As far as we can tell, Karl Kassel lost the closest election in American history. The margin? Four votes, at least according to a state-mandated recount. When the original count concluded, just a single vote separated Kassel and his opponent, kick-starting the weeks-long recount process. The race? A 2008 election for a seat in the Alaskan House of Representatives. Kassel, 64, had recently retired from the Fairbanks Parks and Recreation Department and had been recruited by the local Democratic party to run against the Republican incumbent. In this week of heartbreak, he’s the first in our Near Miss series, where we hear from men who came thisclose to accomplishing their dreams only to fall agonizingly short, but still somehow lived to tell the tale.
My opponent didn’t think it would be close. Same for the rest of the community. He was a sitting legislator who’d been there for a few terms. Everyone had the expectation that since I was the new guy, it would be a surprise if I was able to unseat him. But by the end of election night, I was only down by about a hundred votes. Plus, the early and absentee ballots had been leaning Democratic, so our expectation was that it would tighten things up even further. And it did. That’s when it got down to one vote.
Because I wasn’t a politician, I had no idea about the feelings and emotions I’d go through. You have a team of people who are working for you and their hearts and souls are in it as much as yours. When you don’t make it across the finish line in first place, you feel like you’ve let them down.
You can think of many, many ways to make up one vote. Knock on one more door. Send out one more email. Write one more letter. Just on and on and on….
The recount was stressful and frustrating. Not only for me, but for my wife, who couldn’t sleep for days. You can’t do much about it either. You just have to sit back and let the process unfold. It was a lot of watching people count ballots and challenging the question ballots, where the election director physically looked at the ballot and tried to decide a voter’s intention.
We were in Minnesota for a hockey tournament for my son when I got the call that the recount was over. I’d won by two votes! We were having breakfast, and we announced to the rest of the team that I’d won. We got congratulations, and everyone was feeling good. Then, about 30 minutes later, my phone rang again. With great apology, they said that they’d made a mistake — they’d forgotten to count a box of ballots. And when they counted that last box, instead of winning by two votes, I lost by four. I checked with my campaign manager, who was looking over their shoulders, and he said it wasn’t shenanigans. He did say there were two votes that he was confident would be overturned and that we had a couple of days to protest them. He sent them to me as PDFs and said, “What do you want to do boss?” I told him, “It doesn’t get us over the goal line even if we protest, so let’s take the high road and say to my opponent, ‘You won by… a little bit.’”
That’s when I called him and said, “Congratulations! In my book, you won by two votes. The official tally, though, is going to be four votes.”
It was a little better than when we were at a single vote. That was hard to swallow.
The whole end of the election was so bizarre and the numbers so close and the emotional swings so intense that we were more in disbelief than anything else. Even after that last call, we said, “Is this thing really over?” Because we weren’t sure. Every time we thought we’d crossed the goal line, the ref blew the whistle and said, “Do over!” So there wasn’t total closure. It was more wondering about whether this was in fact the final result.
The first couple of days afterward were tough. But honestly, it didn’t take long for the hurt to turn around, because I started burying myself in new things. I became so busy that I didn’t have time to worry about it too much. I just kept running forward to see what else I could accomplish.
First, I wanted to build a very energy-efficient home. I’m a strong advocate for renewable energy and figuring out wiser, greener sources for our energy needs. When I finished it in 2009, it was dubbed “the most energy-efficient home in all of North America.” It’s a cool house. I think it has some aesthetics to it — as well as a natural feel. In fact, the contractor who built it later hired me to help him start a new renewable energy company in Fairbanks called Arctic Sun, which has received all kinds of international recognition.
Next, I ran for the Fairbanks Assembly, and later for mayor. I love this community and the people here. And I didn’t like the direction Fairbanks was going. I said, “We can do better, and we need to do better for our community.” I was confident because of my work experience in both the public and private sector that I had the skill set to be impactful and direct the course for our community.
Yes, I won by more than four votes.
We had several strong Tea Party candidates who’d been elected. Their goal seemed to be, What’s the least we can do and still survive? That’s not my philosophy. My goal is to ask, What can we accomplish by working together? And you can accomplish more when you’re efficient — financially or otherwise. So I’m not an expand government kind of guy. Nor do I want to spend a lot of money. That isn’t necessarily building the best community. Instead, you have to find the balance where everyone chips in so the load is lighter for everybody. In working together, you make a healthier, more vibrant community, which helps your economy and generates more business. That money makes your hospitals better and your services better, and you can spiral up without any heavy burden on any one individual.
I know it sounds funny, but I always like to tell everyone, “I’m not a politician.” I’m not a Democrat either. When I got a phone call from the Democratic Party about running in 2008, I said, “I can’t. I’m not a Democrat; I’m an independent.” They said, “That’s just a technicality. We can sign you up in 24 hours, and you can be a Democrat.” I told him, “Okay, but I’m not the kind of person who does what I’m told. If I’m elected, I’m going to do what I think is right and on the merits of the issue, not some political party agenda.”
I still don’t get into the political weeds. At the state level it gets very political, but here locally, you can steer clear of the politics and make decisions based on the merits and data that’s available.
My analogy is that I’m like a referee. I’m just trying to make a call on a play. And if both coaches are mad at me, I probably made the right call. If one coach is happy, however, I might have leaned one way or the other too much. That’s basically how I approach my job. I’m looking for what’s best for the most people and trying to stick in the middle and not be extreme in one way or another on things.
None of this, of course, would’ve happened if I hadn’t lost in 2008. My wife and I have repeatedly said losing that election was probably one of the best things that’s ever happened to us. It took a few years to completely figure that out, but we really believe it in our hearts.
To tell you the truth, I think I won that election anyway. We accomplished a lot with the campaign. We pulled people together and created bonds with different community activists that continue today. We also opened many eyes to what was going on with the politics here. I think we stopped the pendulum from swinging to the right as dramatically as it was — almost bringing it to a dead halt. Better yet, I did it all without having to go to Juneau and getting embroiled in the politics there. Instead, I got to take that time and work on the things that mattered to me — energy issues, my family and the local community.
No experience is totally negative or totally positive. There’s always some sort of silver lining. You just gotta look for it.
— As told to Josh Schollmeyer