LILESVILLE, N.C. — It was after 11:30 a.m. Wednesday when I pulled up to the small country restaurant with a nine-foot rooster out front.
An unhinged semi-trailer sat in the gravel lot. I peered into the window hoping to see perhaps the most elusive Democrat in North Carolina – U.S. Rep. Larry Kissell.
It was just an hour’s drive from Charlotte and the Democratic National Convention where thousands of faithful, hard-core Democrats have joined together for the biggest political party the state has ever experienced.
So where the heck is Kissell, the Biscoe Democrat who is in a fight to keep his seat in the 8th Congressional District.
The congressman would meet me, I was told Tuesday night, when he traveled to Lilesville in Anson County, about 60 miles from Charlotte, to meet voters and have lunch before heading to Union County. I was told I’d be contacted the next morning with a specific meeting point.
But the call never came. My calls were never returned.
Kissell is a familiar face at The Old Store, a former gas station that is now part-restaurant, part-convenience store and part-antique shop. It seemed like a good place to find the congressman since it’s the only restaurant open for lunch on Wednesdays in this town of less than 600. Staff refer to him as Mr. Kissell.
“He does come by quite a bit, but I haven’t seen him today,” said Joy Hildreth, owner of The Old Store. “Maybe he’ll show up.”
Ask Republicans, and they’ll tell you Kissell’s face should be on a “Wanted” poster.
Republican U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry of Cherryville is taking a life-size cutout of the Congressman to interviews. And the National Republican Congressional Committee parked a car outside Kissell’s Concord office Wednesday morning offering to bring him to the convention. Kissell is seen as one of the most vulnerable Democrats after redistricting added heavily Republican areas of Rowan, Davidson and Randolph counties to the newly mapped 8th District.
Redistricting also removed thousands of Democratic voters in Charlotte and Fayetteville.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has reserved $1.2 million to defeat Kissell. Executive Director Guy Harrison called Kissell the “weakest incumbent in the country.”
Could it work?
But Kissell has been in this position before. He survived the 2010 Republican onslaught by carefully tending to the temperament of the conservative voters back home.
In recent months, he’s taken the tactic that in order to win re-election, he must steer clear of President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party. In addition to skipping the convention, Kissell has also voted repeatedly to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature health care plan. His tactics could be working in Lilesville.
While some residents thought it was “odd” or “weird” that Kissell was skipping the convention, most residents who spoke to me said they saw the decision as a sign of independence.
At the restaurant, Hildreth spoke of Kissell highly, but declined to give her opinion about Obama.
“He’s actually the only Democrat that I’d vote for,” said Bob Britton, eating a chicken salad sandwich at the store. “He’s the only Democrat who hasn’t done something to make me dislike him.”
Tony Hanna, 65, a Democrat, said people think differently in the part of central North Carolina near the peach orchards.
“We’re conservative Democrats,” Hanna said. “A lot of things the Democrats say that I don’t like. I can’t see anyone here approving of homosexual marriage. This is religious country.”
‘Kind of weird’
Kissell and his staff have dismissed the controversy about him missing the convention as D.C. politics.
Kissell has said that too much of the focus in Washington has been placed on loyalty to the party.
It’s something that appears to resonate in this part of town.
David Jenkins, a Republican, said it was “kind of weird” that Kissell missed the convention, since it is so close.
But he said it shows Kissell is thinking for himself and is not letting the party think for him.
“I don’t care for Obama,” said Jenkins, “but I’ll vote for Kissell.”
Late Wednesday, Kissell’s staff called to say that his plans had changed at the last minute. Instead of Lilesville, Kissell spent the day knocking on doors in Rowan County and Stanly County.
Anything to avoid the convention in Charlotte.