Family first: As Shuler steps down to spend time with family, finding a Shuler-esque candidate to fill the void has Democrats scrambling.

When Coach Boyce Dietz got a call from his former standout quarterback Heath Shuler asking him to meet for breakfast at Clyde’s Restaurant one morning several years ago, Dietz dutifully got in the car and headed toward Waynesville to hear what was on the mind of his old Swain County High football player gone-pro.

“I always told my players if you ever need to talk about anything through the years, no matter how much time has passed, to just give me a call,” Dietz said. He will never forget what came next as they dug into their biscuits and gravy at the roadside diner.

“He said, ‘Coach I’m, thinking about running for Congress,’” Dietz recounted. Needless to say, it was the first time one of his players had leveled that particular question.

Dietz offered some sage advice. Shuler’s children were just 2 and 5 at the time. Dietz warned him the toughest part of the job wouldn’t be anything that happened in Washington, but what he was missing out on back home.

Six years later, it seems Dietz was right. Shuler is throwing in the towel on his congressional career representing North Carolina’s 11th District, trading in the long trips back and forth to Washington for more time at home in Waynesville with his wife and kids, now 7 and 10.

SEE ALSO: Democrats face uphill battle to hang on to seat

“It feels like time has just flown by,” said Shuler, 40. “They are growing up, and I don’t want to miss those moments.”

Shuler said the decision came out of heart-to-heart talks with his wife, Nikol, as he contemplated whether to run for governor following the recent and equally surprising news that Gov. Beverly Perdue will step down.

The suddenness of Shuler’s announcement has sent shock waves through the Democratic Party, left in the lurch without an heir apparent who is prepped and ready to fill the void.

“I wish we’d had a little more advance notice that the Congressman wasn’t going to run,” said Brian McMahan, chairman of the Jackson County Democratic Party, who added that as a new father himself, he understands Shuler’s decision.

Shuler’s announcement came less than two weeks before the mandatory sign-up period for candidates to declare their intentions to run.

Shuler has gotten some backlash from Democrats who feel slighted by his 11th-hour decision. While a darling among moderates, Shuler has learned to accept the black sheep status from elements in his own party who reject him for being too conservative.

“I wasn’t Democratic enough, but now they want me back,” Shuler joked.

Mostly, however, Shuler said he has had a humbling outpouring of support from well-wishers from both parties. Shuler was one of the true middle-of-the-aisle members of Congress. In his last two years he served as the leader of the Blue Dog Coalition, an alliance of moderate Democrats in Congress.

“Republican House members have said ‘Please don’t leave, please don’t leave,’” Shuler said. “And, of course, all my Blue Dog guys.”

Rather than guilt him into staying on, however, those bidding Shuler farewell have largely enforced that his decision is the right one.

“So many have said don’t miss that time, you never get that childhood back. Those times are gone forever,” Shuler said.

Shuler has spent the past six years living a double life of sorts — flying to Washington Monday morning to do his job as a congressman and returning late Thursday night for a weekend as a family man.

Nikol’s parents live in Waynesville and serve as a support network when Shuler is out of town. But raising two kids alone for much of the week is hard work, Shuler said. He won’t forget his first solo stint with the kids one weekend when his wife had commitments of her own. He found himself wondering how in the world she did it.

“There is nothing like the two of us being together and to share the load and the work that it takes to raise kids,” Shuler said.

Spending time with family has become a cliché status often cited by people stepping down from a job.

“I think people use that as an excuse,” said Dietz, who joined Shuler’s staff as a field representative on the ground in the seven western counties. “I think it is a cop out a lot of the time, but I don’t really think it is with him. It really bothered him when we would go out the door on Monday morning and his kids would cry.

“He had a choice to make and he put his family before his job,” Dietz said.

 

Tough road to re-election

Political observers, however, question whether Shuler was simply fearful of losing this year’s election. Congressional lines were re-drawn this year by a Republican-led General Assembly, making Shuler’s district decidedly more conservative.

But Dietz doubts a fear of losing the race led to Shuler’s decision. Shuler won re-election easily in 2008 and even in 2010 — a dismal year for Democrats by all accounts but one that Shuler survived with hardly a battle scar to show for it. He beat his Republican challenger by 20,000 votes with 54 percent of the ballots.

But, there’s no question the fight to win would have been much tougher this time.

“I think he knew it was going to be a really hard campaign, and it was going to take a lot of time,” Dietz said. “He realized he was really going to be away.”

The new district lines cut Asheville out of Western North Carolina like a bite out of an apple. Asheville’s large bloc of Democratic voters were swapped out for the markedly conservative-leaning voters in Avery, Mitchell, Burke and Caldwell counties.

“I can’t believe he didn’t do the math and figure out it was going to be a lot harder,” said Chris Cooper, a political analyst and professor at Western Carolina University.

Shuler, however, says he wasn’t daunted.

“I know what my polling numbers were,” Shuler said.

Just because the new district includes more Republicans doesn’t mean they would have necessarily supported his opponent, said Shuler, who has gotten votes from a lot of Republicans in each of his previous elections.

“Graham County is a perfect example of a county that is a so-called Republican county and we won it by 66 percent of the vote,” Shuler said of the 2010 election.

Dietz believes Shuler could have kept the seat as long as he wanted it — although he never would have guessed it sitting in Clyde’s Restaurant that morning six years ago.

Dietz admits he was doubtful Shuler could unseat the powerful, wealthy, longtime Congressman Charles Taylor, R-Brevard.

“I told him it would be an uphill battle. Nobody else has been able to even come close to doing this. You have never even been in politics before,” Dietz recalled saying.

Dietz’s mind was whirling with all the issues Shuler would have to brush up on, from obscure historical factoids to foreign policy.

“I was thinking how in the world can you prepare yourself for that?” Dietz said. “He proved he to be a quick learner on a lot of things.”

