Mill Hill Populism

Mill Hill Populism

Meet the new face of economic politics in post-NAFTA North Carolina.



It’s a bright, mellow, short-sleeve April evening in the troubled pinelands of south central North Carolina. Except for the waspish drone of lawnmowers and the occasional whoosh of a car sliding along Highway 220, this town of 1,700 is almost eerily quiet–partly because, with gas costing what it does, people can’t afford to do much driving around. But it’s mostly because of the big yawning silence at the center of Biscoe, where the mill used to be.

“This was the old Springs plant,” says Larry Kissell, pointing up a street formerly known as Mill Hill to a sprawling, low-slung series of connected buildings showing no sign of life. “It had, in its heyday, seven, eight hundred people.” That’s almost half the town’s population. “People weren’t getting rich, but there were good jobs. Good benefits. And of course it’s gone. Just the heart and soul of Biscoe. This is one of those mills, they’d blow the whistle at 7 and 12 and 3–you always knew what time it was, based on the mill whistle.”

The Springs plant was an early casualty in the outsourcing plague that began to hit North Carolina after NAFTA and accelerated in this decade–and has socked the textile-heavy 8th Congressional District like a series of never-ending tornadoes. “Textiles were the sacrificial lamb” in NAFTA, says Kissell, a Democrat who’s running, for the second time, to become Congress’s first Gentleman from Biscoe. “I think everybody knew that was gonna happen.”

But nobody predicted just how rough it was going to get down here, or how fast. North Carolina, first in the South for its share of jobs in manufacturing, long benefited from a form of outsourcing. Decades ago Northern manufacturers shifted jobs to low-wage, Southern states with severe restrictions on organized labor. Now the “old economy” parts of all these states are reeling from the post-NAFTA version of outsourcing. Since 1993 North Carolina has bled more than 200,000 manufacturing jobs, according to state government estimates–one-fourth of its total. The pace of closures isn’t slacking, either. Last year 10 percent of the state’s textile jobs were lost, with at least 10,000 more manufacturing workers out of luck. In Biscoe after Biscoe, unemployment keeps climbing. Even in relatively prosperous Cumberland County, with its two expanding military bases, Wal-Mart is the number-one private employer. “Good jobs are coming to North Carolina,” says Kissell. “They’re just not coming here.”

It’s a gnawingly familiar story in too many communities up North. Down here, people are still in shock. And nobody speaks for them more truly than Kissell. As the Democratic presidential campaign heads toward a showdown in North Carolina on May 6, the candidates–who’ve been beating the populist drums vigorously but not always convincingly–would do well to take a listen. And maybe take a stroll down Mill Hill.

Now a high school social studies teacher, Larry Kissell previously worked twenty-seven years in an even larger (and now closed) textile plant in neighboring Star. Kissell hinged his dark-horse campaign in 2006 on his intimate understanding not only of how people have been kicked in the pocketbook but in the gut as well. “We didn’t have time to transition,” he says, ambling down Mill Hill for an hour’s worth of door-to-door campaigning. “It was gone. It was gone. And so much of the structure of the town just left us.”

Kissell was one of the luckier ones: a Wake Forest University graduate who was able to land a job at East Montgomery High when the end was nigh for his plant. But when he decided to challenge four-term incumbent Robin Hayes in 2006, Kissell’s only previous elected offices had been president of the Biscoe Lions Club and deacon of the First Baptist Church of Biscoe. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) bet its North Carolina money on Heath Shuler, the religious right-winger and former star quarterback who unseated an ethics-plagued mountain Republican in the 11th District. But Hayes, the eighth-richest person in Congress thanks to a textile fortune, was clearly vulnerable. A genial back-bencher in Washington, he had infuriated many in the district by casting a deciding vote, in a midnight change of heart, for the Central America Free Trade Agreement–after having declared he was “flat-out, completely, horizontally opposed to CAFTA.” Now he was facing a guy whose job had landed in Mexico and whose campaign war cry was “NAFTA plus CAFTA equals SHAFTA.”

With help from an army of volunteers, young and senior, Kissell peddled his message relentlessly from door to door, helped in part by the state party’s grassroots organizers, funded as part of the DNC’s fifty-state strategy. His real-guy politics lit a fire under disaffected folks like Rhonda Quador of Fayetteville, whose husband had done two tours in Iraq by the time she met Kissell early in the campaign. “He listened to me,” she says. “That was my biggest selling point.” Quador’s father had lost his textile job too, in 1985. “You’re asking a man who spent his entire adult life in one plant–you’re taking away his identity,” she says. Quador, a lapsed Republican, spent about twenty hours a week phone-banking and knocking on doors last time out; on election eve, she says, “I stood in the pouring rain, eight and a half months pregnant, for eight hours for this man.” It wasn’t because they saw eye to eye on everything. “I’m a Southern Baptist, very conservative in my religious beliefs. But the Bible says do unto others as you would have them do unto you. You don’t treat people this way. You don’t treat our military as expendable. You don’t treat working people like they’re outdated.”

