Politics & Government

New Congressman faces the 'magnitude of the job' in Washington

WASHINGTON — Larry Kissell pulled into town after dark to a "stirring sight," the grand U.S. Capitol awash with light, and the magnitude of the job before him settled in.

"It was just a great sense of humbleness and recognizing the task that I'd been entrusted with – and a great deal of enthusiasm with the opportunity to be part of this change," said Kissell, the high school civics teacher who beat five-term incumbent Robin Hayes to represent North Carolina's 8th Congressional District in the U.S. House.

Though he won't be sworn in until Jan. 6, Kissell got a taste of what serving in Congress is like this week, as one of more than 50 newly elected officials attending freshmen orientation.

They learned the basics – such as how to cast a vote, how to evacuate in an emergency, and how to stay out of ethical trouble.

And they learned how easy it is to get turned around in the cavernous Capitol and its adjacent office buildings and underground tunnels.

"Outside the Capitol, from building to building I'm fine,” Kissell said. "Inside, there are still a lot stairways and hallways."

On Friday, Kissell drew 23rd in a freshman lottery for office space and ended up on the storied fifth floor of the Cannon Building, notorious because only some of the building's elevators will go to that level. Currently occupied by fellow North Carolinian Heath Shuler, a Waynesville Democrat who was just elected to a second term, it's in one of three buildings for House members across Independence Avenue from the Capitol.

Earlier in the week, Kissell showed his political instincts for Washington's ways – choosing to stay mum on how he voted on an important leadership election and on which committee seats he's lobbying for.

One decision Kissell already has made is to open a third office back in the district, on the eastern end, to serve Hoke and Cumberland counties, in addition to offices in Cabarrus and Richmond counties.

Kissell also chose a chief of staff: Leanne Powell managed his winning campaign as well as his 2006 bid that fell 330 votes short of defeating Hayes. She also worked for former Rep. Bill Hefner, and has worked as a political consultant since 1999.

Powell will be based in North Carolina, rather than in Washington, as is more common.

"We put tremendous emphasis on the district," said Kissell, who represents parts of Mecklenburg, Union and Cabarrus counties, among others. "The most concise piece of advice I've gotten is remember that your job title and job description are the same thing – representative," he said.

Rep. Mel Watt of Charlotte, a fellow Democrat, had two tips for Kissell: "Good constituent service, and go home."

"Don't get all caught up in what's happening here," Watt said he told him. "As a freshman, you're not going to accomplish a whole lot other than voting for other people's stuff. That's not how you're going to be evaluated at the end of two years."

Kissell said he'll continue to live in his hometown, Biscoe, a town of 1,754 people about 70 miles east of Charlotte. While in Washington, he'll stay in a small basement apartment about eight blocks from the Capitol.

For now, there's no congressional pin on his lapel to identify him as a member of Congress. Hanging from his neck was a name tag with the number 111 – as in, the 111th Congress which convenes in January.

Kissell is among the least experienced freshmen – only a few have no prior political service. But he's used his week wisely, meeting with chairmen and other lawmakers to lobby for slots on the committees he wants, said Rep. David Price, a Chapel Hill Democrat who acts as Kissell's mentor.

"He's not wasting any time," Price said. "He's a smart fellow, a quick study. He looks before he leaps, he sizes up a situation before he asserts himself."

That showed this week when Kissell got his first taste of being lobbied, as two long-serving lawmakers battled over the chairmanship of the influential Energy and Commerce Committee.

"There are legitimate arguments both ways. I've done my homework," said Kissell, who wouldn't say how he would vote.

Between meetings this past week, Kissell was soaking in what he could, and feeling part of history.

"As a civics teacher, you cannot escape that feeling of responsibility, the significance of what we are entrusted to do, and the history of those who came before us," he said. "There have been less than 12,000 people who have ever served in Congress."

One of the most significant meetings for him came Monday when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., brought freshmen, both Democrats and Republicans, together on the House floor in a gesture of bipartisanship.

"There's a great sense of we need to work together, and take on the nation's problems together," he said.

Kissell said he's not worried about becoming ungrounded on Capitol Hill.

"I always say I've got a 93-year-old mom at home who told me if I lost my way she'd come help me straighten it out as she has done all my life," he jokes. "I have confidence in the people around me that together we can stay directed. I remember why I took this giant step and as a school teacher saying I was going to run for Congress.…I know where I want to go. I'm not worried… I’m too far along in who I am."