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Shuler goes to Washington: WNC’s freshman House representative is already turning heads in congress

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

Heath Shuler’s time so far in the House of Representatives is shorter than his career in pro-football, but he’s already attracting more attention as a rookie member of the House than he ever did as an NFL player.

Shuler was voted into office with high expectations. The tense 2006 race — in which he unseated 16-year incumbent Charles Taylor, R-Brevard — was closely followed by the national media as one of the pivotal races that would eventually tip the scales of Congress in the Democrats’ favor.

Locally, Shuler is Western North Carolina’s golden boy. A small-town kid from rural Swain County, he was a college football star at Tennessee, went on to play in the NFL and is now the millionaire owner of a successful Tennessee real estate business. With a Crest-white smile and an easygoing demeanor, Shuler, 35, appealed to voters who saw him as one of their own.

Eight months after going to D.C., Shuler has a range of experiences under his belt. Like all freshmen, he’s made his share of mistakes — including getting lost in the halls of Congress — but he’s also establishing himself as a serious politician who takes a stand on tough issues. All in all, Shuler is doing just what he needs to do as a freshman on Capitol Hill, says Don Livingston, a professor at Western Carolina University who teaches a course on Congress.


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Independent streak

Labeled by Republican supporters of Taylor as someone who would become an ally to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Shuler has proven that he is willing to stray from his party by establishing himself as the most independent freshman member of Congress. That means he has voted against his party more than any other freshman member. As a conservative Democrat, the pro-life and anti-gun control Shuler does seem to have a good bit in common with some of his Republican counterparts.

However, Shuler, who considers himself a conservative Democrat, insists he votes not along party lines but on the basis of how his largely conservative, rural mountain district would vote.

“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,” he said in an interview while in Western North Carolina last week.

Livingston said that this kind of independence is often expected of new congressmen. Because Congress is happy to have won a Democratic majority, they are willing to give leniency to new members who come from more conservative districts.

“In situations like that, the leadership understands if he can’t be supportive of them on certain bills. Keeping that seat in a Democratic column is most important to them,” Livingston explained.

Furthermore, the Democrats are likely letting members get away with independence on certain votes because their vote isn’t crucial on some issues, surmised Bill Barkley, president of the Haywood County Republican Club.

“He’s independent on votes that probably don’t really require his vote. I think that the Democratic Party, in an effort to gain control of Congress, is more or less allowing some divergent views to get people like Shuler elected in areas so typically conservative,” Barkley said.

Livingston warns, though, that Democratic leaders may not remain so lenient if Shuler continues to vote with Republicans on important issues. To give an example of Shuler’s voting record, he voted against a largely Democratic-backed bill that would give funding to stem cell research. He also voted against a program that would make more children eligible for health insurance.

Shuler, though, is not alone in his stance as an independent-minded Democrat. When Shuler headed to Washington, he made a beeline to the “Blue Dog” Democrats, a fiscally conservative group of 48 congressmen. The fit was a given, since Shuler has routinely expressed his dissatisfaction with government spending. He speaks about his alliance to the Blue Dogs often.

Though Shuler doesn’t yet have significant pieces of legislation under his belt, he is starting to craft an identity based in part on his affiliation with the group. The door to his office bears a ticker that tracks the national debt (which was stolen from his office in a high-profile incident, see “On Being Heath Shuler”), and he voted against the budget along with other members of the coalition.

The legitimacy of the Blue Dog’s fiscally conservative stance was challenged in a recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal, which claimed the group members “have been almost all bark when it comes to fiscal restraint and debt reduction.” The editorial cited that a majority had voted for every one of the non-defense spending bills sent to them by their committee chairman, and that over half had voted against Republican-proposed amendments to cut the costs of those bills. Shuler was specifically named as a “particular disappointment” among freshman Democrats representing conservative districts.

The WSJ editorial also surmised that these votes might be in part because, as Livingston said, Pelosi is beginning to take a harder line in convincing freshman members to vote with the Democratic majority. Stephen Duncan, chair of the 11th Congressional District Republican party, is convinced this is indeed the case.

Duncan and other Republicans question whether Shuler is being fiscally conservative in the right areas.

“(Shuler) voted down a litany of things that would have supported health care and education in Western North Carolina that would have been ‘pork barrel spending,’ but spends hundreds of thousands on spinach growers in California,” he said, linking Shuler’s vote to a bid of support for Pelosi. Shuler voted down bills that would have provided dollars for hospitals and an expansion of the science building at University of North Carolina at Asheville.


No major legislation yet

As a new congressman, Shuler hasn’t sponsored nearly as many bills as some of his colleagues, and isn’t throwing his support behind particularly controversial legislation. Rather, he’s working on establishing a name for himself — something Livingston refers to as the “expansionist” stage of a congressman’s career.

By having defeated and unseated incumbent Taylor, Shuler’s main objective during his first term is claiming his new seat as his own. To do that, Shuler is working hard to spend time in his district and expand his base of support.

“He’ll be personally involved in case work here in the district, taking care of people’s problems, concerns and things of that nature. He’s going to have the pedal to the metal. This is when he’s most vulnerable — usually it’s in the early stages of the congressional career that they can lose their seat,” Livingston said.

In the “protectionist” stage, which Shuler will move into if he wins a second term, he’ll spend more time in Washington focusing on legislation, according to Livingston. He’s not there yet, though, which may be one reason Republican officials are having some difficulty criticizing Shuler for supporting certain bills.

