Shuler getting comfortable in new position

In his initial bid for political office, U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., often seemed unsure of himself.

The former NFL quarterback, while clearly comfortable in the limelight, had difficulty articulating his political beliefs and staking out positions. Back in 2006 there were jokes among reporters about the difficult task of extracting printable quotes from the Swain County native, who now lives in Haywood County.

That was then.

These days, Shuler, who turns 39 this month, seems transformed. Leading up to the Nov. 2 election, he displayed intellectual agility and political aggressiveness in debates with Republican challenger Jeff Miller, who often relied on notes to combat the incumbent’s grasp of current issues. After trouncing Miller and winning his third term in office, Shuler turned his attention toward elevating his standing in the Democratic Party, left stumbling for answers following a thrashing in the midterm elections.

This time, Shuler took a calculated loss. He challenged Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for the soon-to-be-open position of minority leader. Pelosi, speaker of the House, has been demonized as a liberal harridan by her Republican foes. Democrats had to defend against being paired with her by opponents during the election. Even Shuler, pro-life and pro-gun Blue Dog Democrat that he is, felt the need to run ads declaring: “I am not Nancy Pelosi.”

“I can add and subtract,” Shuler said of his challenge to Pelosi. “I knew we could not win. But it was so important that the leadership in the Democratic caucus should be made to realize why we lost so many seats.”

That would be because the leadership, as personified by Pelosi, needs to be more moderate and centrist, Shuler said. Just like him.

And just like that, Shuler emerged a player on the national stage. He was interviewed on CNN and other major networks and cable shows. He was featured in news articles from sea to shining sea, quoted on the front pages of the nation’s greatest newspapers. Not bad for a boy from the mountains of Western North Carolina who could play a bit of football.

It certainly doesn’t hurt Shuler’s prospects that his now-polished speaking abilities are complemented by a winning political combination of awe-shucks country boy manners and photogenic good looks.

 

“Big tent” sure has a nice ring

The vote came on Nov. 17. Shuler versus Pelosi was not exactly David and Goliath, but those underdog overtones were evident in the news coverage that followed. As predicted, Shuler lost, 150 to 43, by secret ballot.

Shuler promptly expressed surprise he’d received so many votes, spinning defeat into a good college try. After all, he pointed out to various news agencies, the caucus he represents, the conservative Democratic Blue Dog Coalition, shrank from 54 to 25 members in the midterm election.

That’s one of the more interesting aspects of covering Shuler these days: His ability to spin the news, plus stay on message. He finds a sound bite that works and delivers it, over and over again:

• The Huffington Post, Nov. 14: “You know, I can add and subtract pretty well. I don’t have the numbers to be able to win, but I think it’s a proven point for moderates and the Democrat Party that we have to be a big tent.”

• Politics Daily, Nov. 15: “I can add and subtract pretty well. I don’t have the numbers to be able to win, but I think it’s a proven point for moderates and the Democrat Party that we have to be a big tent. We have to be all-inclusive. We have to invite everyone into the party.”

• Asheville Citizen-Times, Nov. 18: “We are strong because we are a big-tent party, not in spite of it.”

• To The Smoky Mountain News on his defeat: “We are the big tent party. I wanted to make sure our corner of the tent still stands strong.”

 

A liberal in sheep’s clothing?

Boyce Deitz is one of the most accomplished football coaches in WNC. He guided Swain County High School to five state championships, getting help from Shuler for three of those. Today, the shoe is on the other foot, with Deitz working for his former player as a field representative out of an office in Sylva.

Deitz is pleased, but not particularly surprised, to see his former football player blossom into his role as congressman.

“When he was in school he was a good student, but it didn’t come easily to him,” Deitz said. “Heath knew if he wanted to accomplish some of his goals, he had to make good grades.”

To that end, Deitz clearly remembers Shuler sitting in the school’s library putting in the necessary time studying. Shuler applied that willingness to work on the football field, as well as the classroom. Shuler focused on his weaknesses instead of glorying in his gifts. He strengthened his vast natural athletic talent, and became even better.

“I just see that same thing in him now,” Deitz said of Shuler’s ability to define goals and focus on them.

The longtime coach added he believes the former football star suffered a bad case of nerves early in his political career, but has since been able to settle down and find a comfortable stride.