Kissell called for a phased, one-year withdrawal from Iraq and laid out ambitious plans for recruiting heavy manufacturing and new industry to rural areas and creating thousands of “green-collar jobs.” But the thrust of his campaign was old-time, shoe-leather populism, delivered in a variety of low-cost, high-media ways that earned shout-outs from both Lou Dobbs and DailyKos. “When you’re running against an incumbent who can outspend you like that, you have to be creative,” Kissell says. The campaign’s most successful stunt involved Kissell pumping gas for $1.22 a gallon–the price when Hayes was first sent to Washington. Kissell gestures down Mill Hill, past the small houses and neat yards where white, black and Hispanic families eke out their lives. “We had two lanes of cars going all the way down the hill, and back behind the mill, as far as you could see,” he says, still amazed.

All the populist energy and empathy in the world couldn’t quite make up for Kissell’s dearth of funds. He fell short by just 329 votes–and announced, as he conceded, that he was running again. This time, with the economic tornadoes still striking his district and its 30 percent black population registering to vote in record numbers–a major emphasis of Barack Obama’s North Carolina campaign–the DCCC is making the 8th District a target. The money will buy Kissell some much-needed big media, but it won’t change the way he walks the populist talk.

“How can you know what’s going on without knocking on these doors?” Kissell says, tromping through another soft green lawn, beaming at an elderly black couple kicking back on their front porch. “How can you know what these people are going through without talking to them?”

There’s been no shortage of populist oratory during the Democratic primaries, and senators Clinton and Obama have pumped it up several notches in recent weeks. If she’s not rarin’ to go hunting, Clinton is telling the folk, as she did recently in industrial Winston-Salem, “I want to have an emphasis on manufacturing again. I believe you can’t have a strong economy if you don’t make anything anymore.” And if Obama’s not making an ill-advised attempt to bowl–or offering an even more ill-advised diagnosis of the white working class’s emotional state–he’s shaking a fist at Washington and trying to make it clear that he doesn’t just feel people’s pain, he gets it. Even in his infamous San Francisco soliloquy, Obama had–before his “bitter” comment–been waxing forth in a populist vein about small towns where “jobs have been gone now for twenty-five years and nothing’s replaced them.”

Clinton, who’s long trailed her opponent by double digits in North Carolina polls, has pinned her campaign here on rural areas and small manufacturing cities. “I know that North Carolina has lost a lot of jobs,” she acknowledged in a recent talk at Wake Technical Community College. Clinton has proposed an especially ambitious and expensive job-retraining program. She’s dutifully wagged a populist finger at “incentives in our tax code for companies to ship jobs overseas, no-bid contracts for companies like Halliburton, tax cuts for billionaires, free rides for predatory lenders,” and other fat targets like Wall Street. But, much like Obama, she walks a tricky populist tightrope in North Carolina–as the dominant Democrats do statewide.

A Democrat can’t win here without appealing to financial, tech and university workers–many of them nonnative and registered independent–who crowd the fresh, tidy developments around Raleigh and Charlotte. These folks, as Ruy Teixeira has written, tend to be tax-sensitive and concerned about government waste, but not ideologically antigovernment. They’re churchgoers but socially moderate, more worried about good schools than moral values. And while “they are not anti-business…they do hold populist attitudes toward corporate abuse and people who game the system.” There are plenty of commonalities with what working-class voters in Democrat-heavy districts like the 8th are looking for. To make that dual appeal, successful Democrats, like two-term Governor Mike Easley, have typically been “modernizers” more than “progressives” in a national sense. They pound the drums, with sometimes numbing repetition, for their mantra of better schools, better government and better jobs, and keep elections focused on economic rather than cultural issues. It’s not beyond either Clinton or Obama to follow suit in November.

But what a Tar Heel-bred candidate understands, and the presidential contenders only dimly comprehend, is how broad the fissure between North Carolina’s economic winners and losers has become. Clinton tends to decry the fate of free trade’s victims one moment, and the next moment cheer on the new economy as though it’s another item on her list of “solutions.” The result can be an unrealistic emphasis on silver linings. “You know, North Carolina is a leader in innovation,” Clinton told the folks at Wake Tech. “You’ve ranked third in biotech investment. And I’ve heard about what’s happening in Kannapolis, where a new research park is opening on the site of a once-shuttered textile factory,” called Pillowtex.