Still, Dietz said he was surprised when Shuler actually pulled off a victory over Taylor in 2006. And he wasn’t the only one.

“On paper, no Democrat should have won this district,” said Cooper.

Once in office, the surprises kept coming.

“Your preconception is we got us a big, dumb football player, but to anyone who had that preconceived notion, it turned out that this guy was sharp as a tack, and he really got it,” said Joe Sam Queen, a former state senator from Waynesville. “I found him to be one of the quickest studies in politics I’ve ever met.”

Shuler quickly made a name for himself and began wearing the title of congressman with confidence.

“I think he was more effective than one would expect a freshman congressman to have been,” said Mark Swanger, the chairman of the Haywood County Board of Commissioners and a Democrat. “I do think he established a higher profile than one would expect in his short tenure.”

Swanger said he is very disappointed Shuler is dropping out of Congress, a sentiment echoed time and again since the news broke last week.

“I really, really regret that he is not running again because he is good at what he does,” said Luke Hyde, an attorney in Shuler’s hometown of Bryson City and head of the Democratic Party in the 15-county congressional district.

 

Blue Dog at heart

Shuler’s ability to win and retain a seat in Congress as a Democrat from a conservative mountain district is a testament to his middle-of-the-road philosophy. He is pro-gun, pro-life and doesn’t support gay marriage. He voted against health care reform and against federal bailouts, winning the title as one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress.

“I think he found a voice for the people of Western North Carolina that was right down the center. I certainly respected and admired that,” said Queen. “He struck a good balance.”

Republicans aren’t exactly chirping a chorus of  “good riddance” over Shuler’s departure.

“I think Heath did a good job,” said Floyd Rogers, owner of Haywood Insurance in Waynesville and a Republican. “He tried to vote the heart and the conscious of the people in his district. It was a very difficult thing for Heath to balance. Overall, I would give him a good rating.”

For counties west of Asheville, having a congressman from their neck of the woods was a nice change in a political landscape increasingly dominated by metro population centers.

“Heath is the kind of person you could just pick up the phone and reach him or he would call you right back,” said Swanger.

From his own staff to political opponents, the sheer number of people who refer to him as “Heath” — not congressman and certainly not Mr. Shuler — is in itself a testament to his approachable persona.

“There was one thing I always thought about Heath,” Dietz said. “I thought he was a better person than he was a football player, and he was a heck of a football player.”

Unlike some athletes who think they are above their peers at school, Shuler always gave his teammates credit and went out of his way to reach out to the younger kids, Dietz said.

Shuler remembers going out to dinner with his parents after a football game his freshman year at the University of Tennessee, being constantly interrupted by people wanting his autograph. When Shuler gave a sigh under his breath, his mom looked at him and told him that one day he would look back and wish people still wanted his autograph like they used to.

He never forgot his mom’s words that night, and it helped shape the gracious and humble personality he still exhibits.

Shuler says he’ll miss the camaraderie of other congressman more than anything else about the job. He equated it to the locker room fellowship of other football players, which is precisely what he missed most after exiting his pro football career following an injury.

“As much as people want to demonize members of Congress, the truth is there are some great, quality people,” Shuler said. “As a whole we don’t poll very well, but individually, there are great guys.”

But, Shuler had disdain for what he called the gamesmanship of politics in D.C.

“I had people who wouldn’t even shake my hand in a public setting because they knew I was a Democrat. I was like, really? Really?” Shuler said. “I am glad I won’t have to put up with it any longer.”

Queen wondered whether the toxic political atmosphere is partly to blame for Shuler walking away.

“Given the tenure in Washington, I am sure it has not been fun,” Queen said.

Shuler, a devout Christian, rented a room in a D.C. house run by a religious group for congressmen. His roommates are all currently Republicans.

While Shuler is conservative as far as most Democrats go, not all Republicans were willing to embrace him as one of their own. Jeff Norris, a Republican attorney in Waynesville, hopes to see a Republican win the seat, something that will certainly be easier with Shuler out of the way.

“Hopefully the next representative will help the district and country solve some of the critical issues facing us,” Norris said, questioning whether Shuler has any tangible accomplishments from his six years in Congress.

Dietz said the national deficit weighed heavily on Shuler and indeed became one of his leading causes in Washington in recent years. During the height of the deficit talks last fall, when the so-called Super Committee was wrestling with how to trim the budget by a $1.5 trillion, Shuler amassed the “Go Big” coalition — urging the committee to instead trim the deficit by $4 trillion during the next decade. He ultimately got 150 members from both parties in the House and Senate to sign on.

“He felt so strong about the deficit and the threat to the country,” Dietz said.

 

Filling Shuler’s shoes

With news of Shuler’s departure less than a week old, no Democrats have yet emerged to run for the seat other than Cecil Bothwell, an Asheville city councilman who was already in the race and planned to challenge Shuler in the Democratic primary.

But, Bothwell’s more liberal stance than Shuler may not go over with the district’s conservative leanings, leaving Democrats in a quandary in finding a candidate they think has a shot at winning. Meanwhile, Republican challengers for Shuler’s seat announced their intentions months ago. The frontrunners have campaign staffs assembled, headquarters humming, web sites up and running and fundraising well under way.

Cooper, the political analyst and public policy professor at Western Carolina University, doesn’t give the Democrats much hope.

“It is going to be darn near impossible,” Cooper said. “Ideologically, I can’t imagine anyone who is going to line up with the district the way Shuler did.”

But, there may be one. Hayden Rogers, Shuler’s chief of staff, is contemplating a run.

Rogers grew in the small town of Robbinsville and like Shuler played football in high school, but on an opposing team. Hardly rivals now, however, Rogers is Shuler’s closest advisor and political strategist, commuting back and forth to D.C. from his home in Murphy.

