Derek Kitts is not your typical Democrat. That may not be the best of news for Republican Morgan Griffith, who Kitts hopes to unseat in the 9th Congressional District this fall.
A 24-year retired veteran of the U.S. Army, Kitts served three combat tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. He has been awarded the Bronze Star twice and the Purple Heart while serving as a First Sgt. in defense of the country. Unlike most Democrats, he is a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment. He even welcomes the moniker “Blue Dog Democrat,” known for being more moderate and conservative than most liberals.
“That’s what I am. My dad is liberal and we go toe-to-toe. I am trying to be honest with people. People are like, ‘Oh, you are not going to get the support of the base.’ The problem is you can’t run in this country as an independent or have an original thought,” said Kitts, of Christiansburg. “You have to have a foundation somewhere. My core beliefs are Democratic, no ifs, ands or buts about it. That being said, I took an issue test the other day, six were on the left, four were on the right. One of the Democrats called me a Republican Lite.”
While Kitts still has competition from others from his own party to secure the Democratic nomination, he has set on an ambitious campaign of the district. Issues at the forefront of Kitts’ campaign include a strong defense of 2nd Amendment rights, showcasing Southwest Virginia as a destination for jobs and job providers, defending and improving rights to healthcare access, improving Veterans Administration efficiency and funding, and promoting pride in Southwest Virginia. He said he decided to live of a fixed E8 military retirement and refinance a truck that was nearly paid off and a Mustang that was paid off because he felt so strongly about fighting for the 9th District.
“This was too important. This is where I am from. This is where I was born and raised,” Kitts said. “When the army sent me back here from Germany and I had the opportunity to go to Virginia Tech, I made some decisions and I bought a house. I decided to stay and the more I looked around I was like, ‘What is the congressman doing for this area?’ I didn’t even know who he was because he never does anything. So I started doing research and I realized that it’s too important for people to not be represented, to at least stand up for them and go, ‘Hey, this is wrong.’ And I just didn’t feel like that was happening.”
As a First Sgt. in the Army, Kitts was in charge of 176 soldiers in Germany and about 3,000 during combat in Afghanistan. He said taking care of his soldiers was always a top priority.
“A lot of my soldiers are on my website telling me to go get ‘em. If you take care of your people, they will take care of you. And I felt that was too important,” Kitts said. “One of my buddies called me naively idealistic. He said, ‘You have a work ethic and a drive that politicians usually don’t have.’ He said, ‘The biggest thing you have is you don’t have a lot of tact. You are pretty upfront and that is going to cause you problems, but at the same time you are what they need out there. It’s just a question of are they open-eyed enough to see it?’”
One issue most on the left don’t agree with Kitts on is his stance on guns. He does not believe in registration in “any way, shape or form.” Kitts said he owns a lot of guns, leaving the number somewhere between one and 100.
“Do I own a few? Yeah. Do I love to shoot? Oh yeah. I just don’t hurt anyone. After my first tour in Iraq, I made a promise to myself I wouldn’t kill anything anymore. I have a tree stand that hasn’t seen the woods since 2002,” Kitts said. “But as far as gun ownership, I think it is the right of everybody to be able to have a gun. Now, should everybody have one? No. But I think you should have more training, you should have more training for conceal permits. And I think we should have background checks.”
Kitts said he was recently at a convention in Northern Virginia where some Democrats were “aghast” at his stance on guns. He had a quick rebuttal.
“You can’t stand on your mountain there in Northern Virginia and talk to me about guns when guns are a way of life in Southwest Virginia. I remember in high school the guys would go hunting before school, leave the shotguns in the rack in their trucks. Let’s be honest here,” Kitts said. “But I think we should have a better background check. I think it should be more of a universal check. I’ve got a concealed permit and 75 percent of the time I am carrying. I am a Democrat. That is hard coming from a very conservative background in the military, people don’t understand that. I am, but why can’t I believe in health care and guns? Why can’t I be pro-choice and pro-gun? Why do I have to fall into a category?”
Kitts has several issues with Griffith, the Republican incumbent in the 9th District. He maintains Griffith has bragged about saving $200,000 in each of the last two budget years. Kitts wants to know where that money went.
“We could have used $400,000 to open two more offices and hire people to do nothing but recruit businesses to Southwest Virginia, to showcase the state, to work with local governments to help tax incentives, to help bring businesses out here, to help the infrastructure, to push things to Southwest Virginia,” he said. “Instead of saving money, he bragged about how much he cut his staff. And his staff is in the bottom 20 percent if you look it up. And his Chief of Staff is paid 1.3 times more than the average Congressman. The first thing I would do is open two more offices. It makes me more and more upset the more I think about it.”
The Congressional hopeful also takes a huge issue with the way Griffith handled the tornadoes that hammered Glade Spring in Smyth County in 2011.
“When Glade Spring got flattened by the tornadoes, he didn’t show up for two weeks. That is absolutely horrifying to not keep with your responsibilities. And his whole thing was he didn’t show up for two weeks because he was on vacation in Florida,” Kitts said. “My wife knows as a First Sergeant in the Army, I didn’t have a beer for almost two years. And this is in Germany. If my soldiers got in trouble, the first thing I did was drop everything and go get them. And if you’ve had beer, you can’t drive. My responsibility to my soldiers was more than my ability to have fun for myself. That is the way you should be as a leader. You lead from up front, you don’t lead from behind, and for him to not show up for two weeks was undignified. I’m not asking that you go save people, just show that you actually give a damn about people. Don’t sit there and preach stuff and then do something else.”
Kitts said the biggest thing his opponent can go after him about is his lack of experience at the legislative level. His believes his four combat tours more than make up for that.
“My leadership comes the hard way and I understand there are problems and there are ways to handle it. I am not the typical politician, but I actually give a damn,” Kitts said.
And that’s why Kitts said he and his family put everything on hold. He said his daughter plays soccer for Christiansburg High School, and like him, she is also sacrificing, doing away with Olympic development, soccer camps, extra cleats and shin guards so her father can fight for the 9th District.
“She knows the deal. She is sacrificing just like the rest of the family because this is important. People are too important not to be represented properly,” Kitts said. “I think if people can hear who I am and what I am about, I think I can get past the prejudice toward the D next to my name in the election box.”
Allen Worrell can be reached at (276) 779-4062 or on [email protected]