Leanne Powell passed away following a stroke. Powell was an entrepreneur, political consultant, Congressional staffer and local hero. She lived much of her life with one foot in the world of national politics and the other firmly planted in the central piedmont of North Carolina where she made her home. She was a small town girl who played on a much bigger stage.
Powell’s most recent notoriety came from buying an abandoned prison in Cabarrus County and turning it into a distillery. It was a stroke of genius that converted surplus state property into a tourist destination and a source of economic development for her hometown. She became a leader in the budding distillery business that’s now part of North Carolina’s economic fabric. It was vintage Leanne.
But Whiskey Prison was just her latest venture. She had a flare for the grandiose while remaining remarkably understated herself. She understood that her job was to make her projects the focus of her creativity, whether the project was a distillery or political campaign. Despite her innate humility, she became a local celebrity known for giving back to her community and mentoring the next generation of entrepreneurs and activists.
I don’t remember when I first met Leanne but it was probably when she was working for the late Congressman Bill Hefner. We both lived in his district and shared an affinity for that part of the state. I got to know her better when we worked together on former Congressman Larry Kissell’s campaigns in 2006 and 2008.
It was on those campaigns that I first saw her genius. In 2006, Kissell was an unknown high school teacher and former textile worker from Montgomery County who most people gave little chance of winning. However, Leanne knew Kissell fit the district. He embodied the values of small town North Carolina in a district that was a patchwork of textile towns devastated by the trade agreements.
She understood the dynamic of the campaign instinctively. She had a former textile worker as a candidate running against Robin Hayes, a four-term incumbent and heir to the Cannon textile fortune who voted to fast-track trade agreements. She needed to tap into the populist sentiment of voters angry at being left behind by Washington and she needed to do it in a way that raised the profile of Kissell and the campaign.
Gas prices were her answer. They’d soared to over $3.00 a gallon by 2006 and people who struggled to make ends meet, like many in the district, felt the pinch. Leanne got a gas station to sell gas at $1.22 per gallon, the price when Hayes took office in 1998. By the end of the day, cars were lined up, CNN had cameras on the scene and local news covered it across the district. The stunt answered the question “Are you better off today than you were when Robin Hayes got elected?” The answer was a resounding, “NO!” In one leap, Leanne framed the race and put Kissell on the map. It was brilliant.
In the end, Kissell lost that race by just 329 votes out of more than 120,000 cast despite being outspent three to one. It was the closest race in the nation even though the national Democrats refused to financially back Kissell. Then-Congressman Rahm Emmanuel who headed the DCCC said it was his biggest mistake of the cycle. In 2008, Kissell, with Leanne’s guidance, defeated Hayes handily. He and Leanne held the district until redistricting made it solidly Republican.
In a final act of giving back, Leanne donated her organs so others could live. Rest in Peace, Leanne Powell.