Rogers can walk both walks. He grew hunting squirrels and fishing in the mountains with his grandfather, yet went on to major in political science at Princeton, where he also played football.

“He would be an extremely strong candidate,” Shuler said.

Shuler’s endorsement of his own chief of staff has led some to speculate as to whether he intentionally timed the announcement of his decision not to run at this late stage in order to give Rogers a leg up. While any other Democrat would have to scramble to get a campaign rolling, Rogers would arguably have an easier time of it as Shuler’s anointed replacement, potentially inheriting a good share of Shuler’s half-million dollar war chest and many of his campaign workers.

Shuler said there was no plan to hand the seat to Rogers. In fact, Shuler didn’t know Rogers might be interested until after he made the announcement last Thursday.

Rogers approached him later that evening and asked “What would you think if I ran in your spot?” Shuler recounted.

If stepping down indeed was part of a grand plan, it was a well-kept secret indeed.

“I was totally shocked to learn Heath Shuler wasn’t going to run. I’ve not talked to anyone who knew it was coming,” said Jean Ellen Forrister, active party Democrat in Jackson County.

From Democratic insiders to Shuler’s own staff, the announcement came as a surprise.

Dietz says he didn’t know Shuler was planning to step down until he called an all-staff video conference last Thursday.

“None of us definitely knew, but we all had a bad feeling about it,” Dietz said of those hours leading up to the conference call. “It depresses me to think about not being able to do this anymore.”

Shuler pointed out he isn’t quitting tomorrow. He still has another 11 months to go — 11 more months to hit his favorite DC restaurant, Oceanaire, an upscale seafood restaurant popular in political circles. And 11 more months to represent the people of the 11th District.

Shuler to face challenger in Democratic primary

Despite his limited name recognition and his significantly smaller war chest, Cecil Bothwell is confident he can outrun U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler during next May’s primary race for the 11th Congressional District’s Democratic nomination.

“I would not be doing it if I did not intend to win,” said Bothwell, a city councilman and former newspaper reporter in Asheville.

Bothwell and Shuler are at opposite ends of the Democratic spectrum, with Bothwell in the liberal corner and Shuler in the more conservative camp. Should Bothwell make it past the primary, however, he is not concerned about how his liberal leanings or Asheville ties will play with the region’s rural and historically conservative mountain voters.

“I think I am more likely to win in November than he is,” Bothwell said.

In past elections, Shuler, D-Waynesville, has demonstrated an ability to curry favor with voters from both political parties.

A 2010 Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute poll of almost 600 registered Jackson County voters revealed an astonishing anomaly in Shuler’s supporter base: Republicans gave him just as high an approval rating as Democrats.

Shuler said Bothwell would be unlikely to pick up the necessary independent or conservative voters in a general election.

“They won’t get any support from the other side on any issue they have,” Shuler said.

Bothwell originally planned to run as an independent but found the requirements to get his name on the ballot overwhelming.

“When I began to explore the possibility, it turned out I would need to collect something close to 20,000 verified signatures,” Bothwell said.

Bothwell added it would be “very, very difficult to win” with three candidates vying for the position.

Bothwell decided to run against Shuler in March after the three-term congressman voted against key bills in the national Democratic agenda: namely health care reform and the federal stimulus bill.

“I decided somebody had to run against him,” Bothwell said.

 

Uphill battle

Name recognition could be Bothwell’s biggest challenge if he hopes to defeat Shuler, said Chris Cooper, a political science professor from Western Carolina University.

“I think that is a major reason why incumbents win,” Cooper said.

As a former editor at the Mountain Xpress and member of the Asheville City Council, Bothwell is known in Buncombe County. However, it is unknown how many voters outside of Asheville recognize Bothwell as compared to Shuler — an incumbent and revered football hero.

Last election, however, a relatively unknown candidate from Asheville pulled down nearly 40 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary and carried Buncombe County, the most liberal county in the region.

Shuler’s conservative stance helps him during the general election but drags down his primary numbers. Democratic voters punished Shuler during the last primary for not being liberal enough.

The fact that a “newcomer to politics” received such as large percent of the votes “indicates widespread dissatisfaction” among 11th District Democrats, Bothwell said.

But, the same dip in poll numbers did not hold true in the general election.

Shuler handily won re-election by more than 20,000 votes in 2010 against Republican Jeff Miller of Hendersonville.

“We went through the most difficult election in history for Democrats, and we still won by 10 percent,” Shuler said. “We feel very good.”

But, the primary race could also force Shuler, who has received flack for his not-always-party-line voting record, to prove he is a Democrat by taking a leftist standpoint, Cooper said.

And, that could come back to bite him in the general election.

“In some ways, the best thing for the Republican Party is for Cecil Bothwell to do well,” Cooper said.

While Bothwell has already started his campaign for the Democratic nomination, Shuler said he does not expect to spend much time or money running a primary race.

“Campaign mode does not kick in til August,” Shuler said.

Until then, Shuler said he will continue to do what he was elected to do — work.

“You still have to focus on the job at hand,” Shuler said. “Being placed on the budget committee … takes priority over fundraising.”

Shuler said he thinks the new district make-up gives him an advantage over the more liberal Bothwell now that Asheville, a traditionally liberal sect of voters, has been cut out.

Shuler said the district has “a Blue Dog type make-up,” referring  to the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of fiscally conservative Democrats in Washington that Shuler heads.

 

Asheville booted out

Come Election Day, Bothwell won’t be able to vote for himself.

Although he is still legally allowed to run for its congressional seat, Bothwell no longer lives in the district he hopes to represent.

Every 10 years, the lines for Congressional districts are redrawn following the national census, to ensure that each district has roughly the same number of voters.

The re-organization of the 11th District added several Republican-leaning counties and carved out Asheville’s liberal voters.

