RALEIGH — I well remember the first time I met Keith Crisco, the former North Carolina Commerce secretary and textile entrepreneur who passed away Monday after an accidental fall at his home in Asheboro.
I was attending a meeting of the William Friday Fellowship, a leadership program founded by the Blumenthal Foundation’s Wildacres Leadership Initiative. Keith was one of the guest speakers for the 1995-97 Friday Fellows, the inaugural class. His topic was the virtue of competition.
Crisco was certainly qualified to speak about competition in business. After earning his undergraduate degree from Pfeiffer University and his MBA from Harvard, Keith served for a time as a White House Fellow before returning to his native North Carolina to work in the textile industry. He spent eight years working for David Stedman, one of the state’s most successful and respected business leaders. In 1986, Keith left to co-found Asheboro Elastics, which found its niche in the increasingly competitive industry and continues to thrive, defying the odds.
But Keith’s talk to the Friday Fellows was about competition in politics, not business. Although Randolph County is one of North Carolina’s most Republican places, Keith — like his former boss, David Stedman — decided to remain a stalwart Democrat, albeit a fairly conservative one.
Carrying the blue flag in deep-red Randolph County is not quite as difficult as, say, running for office in Carrboro as a Republican. But it’s pretty close. Still, Keith succeeded. He was elected to the Asheboro school board and, later, to the city council. His community involvement included longtime service on the Pfeiffer University board of trustees and leadership roles in many other local and statewide organizations.
After Keith’s presentation to the Friday Fellows, I struck up a conversation with him. Despite some differences of opinion, we found we had much in common. David Stedman, the conservative Democrat for whom he had once worked, was one of the John Locke Foundation’s seed donors back in 1989. Keith became a sometime JLF donor, as well. A loyal reader of my column in his hometown paper, the Asheboro Courier-Tribune, Keith would periodically send me letters — by snail, yes, not electron — to offer either cordial praise or respectful disagreement. He invited me on more than one occasion to speak at Pfeiffer, and I, in turn, met with Keith often when he came to the capital city. I saw a lot more of Keith after 2009, when he agreed to join incoming Gov. Bev Perdue’s Cabinet as secretary of Commerce.
In early 2012, we ran into each other at a downtown restaurant and got to talking about the upcoming election cycle. Perdue had decided not to run for re-election, and many North Carolina Democrats began to fear that Republicans were poised to make substantial political gains in 2012 to add to their 2010 victories. But Keith wasn’t down in the dumps. In fact, he told me that he was thinking seriously about running for the Democratic nomination to replace Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, who would be taking on Pat McCrory for the top job.
I didn’t like his chances and told him so. Others must have, too, because Keith decided to forgo the race (former state Rep. Linda Coleman ended up with the Democratic nod, losing to Republican Dan Forest in the fall). But that didn’t mean Keith was finished with politics, as we now know. This year, he ran for the Democratic nomination in North Carolina’s 2nd Congressional District. It’s a strongly Republican seat currently held by Rep. Renee Ellmers, but running uphill always seemed to be Keith’s style.
What he hadn’t counted on was facing stiff primary competition from American Idol star Clay Aiken. Keith redoubled his efforts, worked the district like a man half his age, and dipped into his own funds to run ads introducing himself to Democratic voters outside his home base in Randolph County. But Aiken’s celebrity proved decisive on May 6, albeit by just 369 votes.
The margin wasn’t close enough to request a recount, although provisional ballots had initially offered Keith a slim chance of meeting the threshold. On Monday, he decided that he would concede the race to Aiken this morning. Tragically, the issue became moot.
Keith Crisco was a successful job creator, a dedicated public servant, a beloved husband, father and grandfather, a fearless competitor, and a kind, generous man. I am proud to have called him friend — and deeply sorry to see him go.
John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.