“I was a rambunctious kid, lively and spirited — some of that hasn’t changed; some of it has,” Rogers said.
Specifically, Rogers recounted a time as a young boy when he was getting ready for school and saw a squirrel bouncing around an oak tree next to his parent’s driveway.
He ran inside and when he emerged from the house again — “This was during season by the way,” Rogers interjected — he was holding a gun and shot the squirrel out of the tree.
“My mom comes out, and I had my school clothes on, and there I was skinning a squirrel. I had hair all over me, and my poor mom — cause, you know, she was teacher so we couldn’t be late — and she comes out, and I’m over there with a foot on the tail, and I’m pulling the hide off the squirrel,” Rogers said, amused by his younger self. “My mom’s just panicking.”
Rogers has often talked about being the child of two teachers who did not earn much in the way of wages but instilled the importance of education and being a good neighbor in him. When someone fell ill, community members would take it upon themselves to bring casseroles or other food items to help the person and their family.
“It’s a great place to grow up. It really molds you into who you are, and you really get a good appreciation of that strong sense of little, tight-knit communities,” Rogers said.
Rogers played football at Robbinsville High School, which led him to meet his future wife, Donna.
Rogers decided to attend a football game between Murphy and Swain County high schools when Robbinsville had a bye week. Donna was homecoming queen and a majorette at Murphy.
“I saw her and (she) was the prettiest girl I’d ever seen, and I was just taken back by her,” Rogers said.
He asked a small ball boy standing near the fence what her name was. The boy later told Donna that Rogers had asked about her. When they saw each other at a basketball tournament later, Donna waved at him, Rogers recalled. About a month later, they ran into each other again and soon started dating.
The two dated for “a long time,” Rogers said, and about 10 years ago, they married.
During high school, different colleges tried to recruit Rogers to play football. One of those schools was the Ivy League Princeton University, which Rogers ended up attending.
“I think it would have just broken my mom’s heart had I not gone,” Rogers said.
While at Princeton, Rogers took out loans, applied for financial aid and worked in the cafeteria to help pay for the pricey private school, where he majored in political science. His parents also took out loans to help with the cost.
“It was something that my parents really believed in,” Rogers said.
After graduating, Rogers moved back to Western North Carolina. He currently lives on about eight acres of land in Brasstown, just a short way from his in-laws.
“This is home. This is why I came home from college. This is where I want to raise my family. This is the area, and the community that has been good to me,” Rogers said.
He then started his own grading and landscaping business in Knoxville, Tenn., which at its height employed about 30 people, Rogers said. “I really enjoyed it, the challenge and the gratification.”
But, in 2005 Rogers got a chance to put his political science degree to use. Current U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, whom Rogers had known from his high school football days, was making his first bid for office and wanted Rogers to work on his campaign.
Shuler ended up beating eight-term incumbent Charles Taylor to become a U.S. Congressman, and Rogers became his chief of staff.
If he wasn’t involved in politics, Rogers said he would likely be involved with the Parent-Teacher Association, would hunt and fish more, attend more of his girls’ soccer games, mow his own lawn and “just live life.”
“I don’t know what I’d be doing to make a living,” Rogers said. “I’d still be involved in my community as far as finding other ways to give back and participate.”
A family affair
Earlier this year, Shuler announced that he would not run for a fourth term, opening the door for Rogers to run for Congress in his boss’ footsteps.
Having campaigned for Shuler, Rogers knows how the process goes. He is sometimes leaving the house at 4 or 5 a.m. and not getting home until 10 p.m. That makes it hard, Rogers said, to spend as much quality time with his daughters, Torin, 8, and Lochlan, 7, as he would like.
“It’s hard on your family, but I’ve tried to be at as much of their things as I can, and on the mornings, I can take them to school, I do,” Rogers said.
When he can make time to spend with his family, the agenda is up to his daughters.
“I’ll play anything my little girls want me to play. We play with Barbies; we play with little cars; we color together,” Rogers said. “They love to sing and dance and put on little shows.”