Now, the district is 38 percent registered Republicans and only 36 percent of voters in the district are registered Democrats, a possibly election-making difference when compared to the 43 percent who were registered Democrats before the re-organization. That means the general election could be decided by the 26 percent of unaffiliated voters that making up the remaining portion.

Meanwhile, Asheville was shunted into the 10th Congressional district, which is already a Republican stronghold and could absorb Asheville’s Democratic voting bloc without tipping the scales.

Bothwell chose not to run in the 10th District, which reaches from the foothills to the outskirts of Charlotte, because he does not agree with how the state’s congressional districts were redrawn. State law does not require a candidate to live in the Congressional district he represents.

“The fact that the headstrong Republican idiots in Raleigh have temporarily tried to move Asheville into the Piedmont is laughable,” Bothwell said.

Bothwell still considers himself a resident of the 11th Congressional District even though the maps say otherwise. He hopes it won’t be the case for long.

“I will do all I can to speed the redrawing of district maps to reflect reality. In the meantime, I aim to represent my people, the people of the western counties, in Washington,” Bothwell said.

Whoever wins the Democratic primary will face one of at least eight Republican candidates that have joined the race. The Republican candidate will face slightly better odds this election as a result of the re-organization of the congressional district.

Republican candidates pile on for the chance to take on Shuler

At least eight Republicans have lined up to spar with incumbent Democratic Rep. Heath Shuler for Western North Carolina’s 11th U.S. Congressional seat, but they have to knock their fellow party members out of the competition first.

The controlling political party — whether Democrat or Republican — has never had an easy time securing the 11th District seat, but the cluster of Republicans planning to file will face better odds this election season following the re-organization of the state’s congressional districts.

“This is always a competitive district,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University. “I think the big change this year is redistricting.”

The 11th District formerly included Asheville, with its traditionally liberal voters. After some shuffling earlier this year, however, Asheville was booted out of the district while Republican-leaning counties were brought into the fold. Now, only 36 percent of voters in the district are registered Democrats, a possibly election-making difference when compared to the 43 percent who were registered Democrats before the re-organization.

“It makes it a lot more likely that a Republican is going to win,” Cooper said.

Even though the district is weighted more heavily toward Republican candidates, it in no way ensures a win for the party, especially given Shuler’s appeal to conservative mountain voters despite the word “Democrat” beside his name.

A Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute poll of almost 600 registered Jackson County voters in 2010 revealed a striking anomaly in Shuler’s supporter base: Republicans gave him just as high an approval rating as Democrats.

The huge field of candidates could be daunting to voters in the run-up to the May primary. Having too many candidates divides the Republican Party’s funding and support.

“The key (now) will be whittling down the field,” Cooper said. “The party as a whole will be a lot better off if they can get behind one candidate sooner.”

But, the growing field of candidates does not concern Jeff Hunt, a candidate from Brevard, who touted his 17 years of experience as a district attorney.

“The more the better,” Hunt said.

Once the party has narrowed the field to one or two candidates, name recognition will be one of its biggest hurdles.

“It’s going to be huge,” Cooper said. “I think that is a major reason why incumbents win.”

Compared to Shuler, an incumbent and hometown football superstar, the current Republican candidates have little or no name recognition. The candidate who may be able to beat Shuler is “a moderate Republican, a fiscal conservative,” Cooper said.

“Somebody with some name recognition who isn’t too far to the right,” he said.

The district is now 38 percent registered Republicans and 36 percent Democrat — a toss-up that could put the contest in the hands of the unaffiliated voters making up the remaining 26 percent.

Republican primary candidate Mark Meadows, who hails from Jackson County, said the change makes Western North Carolina one of the strongest, if not the strongest, Republican districts in the state.

Meadows, a 52-year-old real estate developer from Cashiers, noted that even with Asheville as a part of the old district, former Republican presidential candidate John McCain still received 52 percent of the vote in the 11th Congressional District in 2008.

As a testament to the shift in party leanings, almost 59 percent of the district’s voters would have cast their ballot for McCain under the new district lines.

Chris Petrella, a 44-year-old candidate from Spindale, said it is no surprise that so many Republicans are entering the race. Ousting Shuler, given his appeal among moderates and even many conservatives, was a daunting prospect before redistricting took Asheville’s liberal voters out of the picture.

But don’t expect the candidates to tell you that, said Petrella, who owns an economic development firm.

“The politically correct answer is that Obama has done something so terribly wrong that it is time to change the change,” Petrella said of why the Republican field is so crowded. “Any idiot who wants to have Congressman on their resume has decided to throw their hat in the ring.”

But it isn’t going to be as easy as it looks, not even with the new voting demographic in the 11th district favoring Republicans.

“There is a misperception that winning the nominee in the Republican primary will automatically anoint you to winning the general election,” Petrella said, adding that he had gotten into the race “before it looked easy.”

Candidates will official declare their intention to run during a filing period in the month February.

Because he is running for re-election in a swing district, from a national standpoint, Shuler is one of the Democrats to beat. If Shuler expects to win, he must spend time in the district and remind people of what he has accomplished during his term, Cooper said.

“Good old-fashioned retail politics is going to win this race,” he said.

Shuler leads national call for much larger debt cuts

Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, is leading a bipartisan call, asking the joint super committee to spare nothing in its cuts to the U.S. deficit.

“It will be heard throughout the world that we can do something together,” Shuler said in a phone interview, “and work for the united good of this nation.”

A Nov. 2 bipartisan letter signed by 100 members of Congress asks the super committee tasked with recommending budget solutions in Washington to cut $4 trillion rather than the mandated $1.2 trillion.

Analyses by multiple economic, partisan and bipartisan groups say the U.S must cut its deficit spending and place the amount of the cuts near $4 trillion, said Shuler.

The letter is not specific about what should be trimmed but states that the committee should keep all types of mandatory and discretionary spending and revenues.