After attending Swain County High School, Shuler became a standout football player for the University of Tennessee. He was a runner-up in 1993 for the Heisman Trophy. After leaving the NFL he returned to the University of Tennessee to finish a degree in psychology. He built a real-estate business in Knoxville, and moved to Waynesville in 2003.

Not everyone is as enamored of Shuler as his former coach. Kirkwood Callahan, a former college political science professor who serves as an officer in the Haywood County Republican Party, believes Shuler is guilty of posturing.

“If Shuler is a committed moderate why did he vote for Pelosi as speaker twice before?” Callahan said. “Shuler is what he is — an inconsistent opportunist who will enable the advancement of the liberal agenda in the House of Representatives when it is essential to retain favor with leftist party leaders. When there is nothing to lose with the leadership, he will resume his charade as a moderate.”

Callahan cited votes of support on cap-and-trade legislation (limits on carbon emissions, with permits for emissions issued that allows companies to buy and sell them) and card check (majority sign-up, a method for workers to organize into a labor union), saying it would have deprived workers of a secret ballot in union-organizing drives.

 

The inner game of politics

“I think when he came to Congress, people did see him as a retired NFL quarterback,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark. “Now they see Heath as a national leader. He’s gone from being able to hold a football to holding a mike.”

Ross and Shuler are the newly minted co-chairs of the greatly diminished Blue Dog Coalition. They are also good buddies, with Ross characterizing the N.C. representative as one of his best friends in the Congress.

Ross, first elected to the House in 2000, has made no secret that his long-term goal is to help lead his home state of Arkansas. The only question is the timing of his move from national to state politics.

Shuler isn’t publicly stating what career trajectory he is seeking, though he seems much more enamored with national party politics than Ross. It is dead certain, however, that Shuler has crystal-clear goals in mind. And whatever his other shortcomings might or might not be, the football player-turned-congressman is like a chicken on a June bug once he’s focused. And these days, Shuler is looking very focused indeed.

“The game in Washington is about getting re-elected and gaining power,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University who helps oversee a nonpartisan N.C. politics blog for the school’s Public Policy Institute. “Shuler’s move to run for Pelosi’s seat accomplishes both.”

The 11th Congressional District, made up of North Carolina’s 15 westernmost counties, is essentially a conservative Democratic district, Cooper said. There might be more Democrats than Republicans, but by the same token, they are decidedly not Nancy Pelosi Democrats.

“Running against Pelosi sends a strong message to Shuler’s constituents that a vote for him is not a vote for Nancy Pelosi,” Cooper said. “That helps him carry over a major theme from the election and build a name brand for his next re-election. This move also accomplishes the second goal — power.”

The traditional method of gaining power is to pay your dues and work up a ladder based on seniority, the political science professor said. By going directly to the people, Shuler worked around this system, al la Newt Gingrich in the mid-1990s.

“By running for minority leader, Shuler’s been covered in virtually every major newspaper and media source in the country,” Cooper said. “Heath Shuler’s now a household name — and not just for football.”

 

 

What are the Blue Dogs?

The Democratic Blue Dog Coalition formed in 1995, ostensibly to represent the center of the House of Representatives and mirror mainstream American values. The current 54-member coalition will decrease almost by half, however, as a result of this month’s election. Heath Shuler, formerly Blue Dog whip, now is a co-chair of the coalition.

Shuler didn’t fumble this time — Pelosi challenge sets the table for political prominence

U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler took a calculated loss when he challenged Rep. Nancy Pelosi for the position of House minority leader.

The payoff for losing? Shuler, the Democrat representing this region who is from Bryson City and now calls Waynesville home, emerged as an important national player in one of the biggest political games of them all. His voice and centrist position suddenly are important to the Democratic Party, which is battling internally to redefine itself following heavy midterm election losses.

“I can add and subtract,” Shuler said of the challenge to the soon-to-be former speaker of the House. “I knew we could not win. But it was so important that the leadership in the Democratic caucus should be made to realize why we lost so many seats.”

When the vote came last week, Shuler, as expected, lost big to Pelosi. But the Blue Dog Democrat garnered more than 20 percent of the votes. And he received a lot of airtime on national television and gobs of ink in prominent newspapers, coast to coast.

Shuler also was selected Blue Dog Co-Chair for Administration — a top leadership position of the coalition. The Blue Dogs formed in 1995, ostensibly to represent the center of the House of Representatives and mirror mainstream American values. The current 54-member coalition will decrease almost by half, however, as a result of this month’s election.