The girls and his wife, Donna, campaign with Rogers at certain times — which has been a learning experience, Rogers said.
A Democratic Party used to sound like a fun event to Rogers’ two young daughters; maybe there would be sweets or face painting. But, they have since learned that it’s not anything at all what they thought.
“They used to think when they heard somebody say like Democratic Party, they thought ‘party.’ So, they were excited when they were young about going to things,” Rogers said.
The same went for any references to a political fair, which on the surface conjured images of Ferris wheels.
One day, “I heard them talking in the backseat, and they finally leaned forward and said ‘Now, mom and dad, from now on you can’t call it a fair,’” he said.
After feeling duped previously, the girls decided that to qualify as a fair, an event must include the three following things: face painting, rides and cotton candy.
“They figured out what the minimum standard had to be for us to use the word ‘fair’ because they didn’t want to get excited and find out it’s not true,” Rogers said, amused by his children’s reasoning.
Despite being disillusioned by terms like ‘fair’ and ‘party,’ Rogers said his daughters are supportive.
“They are for me. They are both going to vote for me, they say, which is good,” Rogers said.
Torin in particular has even lobbied her classmates to vote for her dad, making sure the kids on the playground know that her dad is the right man for the job.
“She’ll come home and say, ‘Daddy, I got votes today,’” Rogers said. “I’m like, ‘That’s great.’”
If the election was decided by the second- and third- grade classes at Murphy Elementary, then Rogers would have a clear upper hand this election. However, it’s the eligible voters of Western North Carolina’s 11th District that he must impress in an election that could go either way.
Although the district leans conservative, Rogers is considered a conservative Democrat, a title that has fared well in the mountain district before. However, the district was redrawn prior to this election season, cutting liberal Asheville out.
Out on the trail
Rogers spent a day recently traveling around Cherokee County talking to voters, hoping people who met him would pass on the message, Vote Hayden Rogers, to people they knew.
The day was not so much about talking politics and espousing his views as it was simply talking to people.
At a couple of the stops Rogers made that morning, politics were not the focus of the conversation. Instead, Rogers and voters spent the majority of the time talking about hunting, their family histories or what friends they have in common.
“I like meeting people, talking to people,” Rogers said.
The day of campaigning was more about simply showing up than the content of the conversation.
Not long after meeting Rogers, Cherokee County voter Paul Indelicato thanked Rogers on Facebook for visiting him at the Murphy Electric Power Board and stated that for the first time in his 51 years, a politician had taken the time to visit him at work.
Rogers spent the day on the stump with his friend Larry Kernea, who heads the Murphy Electric Power Board, who drove Rogers around, introducing him to people.
“You need local folks in every community,” Rogers said about Kernea and others who had traveled with him on the campaign trail. “(They) put their credibility on the line.”
At each stop, Kernea asked voters to put in a good word for Rogers with their friends and neighbors.
“Mr. Meadows is not focused on us. Hayden (Rogers) focuses on people,” Kernea told one voter.
A couple of men took the opportunity to quiz Rogers on his political stances. One agreed with Rogers’ views, while the other said he would not vote for Rogers simply because he is a Democrat.
Despite being a Democrat, several Republican voters in Cherokee County told Rogers that they plan to vote for him.
In a competitive race like the one being run by Rogers and his opponent, Republican Mark Meadows, there is not much time for rest. Similar to Meadows, Rogers has been crisscrossing the 11th District meeting with voters. In about six months, Rogers has put 36,000 miles on his new white GMC pick-up truck.
“We had an event in Caldwell County that I had to attend on a Saturday that was basically seven hours driving for an hour event,” Rogers said. “I started thinking about it. I could have loaded my family up and driven to the Gulf Coast, the panhandle, I could have been in Charleston, almost to D.C. — that is how much road time there was involved in making that one hour meeting.”
Rogers admitted that he could work on budgeting his time during the election season, perhaps scheduling meetings later in the day closer to his home in Clay County.
“I think I could do a little bit better with the planning of the allocation of my time. You really feel like you are drinking out of a fire hose,” he said about his frantic campaigning schedule.