“You can’t do one without the other,” Shuler said. “It has to be a combination of both.”

The committee, comprised of Senate and House of Representatives members, must create a plan by Nov. 23. Failure to do so will result in across-the-board cuts in 2013.

No compromise means “the political parties have won, and America has lost,” Shuler said.

Shuler has staked himself out as a moderate in his seven years in office, despite his formal label as a Democrat. He is also a leader of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of moderate Democrats in Congress that claim to rise above the political fray.

The letter was co-authored by Congressman Mike Simpson (R-ID) and signed by 100 members of Congress, including David Price, Howard Coble, Mike McIntrye and Mel Watt.

“We write to you as a bipartisan group of representatives from across the political spectrum in the belief that the success of your committee is vital to our country’s future,” states the letter. “We know that many in Washington and around the country do not believe we in the Congress and those within your committee can successfully meet this challenge. We believe that we can and we must.”

Battling the bureaucracy for veterans

David Gifford proudly stood as a congressman presented him with medals for meritorious service in the Air Force and the Army. The assembled crowd applauded as the representative gave a short speech. Photos were snapped and a news camera rolled.

And Gifford, 61, beamed. He was not at the White House or a formal military ceremony, but in his humble backyard in Waynesville, surrounded by family and standing in front of a small banner emblazoned with the mantra Support Our Troops, finally receiving his accolades nearly 40 years after he earned them.  

This intimate ceremony was the culmination of years of work by his wife, Kim, who was told that to get her husband’s medals for his service in Vietnam, she’d have to pay for them.

Unable to do so, she eventually enlisted the help of U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, who threw his weight around to get the military awards free of charge.

Gifford’s story is far from unique among veterans, even though rewards recognizing bravery and service are promised for free to GIs coming home. They’re even supposed to get one replacement for every award without paying for it.

But that doesn’t always happen. Brandon Wilson knows that very well, as the veterans’ services officer for Haywood County.

“Most veterans’ services officers help widows or veterans themselves get medals,” said Wilson, because when the vets or their families try to do it on their own, they’re often stymied by red tape or get lost in the bowels of massive, draconian bureaucracy that is the U.S. military.

Or, in the cash-strapped recession economy, the particular branch of military may not have the right medals in stock or the money to order them. And what can and can’t be done is likely to change with every call, depending on who you talk to.

“It’s supposed to be free. That’s supposed to be what happens,” said Wilson. “But I’m supposed to be six feet tall and beautiful and worth half a million dollars.”

In his one-year tenure as Haywood’s veterans officer, he’s helped around 20 vets and their spouses get the medals owed to them, some dating as far back as World War I.

Each branch of service deals with its own medals and awards internally, and getting them depends largely on the diligence of a commanding officer to file the right paperwork and follow through with it. If they don’t, people like Gifford fall through the cracks.

“When you get the medal and you’ve earned the medal, right then they’re supposed to have an awards ceremony to give that Marine, soldier, sailor that medal on the spot. But it all depends on the command,” said Wilson. “Some commands do it when you get home, some do it on the field, some forget to do it altogether.”

Gifford spent seven years on active duty with the Air Force and another 14 with the Army. Two of those years were served in Vietnam, on a detail that he called “suicide jockey.”

“I drove a fuel tanker that was traffic yellow,” said Gifford.

In Vietnam and after, he said he was repeatedly promised medals for risking his life almost daily, but when he returned to U.S. soil, they never materialized.

“When we got home, the only thing we got was spit at and garbage thrown at us,” said Gifford.

His wife went around and around with the Army for years afterwards, trying to get them on his behalf.

“I’ve been fighting the VA (Veterans’ Affairs) for 18 years,” said Kim Gifford. “They kept telling me that his medals, he had to pay for them.”

It’s not so much that medals are in short supply. There are companies around the country that will supply you with nearly any U.S. military medal imaginable, for a price, of course.

Should you want to buy yourself a pair of military dress blues online and order a few dozen medals from an outfit like Medals of America, you too can appear to be a decorated serviceman in a matter of days, though it’s a felony if you didn’t earn them.

In fact, Medals of America is where the military itself refers veterans when they don’t have the resources to hand out their own medals.

They’re not inordinately expensive; a Purple Heart would set you back $34.95 plus tax.

“But if you can get a Purple Heart medal from the United States Marine Corps for free, why would you want to pay $35 for it?” asks Wilson. “I mean hell, you already paid for it, it’s yours.”

When even he can’t cut through the bureaucratic quagmire to get the medals gratis for veterans, Wilson and his compatriots — there’s a veterans’ services officer in every county — often turn to heavyweights like Rep. Shuler, whose clout is more effective at red-tape cutting.

“These men and women have made invaluable contributions to our nation and fought to defend the values of freedom and democracy that all Americans hold dear, and it is important that they receive the medals and awards they earned and deserve,” said Shuler, who said he’s long had a close relationship with vets and the VA in Western North Carolina.

But for those without access to a congressman, there is Veterans’ Legacy, a group that popped up in North Carolina last year to help vets get the recognition they’re owed.

John Elskamp is a retired Air Force veteran, and when he was on active duty, tracking down medals for service members was part of his job. After getting out, he and some friends just kept going with it.

Ten years later, they’ve found the demand to be so great that they set up a nonprofit to help deal with the requests, and Veterans’ Legacy was born.

Elskamp said that while yes, it’s possible for a veteran or their family to pursue an unawarded medal, or even get recognized for service that was never awarded a medal but should have been — a much larger task — it’s hard for a layperson to manage alone.

“They have to do all the work, they have to go through a member of Congress to submit it, and that’s a tall order for most veterans,” said Elskamp, who is based in a small community just west of Ft. Bragg.

“Even if it was already awarded, (the veteran) just wants replacement medals, that’s something fairly simple, but something that requires a lot of research for the veterans’ services officer to do.”

