N.C. Black Leadership Caucus group pulls support for Democrat Kissell

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 6, 2012 

— A Democratic Party feud emerged Thursday as African-American backers of U.S. Rep. Larry Kissell pulled their support after his decision not to endorse President Barack Obama and his plan to vote to repeal the health care law.

The N.C. 8th Congressional District Black Leadership Caucus political action committee, meeting in Hamlet, announced it would not endorse Kissell, a Biscoe Democrat, and discussed whether to back a write-in candidate.

“He has refused to endorse or support the president, has said he will vote to repeal the health care bill, and will just do anything that he can to be antagonistic to the president,” said caucus member Walter Rogers of Laurinburg. “We will not endorse or support Larry Kissell in his bid for re-election.”

Four years ago, Obama helped Kissell oust five-term Republican Robin Hayes when a flood of black voters in the 8th District rushed to the polls to elect the nation’s first African-American president.

A lot has happened in the past four years. Reapportionment reshaped the 8th District, making it even more Republican – and white. Registered black voters dropped from nearly 30 percent to 19 percent in his new district.

Kissell said Thursday that some of the people who are criticizing him for taking an independent position are the same people who criticized his predecessor, Hayes, for blind loyalty to the party and President George W. Bush.

“I am my own man, and I vowed from the very first day I sought this office that I would not cave in to political or partisan pressures,” he said. “As the congressman for the entire 8th District, it is my job to act in a way I feel serves the best interest of all the citizens of our district.”

Kissell was also one of 17 Democrats who voted last week with Republicans to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in criminal contempt of Congress. Holder is the nation’s first African-American attorney general.

Kissell, who faces the winner of a GOP primary runoff on July 17, also told the Observer that he isn’t sure he’ll attend his party’s national convention in Charlotte.

In Washington, the Congressional Black Caucus has had several discussions about conservative Democratic members who they see as voting against the interest of minorities and low-income families, according to U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a Wilson Democrat.

Butterfield said he told Kissell Thursday that he had started a “firestorm” in the party.

“It’s disgusting to me that a Democratic member of Congress, who was elected with the votes of thousands of uninsured people, would choose to vote against health care reform,” Butterfield said. “And now (he) has pledged again to repeal health care reform. That’s even after the Supreme Court has found it to be constitutional.”

Earlier signs of dissent

It’s not the first time African-American voters have been disillusioned with Kissell.

Two years ago, he faced similar criticism while running for his second term after voting against the health care bill, considered the Obama administration’s signature legislative victory. Rogers said he and others “held their nose” and endorsed Kissell, hoping the current term would be better.

But the anger has only increased as Kissell voted multiple times against the health care plan that could help as many as 30,000 uninsured children in the district as well 110,000 uninsured adults – many from minority communities, according to the House Energy & Commerce committee.

Kissell is choosing pragmatism over principle, says Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College. Where black voters once made up one-third of his voters, they’re now almost equal to the number of unaffiliated white voters. Polls show Obama continuing to struggle among white voters in North Carolina.

“What Kissell is doing is being pragmatic, looking at his district and saying their voice has been reduced,” Bitzer said. “I may have to alienate part of my party faithful to get the people that I really need to get – white conservative independents in that district in order to get re-elected.”

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