Next week in The Smoky Mountain News, look for an in-depth profile of Shuler and his increasingly prominent national role.

Democrats retain power on Swain board

Swain County will spend the next four years with an all-Democrat board of commissioners after all the incumbents running for office held onto their seats and Donnie Dixon and Robert White scooped up the two open spots.

Neither current chairman Glenn Jones nor commissioner Genevieve Lindsay sought re-election after both spent the last eight years on the board.

Steve Moon will serve his second term on the board, winning one district and 12 percent of the vote. He owns a tire shop and came to the board after a six-year run on the county’s school board. Moon said during the spring primaries that he wanted to stay on the board to watch over its allocation of interest from the North Shore Road settlement.

David Monteith, also an incumbent, came away with three of the county’s five districts and just under 15 percent of votes, the largest percentage of any winner. Monteith is a school bus driver and was the lone commissioner to vote against the North Shore Road settlement. He campaigned on a platform of protecting and increasing the county’s job base.

Donnie Dixon, a newcomer to the board, didn’t win outright in any precincts, but still pulled out nearly 13 percent of the vote. Dixon is a machinist who served a single term as commissioner in the 90s, but is coming back to the board with ideas of greater openness, televised meetings and courting higher paying jobs for the county.

Robert White is the second newcomer but is also no stranger to public life as retired superintendent of the county’s school system. He campaigned on strategic planning and citizen involvement to lead the board, citing the expertise in both areas that he gained as superintendent as good qualities to recommend him for the job.

While the four commissioners had to beat out a total field of nine challengers, the race for chairman was run between only two. Current board member Phil Carson won, edging out Mike Clampitt by just under 5 percent of the votes.

 

Swain County Board of Commissioners (Chairman)

Phil Carson (D)    2,319

Mike Clampitt (R)    2,083

 

Swain County Board of Commissioners (vote for 4)

David Monteith (D)    2,465

Donnie Dixon (D)    2,089

Steve Moon (D)    2,041

Robert White (D)    1,976

James King (R)     1,788

John Herrin (R)    1,778

Andy Parris (R)    1,724

Gerald Shook Jr. (R)    1,604

William (Neil) Holden (L)    1,015

Democrats buck trend in Haywood

Democrats claimed victory in all three open commissioner seats in Haywood County, with incumbents Kirk Kirkpatrick and Bill Upton keeping their spots on the board.

Newcomer Michael Sorrells took the chair left vacant by Skeeter Curtis, who did not seek re-election.

Current board chairman Kirkpatrick took eight districts, including all of Waynesville, Lake Junaluska and Clyde South. He has sat on the commission since 2002 and held the chair since 2008. A lawyer by trade, Kirkpatrick ran on a platform of experience, especially with budget management.

Upton won the privilege of a second term on the board, winning only four precincts but just over 17 percent of the vote. He claimed Clyde North and three Beaverdam districts, placing third behind Kirkpatrick and Sorrells. Now retired, he has spent much of his career in the public service, including a stint as principal of Pisgah High School and long-time superintendent with the Haywood County school system. Unsurprisingly, Upton lists education as his top priority, closely followed by keeping the county’s extremely low tax rate as low as possible.

Sorrells claimed 10 precincts, mostly in the northern and western districts, and took a little over 18 percent of all votes. Although new to the county commission, Sorrells is no stranger to the political process. He has spent the last six years on the Haywood County School Board and campaigned on promises of fiscal responsibility and maintaining low taxes. He is a native of Haywood County and runs a family business, Sorrells Merchandise Company, with his wife.

Republican Denny King pulled up just short of grasping a commission seat, and although he bested Upton in precincts won – seven to Upton’s four – he pulled in only 16 percent of the popular vote.

The three winners will now join fellow Democrat Mark Swanger and lone Republican Kevin Ensley, who both won fights for their positions in 2008.

While the chair currently belongs to Kirkpatrick and Upton serves as vice chairman, they are not guaranteed to keep those titles on the new board. Members will vote for the chairmanship when they take office in December.

 

Haywood County Commissioners

Michael T. Sorrells (D)    10,127

J.W. Kirk Kirkpatrick III (D)    10,022

Bill Upton (D)    9,652

Denny King (R)    8,927

David Bradley (R)    8,703

Tom Freeman (R)    7,919

Unaffiliated candidates denied access to party voters

With more unaffiliated candidates running for office this year, political party leaders are torn over whether to open their doors to those who won’t declare party affiliation as either  Democrat or Republican.