Elskamp and his colleagues are part detective, part paper pushers, poring through old files in forgotten archival warehouses, tracking down platoon leaders and commanding officers and funneling it all through the administrative processes of the military.

They take the hard cases, and those can take anywhere from 30 to 40 days for the easier ones to several years for the trickiest.

The group offers their service free of charge, because, said Elskamp, they can relate to the importance veterans attach to these medals.

“I mean, I’m a military man so I know what I did in the military is important to me and my family, and the same goes for other veterans,” said Elskamp. “It’s something that you want to leave behind.” Which is why the group is called Veterans’ Legacy.

Though most of the work they do is for veterans of long-past wars, newer cases are finding their way into the groups’ caseload. And with new veterans coming back all the time, Elskamp doesn’t see his service becoming obsolete, even in the digital age.

“I think we’ll always be needed, because even though everything’s on the Internet, people just don’t know what questions to ask,” he said, which is often a good chunk of the battle.

In WNC, Rep. Shuler is pretty active in the field, working to get medals for war widows and vets across the region. Next on the docket is a war widow in Macon County.

Wilson, too, is busy working on new cases himself, trying to get a service medal to one of the last remaining WWI wives in the region. He’s also recently been able to return a Purple Heart to its rightful owner in Bryson City and get long overdue World War II medals for his own grandfather.

Although this work is really just a footnote to the main portion of his job, he sees it as an important part of supporting veterans.

“What I’m majorly here for is to improve the quality of life of these people, and at least I’ve done something for them to make them feel good about themselves or feel positive about themselves.”

Shuler left with Republican-leaning district after new maps slice liberal Asheville out of WNC

Democrats are crying foul over new Congressional district lines that with seemingly surgical precision slice the City of Asheville, a liberal stronghold, out of the 11th Congressional District.

The maps, drawn by state Republican leaders in the the GOP-dominated General Assembly, are no doubt a political move, according to Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.

“This is the game that both parties play,” Cooper said. “They know exactly what they are doing.”

The new 11th Congressional District would include Mitchell, Avery, Caldwell and Burke counties. In exchange, the district divests itself of Asheville and eastern Buncombe, as well as Polk County. The mountain district will shift from 43 percent of the voters being registered Democrats to 36 percent.

The result: a far more conservative voting base, and much more difficult re-election campaing next year for three-term Democrat Congressman Heath Shuler of Waynesville.

Shuler seized the district in 2006 over eight-term incumbent Charles Taylor, R-Transylvania County, and has easily won back his seat every election since. His opponent last fall was considered an admirable opponent, and the year was a watershed for Republicans, but even then Shuler handily kept his seat with more than 54 percent of the vote.

That may not be the case in 2012 given the new district lines, however. Shuler is one of several previously Democratic-leaning districts that has been infused with just enough GOP voters to tip the balance.

As for what to do with all those Democratic voters? The best bet is to lump as many as possible into as few districts as possible. In otherwords, pick a few Democratic-leaning districts to be sacrifical lambs. Stack them heavily with Democrats, while spreading Republican voters around to have just enough of an edge in as many districts as possible.

“Any vote after 50 plus one is a wasted vote,” Cooper said. “The reason you do that is not to dominate a few districts but to win a lot of districts by a little bit.”

All the while, however, the districts must make geographic sense or else risk being overturned in a court battle. If the other party can prove gerrymandering and show that districts are not geographically “compact,” a lawsuit over the district lines is likely.

In this instance, Cooper doesn’t think the new mountain districts cross that line. He sees the districts being geographically close enough to be bullet proof in court, yet still achieving their purpose of favoring Republicans.

“They did a great job of it. The more I look at the more impressed I am,” Cooper said.

Mike Clampitt of the Swain County Republican Party said the redrawing wasn’t tit-for-tat as it might appear — Democrats have a long history of gerrymandering districts in North Carolina — but a case of putting likes with likes.

“This balances the playing field,” Clampitt said. “Asheville is more like the Greensboro and Charlotte area.”

That metropolitan, urban mindset is at odds with the rural understandings and needs of the bulk of the 11th Congressional District, Clampitt said.

Members of the opposing party see the situation differently, however: “Democrats will not take this lying down,” promised Janie Benson of the Haywood County Democratic Party.

“I’m stunned, because the distance between Caldwell county and Cherokee county is so great,” Benson said, adding that the redistricting proposed by Republicans is a “blatant” attempt to wrest the district from Democrats.

“Frankly the redistricting maps that I’ve seen just look unfair,” she said. “The Democrats, to my knowledge, have never been so obvious in whatever they were doing. This just seems almost like a punishment, and it feels that way somewhat.”

In addition to threatening Democrats hold on the 11th Congressional District, Democrats could also lose control of the 7th, 8th and 13th districts.

But Kirk Callahan of Haywood County, a self-described conservative, believes Republicans might be missing the mark some. While cautioning he hasn’t had time to fully assess the potential voter fallout, Callahan thinks the growing bloc of unaffiliated voters could actually dictate who wins and who loses.

“They are key,” Callahan said. “A candidate has to earn the votes, because they are not going to be swayed by party labels or an appeal to party loyalty.”

Callahan, by way of example, pointed to Taylor’s defeat, saying he was dismayed by the longtime congressman’s unabashed support of earmarks.

“That didn’t sit well with me, because (earmarks) really corrupted the budgeting process,” he said.

Lawmakers will vote on the redistricting plan in a special session that starts July 25.

Across the state, there were five districts that posted major geographical shifts. Four are seats currently held by vulnerable Democrats that have now seen the scales tip in their district to favor Republicans — as is the case with Shuler’s district. The fifth that showed the biggest changes was held by a vulnerable Republican, but is now more solidly Republican.

“It is really clear they targeted these vulnerable Democrats,” Cooper said.

