whitley had taken in $55,000 and spent $30,000; and Steen had raised $20,000 and spent $1,000.
The Republican candidates all say they want to reduce the size of the federal government, including eliminating some agencies. They say the budget deficit is a drag on the economy. They also want to do away with government regulations that they say hurt efforts to create jobs. All favor repealing the federal health care overhaul.
Born and raised in Rowan County, Steen worked in a textile mill for years before he and his wife opened a floral shop in Kannapolis. He also runs a real estate business. He said the area has faced tough economic times, noting that his wife lost her job a few years ago when a textile company suddenly closed a plant.
“A lot of good people were hurt,” he said.
Steen said his experience in the state legislature will help in Washington. He said he had to make tough decisions, including cutting programs to help balance the state’s budget. He said his deep local roots will help him.
“I tell people I’m from here. I lived here. I own a business here. When I die, I’ll be buried here. And when I say that, most people say, ‘You don’t have to tell me anything else. That’s all I need to know,'” Steen said,
For Hudson, a congressional seat is a local next step in his political career. He worked on the campaigns of several GOP congressional candidates, including Hayes.
“I’ve been a grassroots conservative activist and a behind-the-scenes problem-solver my entire career. And I had not planned to run for public office…But I just got to the point in middle-end of last year that I was just fed up with the way things were going in Washington,” Hudson said.
He said he is especially frustrated with Kissell, who he says “talks like a conservative back home” but acts differently in Washington.
He ticked off a string of Kissell votes, including supporting Obama’s economic stimulus package in 2009, which Hudson said didn’t create new jobs and increased the deficit. He also accused Kissell of being pro-union and not doing enough to push for jobs in the district.
“Folks are hurting and they don’t feel like Washington is listening to them. There’s a lot of frustration out there,” Hudson said.
Encouraging economic development is critical, he said.
“It’s hard to replace those (textile) jobs. But the way to replace them is not to hunt the big white elephant and bring in a Toyota plant. Those aren’t realistic goals for communities. But the way to create jobs is by expanding businesses that are already there, and having entrepreneurs in those communities go out and take a risk. But there are barriers that the federal government has put up to stop entrepreneurs,” he said.
Robinson blamed excessive government spending for the nation’s economic problems.
“I believe the Republic is hanging by a thread. We are borrowing 43 cents on the dollar and spending it on things that are clearly unconstitutional. I want to go to Congress to shrink the size and scope of government,” he said. That includes reforming Medicare and Medicaid.
Robinson also has used social media to build support.
“I have financed this campaign with 6,000 contributions averaging $50 or less from individuals. My campaign is not financed by the favor factory: Lobbyists, lawyers, leadership PACS and access donors — the Washington hangers-on. If I’m elected, I will be representing them — not the Washington insiders,” he said.
Keadle also said he is worried about the country’s direction.
“I see America going off a cliff — being led by the clowns in Washington. When I talk to people in my dental office every day, almost all of them think that the government is responsible for this. And I concur,” he said.
Health care is the issue that propelled Dr. Whitley into the race. He said he is worried that the health care overhaul is the first step in the government takeover of the health care system, and strongly opposes the government mandate that individuals buy insurance.
“The government does not have the authority to tell you, me or anyone that you must go out and buy a product,” Whitley said. “Does it make sense that people have insurance? Absolutely. But you don’t force people to go purchase a product and, if you don’t, we’re going to penalize you by charging you a lot of money.”
He also said he would encourage economic policies that would make U.S. businesses competitive.
“We have to begin producing things again….We used to be the leader in manufacturing and we lost that. Now we have become a nation of consumers,” he said.