In Jackson County, three unaffiliated candidates will be on the ballot this fall: one for sheriff, one for county commissioner chairman and one for District Court judge. The Jackson County Democratic Party has barred them from attending candidate meet-and-greets hosted by the party.

“It is not right for the Democratic Party to support a Republican or unaffiliated candidate when there is a Democratic candidate on the ballot,” said Kirk Stephens, chair of the Jackson County Democratic Party. “The role of the party organization is to support and elect Democratic candidates, so why would we stray from that?”

Kris Earwood, a candidate running for District Court judge, said she was disappointed to be barred from the meet-and-greet. Judge races are nonpartisan — meaning that even though candidates might subscribe to one party or the other when it comes to their voter registration, party affiliation isn’t listed on the ballot as it is with most races.

Stephens said some of the other candidates running for judge have been active in the party, and that it would be unfair to give those with no affiliation or involvement in the party equal access to the Democratic voter base.

Stephens said opening the doors to other candidates would actually violate the party’s national bylaws, which stipulate that party leaders can be removed for supporting a candidate of another political party.

But that hasn’t stopped party leaders in other counties. Earwood has attended both Democratic and Republican party events in other places.

“Most of them have looked at independents not as an opposing party,” Earwood said. “I have been allowed to come to things for the simple reason that both parties are realizing they are going to have to deal with the independents.”

Earwood’s opponent for the seat, David Sutton, is a registered Democrat but he has been allowed to attend meet-and-greets hosted by Republican Party in Haywood, Jackson and Macon counties — since the race is technically nonpartisan. He was barred from attending the annual convention of the Republican Party in Swain and Macon, however.

As a Democrat, Sutton has actively tapped the organized party structure to connect with voters.

“It is important to the extent that it makes networking easier,” Sutton said. “It has definitely been helpful.”

Earwood said that she was warned by politicos that her lack of party affiliation would hurt her in the race, especially when it came to campaigning.

“I was told that an independent could not win in Western North Carolina,” Earwood said. “Across the board, people told me I needed to change my party affiliation, and I felt like that was disingenuous.”

Earwood said she doesn’t think the average voter cares. In fact, the number of voters registered as unaffiliated is growing by leaps and bounds, so it may even be an asset.

“It has upset me at times when I’ve been treated ungraciously because of my independent status. But for a judicial race it should be based on the person and their career rather than what their party affiliation is,” Earwood said.

Earwood said party affiliation doesn’t factor into the job of District Court judge — witnessed by the state designating judge races as nonpartisan.

“We don’t do any policy,” Earwood said.

But Stephens said it does matter.

“Being a Democrat is not a check box on paper. It is a lifestyle. It is a philosophical way of approaching and viewing your surroundings and your community,” Stephens said. “It is important for us as a party that we have judges that represent our values.”

While party affiliation likely doesn’t affect a judge’s outlook on a speeding ticket, District Court judges also decide critical family issues such as child custody and parental rights where philosophy matters, he said.

Sutton agrees with Earwood that your party isn’t important as a District Court judge. But that doesn’t mean voters don’t care.

“People definitely want to know,” Sutton said.

Without a party label, voters are left guessing, Stephens said.

“It doesn’t make it impossible to know what that person believes, but it does make it more difficult,” Stephens said. “Democrats like to say we have a big tent and we try to be inclusive. There are a lot of different kinds of people involved in the Democrat Party but the thing we have in common is we are all Democrats. There has to be a boundary somewhere.”

Waiting to inhale: Environmentalists herald new Democratic Congress

Environmental activists across the country are heralding the Democratic sweep of Congress as a mandate for better stewardship of natural resources and the environment.

N.C. counties have gotten more democratic

By Lee Shelton

After the primary election results were in, I offered a commentary on county government and the implications of the election’s outcome. That column elicited several responses, and led me to explore the history and role of county government in North Carolina.

Jackson Democrats must choose among a crowded field

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

Voters in Jackson County will elect predominately Democratic county commissioners in this May’s primary elections, regardless of voter turnout.

Twelve of 13 candidates in the county’s unusually large commissioners campaign pool — fueled partly by incumbents choosing not to seek re-election — are running on the Democratic ticket, with three of the four district seats unchallenged by the Republican party.

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