Keith Crisco, who rose from farm boy to state Commerce secretary and wealthy textile executive, died after an accident in his home on Monday – the day before he planned to concede his campaign for Congress to his opponent in the Democratic primary, Clay Aiken.
He died of injuries suffered from a fall around midday, his family said. Crisco turned 71 a few weeks ago while in the midst of a vigorous campaign that he had begun to prepare for last year.
Sensing an opening for a successful challenge to Republican incumbent Rep. Renee Ellmers, Crisco lined up endorsements from many veterans of the state’s Democratic establishment as well as business and civic leaders he knew from many years in public service.
What he didn’t foresee was the entry of pop singer Aiken into the race in February, which turned the primary into a contest with national attention and made it a much more expensive effort.
Brad Crone, a political strategist and friend of Crisco’s for nearly three decades, said the two had talked on the phone earlier Monday to finalize plans to announce that he would concede. He had planned to call Aiken to congratulate him. Crone had already notified Aiken’s campaign staff of the plans.
“It’s just shocking news,” said Crone.
Aiken issued a statement saying he was “stunned and deeply saddened.”
“Keith came from humble beginnings,” Aiken said. “No matter how high he rose – to Harvard, to the White House and to the governor’s cabinet – he never forgot where he came from. He was a gentleman, a good and honorable man and an extraordinary public servant. I was honored to know him.”
Toni Morris, the third-place finisher in the primary, expressed condolences.
“I want to keep the focus on his family and friends – they lost a dad and husband,” Morris said in a phone interview. “Keith was a wonderful guy. He and I had a wonderful relationship during the campaign.”
‘A remarkable man’
Tim Crowley, who was Crisco’s assistant secretary for communication at Commerce, said his family asked for privacy. They issued this statement through him:
“Keith was our loving husband, father, grandfather, brother and friend. He was a remarkable man with a tremendous dedication to his family and to public service. We appreciate the outpouring of love from our family and friends and all who knew him.”
Ellmers also released a statement, saying: “His kindness and dedication to his principles were models we should all strive toward, and he will be dearly missed.”
Condolences and tributes poured in from political leaders across the state. Former Gov. Bev Perdue, who asked Crisco to leave his textile business to be Commerce secretary during a difficult economic slump, said she was “devastated.” He served in her administration from 2009 to 2012.
“Keith was one of North Carolina’s giants who made a real difference every day he lived,” Perdue said.
In interviews with The News & Observer over the past several weeks, Crisco said he was enjoying the long hours on the campaign trail. He often talked about all the connections he had made as a businessman and state official. “Wouldn’t it be neat,” he would say, that someone with those connections could represent North Carolina in Congress.
Crisco would also call up Chris Valauri, a longtime lobbyist friend, from a campaign stop to say how much fun he was having.
“He was a North Carolina renaissance man,” Valauri said. “He loved all things North Carolina: literature, music, food, family and politics. It’s a great loss for everybody. My heart is broken.”
He was raised on a farm in the Stanly County community of Aquadale. Neither of his parents finished high school, but his mother worked at a chicken farm so he could go to college, according to his campaign biography. After Pfeiffer, he obtained a master’s of business administration from Harvard University. He served a fellowship in the Nixon White House.
He started Asheboro Elastics, which he once said with typical self-deprecation: “All we do is hold your underwear up.” The company became successful, currently employs about 200 people, and expanded to plants in Central America.
He entered politics on the local level first, being elected to the school board and then the Asheboro City Council, where he served until Perdue asked him to be Commerce secretary.
A desire to serve
After he left office, he served on several boards, including that of his beloved Pfeiffer University. Running for Congress was part of his desire to serve, said his friends.
“I just think he felt like he had a lot to give back to the district,” Crone said. “That’s why he decided to run. He was just a straight-up guy. He worked really hard on the campaign.”
As the primary campaign drew to a close, Crisco and Aiken made constant appearances. Crisco managed to outspend Aiken by more than 3 to 1 by loaning himself a substantial sum. At the close of last week’s election, Aiken led with 369 votes.
But not all the ballots had been counted. Although there weren’t enough outstanding absentee and provisional ballots to change the outcome, if the margin between the two had narrowed, Crisco could have called for a recount.
But by Monday, Crisco had decided he wouldn’t do that. As planned, all the state’s counties will proceed with their vote canvassing on Tuesday and announce the official results of the election, and a recount will not take place, a state elections spokesman said.
Crisco and his wife, Jane, were longtime members of First United Methodist Church in Asheboro. Funeral arrangements have not been announced.
Besides his wife, he is survived by three children and six grandchildren.