Shuler’s new district would be the most Republican-leaning district in the state when judging by those who voted for McCain over Obama in 2008.

Shuler is a conservative Democratic at best — others considered him a DINO, or Democrat In Name Only — and plays well with conservative Southern Democrats and even many Republicans.

But under the new district lines, even that may not be enough, Cooper said.

“For Shuler to win he would have to practicaly completely separate himself from the Democratic party,” Cooper said. “This is going to be a really intersting race.”

 

Why the new voting maps?

Every 10 years, along with the census, state legislative and Congressional districts are redrawn to reflect the population change. As the population grows, so does the number of people each elected leader represents.

The state’s Congressional District will need to grow from the current 619,177 people to the 733,499 each, plus or minus 5 percent.

Since growth was more robust in urban areas, districts in rural regions like Western North Carolina will have to expand geographically to take in the required number of people.

Under the proposed new maps, which sever Asheville from the district, it would lose 9,000 Democrats and gain 26,000 Republicans.

The Department of Justice issues guidelines governing how states can and can’t be carved up, and they must approve a map before it can be put into action.

Currently, redistricting is done by legislators and is a highly partisan affair. With every redistricting comes a court challenge from one side or the other, claiming that the lines are unfair.

But under new legislation recently passed by the state House, the process would become staff-driven, with a simple up-or-down vote by legislators. It’s based on a system long used by Iowa, where no redistricting has been to court in the four decades since the system was put into place.

The measure is now headed to the Senate.

 

Speak up

Weigh in on new Congressional districts

A public hearing on the new Congressional district maps will be held from 3 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, July 7, at  Western Carolina University in the Cordelia Camp Building.

It is one of nine across the state on the same day and time. There is also one in the Ferguson Auditorium at A-B Tech.

The hearings are sponsored by the Joint House and Senate Redistricting Committee, and anyone wishing to comment can sign up online at www.ncga.state.nc.us or in person the day of the hearing.  Written comments can also be submitted on the North Carolina General Assembly’s Website.

Far-left liberal could be a spoiler in Shuler’s next election

A liberal Asheville city council member announced this week he’d run as an Independent in 2012 against U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, potentially eroding Shuler’s Democratic base and making for a tough re-election bid for the three-term congressman.

A former editor for the Asheville-based newspaper Mountain Xpress, Cecil Bothwell acknowledged he has an uphill battle gaining sufficient name recognition outside of Buncombe County to unseat the former NFL quarterback.

“I guess I’ll wear out some shoe leather,” said Bothwell, 60, who turned down a potential opportunity to serve as the chairman of the Buncombe County Democratic Party to tackle Shuler.

Shuler won re-election by more than 20,000 votes in November against Republican Jeff Miller of Hendersonville, who started out his campaign with considerably stronger name recognition than Bothwell.

First, to even get on the ballot as an Independent, Bothwell must by Jan. 1, 2012, garner enough voter signatures to equal 4 percent of the total number of registered voters in the 15-county congressional district — about 20,000 signatures. Then, to win, he must battle an experienced candidate with the ability to raise plenty of money to fund his re-election efforts against Shuler, who’s war chest will easily top $1 million by the time campaign season starts.

But, no matter how unlikely his actual chances of success, Bothwell’s bid is nonetheless important: as a third-party candidate, Bothwell will have the ability to help drive the political debate, plus his entry indicates a possible fracturing of the Democratic base.

Shuler got in hot water with many Democrats when he voted against health care reform. In the May primary last year, Democratic voters punished Shuler for his conservative leanings at the polls, allowing a relatively unknown candidate from Hendersonville to pull down nearly 40 percent of the primary vote and even carry Buncombe County, the most liberal county in the region.

If Bothwell pulls a piece of the Democratic pie away during the general election, and if the GOP mounts a meaningful challenge, Shuler really could be facing a challenge getting re-elected, said Chris Cooper, who teaches political science at Western Carolina University and helps oversee a blog on North Carolina politics.

“Surely he doesn’t think he’s going to win,” Cooper said of Bothwell. “And to me, that’s the really interesting question about why he’s running … clearly the liberal wing of the Democratic Party is not happy with Heath Shuler.”

That’s clear because Bothwell, by most any standard, could be described as a liberal Democrat’s Democrat. Asked about his political connections west of Buncombe County, he mentioned anti-death penalty and anti-war advocates, plus interaction with the Canary Coalition, an environmental coalition that is based in Sylva.

He said he believes Shuler is vulnerable; that the congressman is “to the right” of mainstream Democrat Party politics.

“I think people who are Blue Dogs should feel free to switch parties,” Bothwell said.

Shuler has donned the mantle of a fiscally conservative Democrat, represented in Congress by the Blue Dog Coalition that he now helps lead.

Bothwell believes his message will resonate beyond disenchanted members of the Democratic Party. Libertarians and some Republicans likely will find parts of his platform attractive, such as a push for no-more-drug-war and opposition to the Patriot Act, he said.

A WCU/Smoky Mountain News poll in Jackson County before the 2010 November election revealed Shuler’s election successes are attributable to his appeal to a cross-section of voters on both sides of the aisle. Shuler pulled only a general approval rating of 46 percent, with 39 percent unfavorable and the remaining 15 percent undecided. What was striking about the poll is that Republicans gave Shuler just as high an approval rating as Democrats.

Shuler not only locked down the votes of conservative Democrats who would otherwise be quick to desert a more liberal candidate, he captured part of the Republican vote. At the time, Cooper pointed out Shuler also grabbed the liberal Democratic vote simply because they felt they had nowhere else to turn.

Until, that is, now — Bothwell’s entry into the race, no matter how unlikely his chances of pulling off an upset, give unhappy liberal Democrats an option to publicly air any displeasures with Shuler.

