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On being Heath Shuler

The Smoky Mountain News caught up with Rep. Heath Shuler at his home in Haywood County. Here’s what he had to say about the attention surrounding his good looks, the fast pace of life in Washington, and how his time on Capitol Hill has changed his views of the country he serves.

On being named one of the 50 Most Beautiful People on Capitol Hill by The Hill newspaper:

Obviously, you can always be very flattered (but) you kind of wish that there were a little more productive evaluations on the Hill. But it’s great, it’s a neat honor. The funny thing is, I caught a lot of grief from my colleagues, especially the Blue Dog Caucus. Out of the members of congress, only three made the list. (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Sen. Brad Ellsworth, R-Ind., were the other two).

How often do people mention your pro-football career?

Quite frequently. A lot of the members there in the House remember when I was in the Redskins. Sometimes I think it’s the ice-breaker with other members. The Capitol Hill police are the ones that are actually so much fun, they were growing up then. It’s something in common to talk about — there’s a lot of people who are truly sports fans. That was a great time in my life and I feel very blessed that I had those opportunities, but the most important thing now is representing our district. It’s a part of my life and I don’t want to downplay it — it was a dream come true.

Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert stole a budget ticker sign tracking the national debt from Shuler’s office. Gohmert was reported by a witness, and Shuler later had an exchange with him on the House floor that attracted a bustle of media attention.

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What’s going on with the sign stealing incident with Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas? Did you find it offensive?

(Laughs) That’s all the Hill talked about for weeks. It was a situation with a member of Congress that stole from me and made a mockery of my caucus on the House floor. You’d think a person who was a judge in a previous career knew that was against the law. I don’t like people pushing me around.

Has your time in the House reshaped your views of the most pressing issues our nation is facing?

Some of the national intelligence we’re able to go and listen to, that’s maybe not for public knowledge, really gives you a sense that we have a tremendous amount in our country to continue to work on. We’re enduring some very, very difficult times, whether it be with the war in Iraq, balancing the budget, or the national debt. The last six to seven years, (the debt) is far worse than I ever expected it to be. The amount of money we borrow from foreign countries like China and wasteful spending in Washington is unacceptable. The way the administration has conducted the war in Iraq is unacceptable. I truly feel we have a lot of work to do. The most important thing we have to do now is get the president to sign off on a lot of bills.

Next year, is there any one issue you’d like to champion? If there’s one thing you can accomplish, what will it be?

(The verbose Shuler mentioned several). One that we’re working on now with a lot of different bills is the exploiting of children on the Internet. We hope to protect our children with Internet safety. With energy — being able to give tax cuts and tax breaks to companies to become energy independent from foreign countries and petroleum — that’s going to be a process that we have to work together on. Another is closing loopholes of foreign companies doing business in the U.S. that aren’t paying taxes. That will give American companies level playing ground with foreign companies.

Five things you’ve learned during your time on the Hill?

The quality of the people serving our country.

The amount of time these members work.

The fast pace, but the slow productivity. I complained about it early (in my term), but it doesn’t work that way. (The pace) gives people time to look at the legislation. I don’t enjoy it but I understand it.

The amount of security that is involved with members of Congress and the Capitol. People that you think are tourists are undercovers in casual clothes.

What we truly can do to help people in our district and make a difference in their lives. One example would be the freeze that we had here in April. We were trying to get an emergency fund bill through, and one thing in the language would not cover apple growers in Western North Carolina whose plants were grown before a certain date. By going to leadership, going to leaders of our caucus, and with the support of the Blue Dogs, I asked to have the language changed to include farmers whose plants were grown before a certain date.

What’s been your biggest disappointment since you’ve been in D.C.?

I think both parties look at their own party power first, while the main objective should be helping America. When we work tighter, we are able to see the fruits of our labors and have quality bills passed in a bipartisan way. People criticize me for being one of the most independent voters in Congress, but I vote how the people of my district would want me to vote. (Shuler is the most independent-voting freshman member of Congress and the fourth more independent-voting member overall, according to Congressional Quarterly)

Is what you’re doing up there worth sacrificing the time with your family?

I’m blessed to have an incredible wife who truly understands that being able to pass legislation truly will impact the future of our children and all the children in our district. It is a sacrifice, and it’s very difficult. There’s many days I’d love to be able to give them a good night kiss. But what it does do is that it really incentivizes me. I don’t want to think about missing them, so I work until it’s time to go to bed. I’ll go home, catch enough hours of sleep and go back to work early the next day. That’s truly the only way I can cope.

What are the biggest differences between life in Western North Carolina and life in Washington D.C.?

In Bryson City, I’d never take the metro to work, and here I take the metro every day. When my kids are up here they think it’s like an amusement ride. It shows you how mass transit works very effectively, and I really support mass transit. I can get across town for $1.35 and I don’t have to sit in traffic for up to an hour. Regardless of traffic on the highway, I’ll get to work in 15 to 20 minutes. I’ve driven to work and it’s taken me an hour, and that’s not acceptable. It’s bad on the environment and bad on your health. Literally, I love taking the metro.

Also, most of the time lunch and dinner is on the run. You listen to staff members while you’re eating. I love when I come back home to be able to get a really good meal.

Is there one group in particular that stands out to you during your tours of the district?

One of the things that really impressed me has been our farmers. They’ve gone through some unbelievable sacrifices with the drought and freeze we’ve had. Many years ago, when someone’s barn burnt down, a group of farmers all pitched in to quickly rebuild it. I still see that sense of community involved with our farmers, and it’s very important we maintain that. I think they can be an example for all of us.

Are you worried about former Rep. Charles Taylor, R-Brevard, running against you? Have you heard if he’s going to run or not? Do you feel secure in your seat?

I think we will continue to provide hard work and dedication and truly do what’s best for the people of our district. You can’t look at things you can’t control. The things we can control are our hard work and dedication, to prove we are there for the people of our district and for no other reason. Whoever (the opponent) may be, it’s not going to change the way we’re conducting business in Washington. We cannot let campaigning stand in the way of getting work done. If we do hard work and what the people are asking us to do to make a difference, then (the campaign) will take care of itself.

You spent a lot of money on your race unseating the incumbent. Will you have to spend that much money next election?

Being able to raise money is the part I dislike about my job the very most. I want to give, not ask people to give to me. It’s more important to give than to receive. But still, you go out and try to raise as much money as you can.

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