“He’s showing his independence, but that was expected. I don’t think he’s offered any significant legislation for Western North Carolina, or had any particular influence on funding for Western North Carolina. It takes a long time for a candidate to develop influence in Washington,” said Barkley.

Some would disagree. For example, try telling supporters of the North Shore Road in Swain County that Shuler hasn’t had major influence in Washington as of yet.

A large group of residents in Swain County supports construction of a 30-mile road through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that would uphold a decades-old promise from the federal government. One of the first things Shuler did in Washington was work on legislation that would halt construction of the road in favor of a cash settlement for Swain County. So far, he has succeeded in drafting legislation that would direct money toward a down payment for a cash settlement.

“I just don’t feel like he has represented the people’s voice about certain issues, like the North Shore Road,” said Swain County Republican Party chairman Mike Clampitt.

Many in Swain County see the cash as more beneficial to the community than a road, however, and cheer the move.

Shuler has repeatedly said that the environmental impact of construction of the road through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park would be too great. His move to bring a close to the issue has been hailed by environmentalists.

“In terms of a local issue, does having a change in a congressional member really make a difference? I think for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it’s making a difference already,” said Brownie Newman, an Asheville city councilman and director of political outreach and education for the Conservation Council of North Carolina. Taylor, who Shuler unseated, supported construction of the North Shore road.

Overall, Newman and others from environmental groups have espoused Shuler’s pro-environmental stance on several issues.

“I think the short version is that obviously Congressman Shuler’s tenure in Congress is still pretty early, but so far he’s been doing a really great job on the environment issues that have come before Congress this year,” Newman said.

Shuler voted in favor of renewable energy legislation that would require 15 percent of the country’s energy production to be from renewable sources by 2020. The legislation passed by a narrow margin in the House and is still making its way through the Senate.

“Congressman Shuler has supported this legislation ... that would be the most important energy legislation in our country’s history,” Newman said. “His support was very important to its passage.”

Sam Gray, director of operations at Smoky Mountain Biofuels, could not be happier with Shuler’s support of small businesses and environmental legislation. Smoky Mountain Biofuels uses methane gas from a landfill to produce alternative sources of fuel. The company is a grassroots effort and couldn’t run without the support of politicians like Shuler.

“To say we’re satisfied with Shuler would certainly be an understatement. He hasn’t wavered in trying to commit his time and resources to rural businesses like ourselves risking a difference and trying to cover our necks,” Gray said.

Shuler signed onto a House resolution that calls for investing in the country’s renewable resources by halting subsidies for offshore drilling. Many other Blue Dogs also supported this bill. He also voted for a House resolution to increase production-based incentives for renewable energy producers, creating a more level playing field. These would both benefit Smoky Mountain Biofuels tremendously, Gray said.

“‘Let’s get something going on now,’ is what Shuler thinks. He wants to have an aggressive commitment to the promotion and creation of alternative technology sources,” said Gray.


Pro-union stance

Another piece of legislation Shuler supported that has attracted some controversy is a bill some view as pro-union. A union can be formed in a company when 51 percent of the employees have signed a card in support of creating one. After the cards are collected, the union must hold a special election in which secret ballots are cast on whether to go through with forming the union. The bill Shuler signed eliminates the need for a vote and instead allows for union organization simply after the cards have been counted.

Howard Taylor, president of Smoky Mountain Local 507, the union for Blue Ridge Paper Products, praises the bill for putting the power in the hands of the employees and allowing less time for companies to try to halt formation of a union.

Taylor says when there is a waiting period (often of up to 50 days) between when the cards are collected and when a special vote is held, companies can pressure employees to vote against union formation. When an election is held, companies often can drag out the process by testing its results in court, Taylor said.

Republicans, however, are criticizing Shuler’s move for taking away the right to cast a private ballot.

“I believe people ought to be able to have a secret ballot. The opportunity for nefarious activity of people knowing how you vote is too great. Taking away that right is taking away what is America,” said Macon County commissioner Jim Davis, a Republican.

Duncan agreed.

“(Shuler) votes to allow unionism to have open ballots — that’s not a Western North Carolina value. We believe in the secret ballot, your vote being your vote, and privately cast,” he said.

Duncan said it was ridiculous for Shuler to take a pro-union stance, since less than 1 percent of Western North Carolina workers belong to a union. However, he said Shuler’s vote wasn’t surprising since he received “hundreds of thousands of dollars” from labor unions in his campaign.


Shuler’s next steps

Though only in office a short time, it’s evident that Shuler has grown as a politician. He’s poised when speaking to crowds, approachable, and informed on the issues.

Livingston said he’s witnessed an evolution of sorts in Shuler’s style.

“Before he even announced (his bid), he came and spoke to my congressional class. He did a good job, but after that class I wondered if he really understood what he’s getting himself into. But he really started to get the knack and the hang of things. He really grew as a candidate, and I was really impressed by how much he grew and matured during that period of time,” he said.

Shuler has a long road ahead of him. He heads back to Washington in a few days and will be battling a still-unnamed Republican for his seat come 2008. Constituents are sure to see his face around as he attempts to woo their hearts — and votes — in the upcoming election. By Livingston’s account, though, he’s already doing a fine job of that.

“I think for the most part the people here see him as a likeable individual, and that’s an intangible source of power in Washington,” he said.

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