Openly conservative Democratic Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, is blazing his own path in Congress. That characteristic is easy to admire, especially in these days of strident bickering and blind party allegiance.
Last week The Smoky Mountain News interviewed both Republicans and Democrats about Shuler and his position on the issues, and the results confirmed what many in the district already knew: most left-leaning Democrats are willing to forego Shuler’s conservative stance on social and fiscal issues as long as he continues to represent their views on foreign policy, the environment, and business policy. Many Republicans also support Shuler, agreeing with what former Macon County Republican Chairman Harold Corbin and Haywood County GOP County Commissioner Kevin Ensley told this newspaper: he represents the values of his mountain district.
Still, not all Democrats support Shuler’s record, which includes casting votes against the stimulus bill, supporting pro-life measures, supporting gun rights, and voting against stem cell research.
“I expected him to be more of a Democrat than he seems to be,” says Jane Allison, a Democrat from Swain County.
When it comes strictly to the issues, we also take exception to some of Shuler’s positions and think his district would be better served by different votes on several important issues.
Despite that truth, however, Shuler is one of those rare politicians able to vote his conscience instead of his party and do so without coming off as wishy-washy. The reason, by most accounts, is that he is sincere. His votes are who he is, and not molded by the Washington party elite and lobbyists.
“The most important thing is to be true to who you are, and what your beliefs are, and don’t change based upon influence,” Shuler told The Smoky Mountain News.
Observers call it a political tightrope that he’s walking. While Democrats are overwhelmingly in control of the House and Senate, his vote against some Democratic bills is not necessary for passage. If that balance tips and the votes are closer, some wonder if he can endure the wrath of his party and still survive.
“He has to be careful voting against a popular president,” said Western Carolina University political science professor Gibbs Knotts. “He also has to be careful that he does not upset the Democratic leadership too much. The leadership can withhold resources and make it more difficult for Shuler to advance his agenda.”
Right now, though, Shuler has carved out an enviable position most congressmen would covet: he can be himself. Here’s what he told an Asheville audience about the stimulus bill and getting money to WNC:
“I didn’t vote for it, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t support Western North Carolina getting its fair share. We’re prepared to fight for that.”
Too many politicians these days are all about ideology, which squelches debate and belittles opponents. Shuler’s ability to stray from his own party while staying true to its bedrock principles make him very different from your average politician. That’s a badge of honor in this day and age, one to wear proudly.