The Pillowtex story might sound like a happy example of globalization’s magic payoff, but it’s also a symbol of the widening economic divide in what people have taken to calling “the two North Carolinas.” Pillowtex was originally Cannon Mills, one of the world’s largest makers of products like sheets and towels (and a main source of Congressman Hayes’s wealth). When the company filed for Chapter 11 in 2003, some 4,800 people lost their jobs. It was the largest layoff in state history, one that nobody, including the state agencies, was prepared for. Upward of half the displaced workers had no high school diplomas–products of a culture where, as Kissell says, “people left school at 16 or 17, knowing they could work in the mill and have a good life.” They could not slide on over to Charlotte and get a solid job in banking, or up to Research Triangle Park for tech jobs. Plus, the homes their hard work had bought wouldn’t sell for much more than a kitchen costs in one of those Yankee-infested developments around Raleigh or Charlotte. “They talk about retraining–but retraining for what?” asks Kissell. “That’s what people want to know. They’re stuck.”

The laid-off Pillowtex workers’ lives quickly became shaky. The company filed for bankruptcy at the end of July. By the first week of August, 43 percent said they were already behind in rent or mortgage payments. Ninety-three percent said they could no longer get health insurance. By the following March, just 500 were working again.

And the good news that Clinton was now pointing to? The facility was bought by a single investor–the man who once owned the mill and sold it to Pillowtex, no less–who’s converting it into a biotech research center expected to yield only up to 300 good jobs. But they won’t be going to many of the locals who lost theirs. “A fair number of those jobs,” says NC State University economist Michael Walden, “will be high-level research and not accessible to these folks.” It’s a common situation in the South, he says, and one rarely acknowledged by politicians. “Trade has helped some, hurt others. We’ve not been willing to have a serious conversation about this. The divide will only continue to grow if we don’t find a way to take some of the savings for those who are benefiting to help that mill worker who, through no fault of his or her own, isn’t in a position to benefit.”

Back on Mill Hill, Larry Kissell is passing his card through the front door of a little prefab house, hollering over the yowl of a terrier at an apologetic young woman, “Nobody’s gonna sneak up on you! Listen! I’m running again! In November!”

“I’ve been thinking about how few new houses have been built here in this area in the last few years,” he says, trudging on. “It’s really a rare thing.” We approach the one new structure in evidence, where a former student of Kissell’s, pregnant with her second child, answers the bell. “Hey, Lisa! I’m running again,” he says, laughing. “Now, there’s a perfect example of what’s happened to our community,” he tells me. “Her mom and dad both had between them, I’m sure, fifty, maybe sixty years in our mill. Shut down: two people out of a job. What are you gonna do? Her mother found a job, had two kids in college. Finally I think the dad, Roger, found a job, but I’m not sure it had benefits. I mean, the impact–it was just night and day. They had three daughters and a son, and it was just, Pow! What you going to do? Not everybody was able to respond the way they did.”

After turning up nobody at the door of a ramshackle old white house, he comes back chuckling: “Guy had a sign up: ‘Gone crazy, back soon.'” It seems symbolic somehow.

“Now I’m going to tell you how a teacher thinks,” he tells me. “I just saw a pencil on that porch. I’ve got so many kids who come to class without pencils. It used to be you’d say, ‘Go to the library and buy one for a quarter.’ But now I can’t do that…. You can’t take what’s happening here out of what’s happening in our schools. We talk about improving education. Well, the best way we can do it is to improve the economy. You’ve got parents who are not able to be at home with their kids, to supervise their kids, to help their kids–and it’s not by choice.”

As if on cue, Kissell is interrupted by a teenage girl, Hispanic and probably 16, who comes bounding out the front door of the saddest-looking house on the street, a crumbling cinder-block structure with torn plastic flapping in the windows. “Mr. Kissell! Mr. Kissell!” she says, running toward him with a joyous smile. “Can I go back to school? I want to go back. I really miss it.”

“Come find me. If you want to come back,” he says, “we want you back.”

“This year?” she asks.

“I think it’s probably too late to come back this year, but next year. There’s probably some ways you can make up some classes without having to go through the whole thing.” “OK,” she says, and skips back into the house.

Kissell shakes his head. “I knew her by sight. I did not know her by name. But I’ll be in the guidance office on Monday and I’ll tell them,” he says. “Well. We’ll get her back.” And with a little extra giddyup in his stride, he marches up Mill Hill.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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