There are indications the congressman might well be reacting already to this possible erosion from the extreme left of his base, Cooper said. In a vote that struck many political observers as somewhat incongruous, Shuler voted against a recent resolution to eliminate funding for National Public Radio.

The legislation, which passed the House of Representatives, would eliminate federal funding for NPR and prohibit local stations from using federal funding for content. Shuler cited a need for rural areas such as Western North Carolina to have access to news and information, as provided by NPR.

As for why Bothwell’s running? Bothwell said he wants to improve children’s welfare, saying “I really think we need to retool our support for children in a meaningful way;” he wants to eliminate “corporate personhood,” or treating a company like it’s a person; stop trying to “police the world;” include a public option in health care; and renegotiate global deals to help ensure environmental protections.

Efforts to reach Shuler before press time were unsuccessful.c

New wilderness area near Highlands unlikely

The situation doesn’t look promising for the formation of a new wilderness area in the Nantahala National Forest, the dream child of Brent Martin, the Sylva-based Southern Appalachian program director for The Wilderness Society.

Martin envisioned easy political passage of the Bob Zahner Wilderness Area. He now acknowledges that his early optimism was misplaced. This veteran environmentalist remains puzzled, however, as to what exactly — politically speaking — happened to what he initially considered a “no-brainer.”

U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, has promised to support the designation, but on this condition: the Macon County Board of Commissioners must first pass a resolution of support. That, however, isn’t likely to happen when the five-man board meets Feb. 8, with a vote for or against the resolution set to take place.

Nor is the vote breaking down along predictable party lines — Democrats for the proposal and Republicans against. In fact, the only certain “yes” vote at this point would be cast by a Republican — Board Chairman Brian McClellan, who represents the Highlands district near where the new Bob Zahner Wilderness Area would be carved out.

A survey of commissioners taken last week by The Smoky Mountain News revealed two flatly against the proposal: Democrat Ronnie Beale and Republican Ron Haven. Two say they are still studying the issue but have reservations about whether it deserves their support: Democrat Bobby Kuppers and Republican Kevin Corbin.

 

What’s at stake

Martin wants to see more wilderness areas designated in North Carolina. He believes in wilderness, he loves the idea of wilderness, and he makes no bones about his commitment to the concept of permanently protecting special areas in these mountains by having them designated wilderness.

A protected, designated wilderness rules out certain uses. Logging, of course. But also machines such as chainsaws and vehicles can’t be used, the biggest sticking point for new Macon County Commissioner Haven.

“There are residences near there,” he said. “What if there is a fire?”

Martin also has run up against fears that a road through the Overflow Wilderness Study Area might eventually be closed to vehicular use. This even though, he said, any local resolution by commissioners and legislation by Congress would specifically spell out that the road would remain open.

The Wilderness Society representative has gotten plenty of support for the concept, but probably not enough to overweigh a thumb’s down from county commissioners. Voting yes to the idea: The Highlands Town Board, Highlands Biological Station, Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust, Jackson-Macon Conservation Alliance, Western North Carolina Alliance and the N.C. Bartram Trail Society, among others.  

So, what happened?

That’s hard to pinpoint, frankly. Martin himself is unsure. In nearby Buncombe County, commissioners there supported his proposal to change the 2,890-acre Craggy Mountains Wilderness Study Area to designated Wilderness without so much as a murmur of protest.

• Did Martin underestimate the power of the word “wilderness” in the farthest reaches of Western North Carolina, where many natives remain emotionally bruised by the forced exodus of residents during the formation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — and, during World War II, by the creation of Fontana Lake in Swain and Graham counties and Lake Glenville in southern Jackson County?

• Did a forest service recalcitrant to more stipulations placed on forest-health management throw a monkey wrench in the works by raising questions about what a wilderness designation might really mean?

• Or, is the formation of a designated wilderness area simply unnecessary, as several of the commissioners indicate they believe to be the case, because the acres being eyed already have protection as a wilderness study area? As a study area, no road building and no timber management now.

Whatever the truth, Macon County Commission Chairman McClellan wants the issue resolved, and soon. He is more worried about what the $3.7 billion projected state budget shortfall might do to his county.

“We just need to make some kind of decision and move forward,” McClellan said.

 

 

Nuts and bolts

What: The 3,200-acre Overflow Wilderness Study Area southwest of Highlands would be designated the Bob Zahner Wilderness Area. The area is accessible by N.C. 106, Forest Service Road 79 (1.79 miles, accesses the popular Glen Falls trailhead), and the Bartram Trail.

The area contains the headwaters of the West Fork of Overflow Creek and ranges from 2,500 feet to 4,000 feet in elevation. It includes upland oak forest, with some cove hardwoods and white pine, according to the U.S. Forest Service, with most timber stands 60 to 80 years old. There is also old-growth forest in the area, conservations say. Heavy recreational use of the area includes fishing, hiking, camping and backpacking.

Why: The name suggested is in honor of the late Highlands conservationist Bob Zahner. The purpose is to protect this area permanently from logging and any kind of future development.

How: A Wilderness designation would require approval by the U.S. Congress, via legislation introduced by Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville. He wants Macon County commissioners’ OK, however, before doing so.

 

Timeline

1979: During the nationwide Roadless Area Review, the Overflow Area was recommended for “further planning.” This meant that additional review was necessary before the Forest Service could recommend the Overflow Area be designated wilderness.

1984: The N.C. Wilderness Act designated the Overflow Area as a Wilderness Study Area. This meant the Forest Service should conduct a wilderness study and make a recommendation to Congress.

1987: The Forest Land Management Plan for the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests recommended the area not be designated a wilderness Area. Usage directions were for semi-primitive, non-motorized recreation.

1991: A bill introduced by then U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor would have released the Overflow Area from the designation as a wilderness study area, but did not make it out of committee.

Source: U.S. Forest Service

What price public service? Arizona shooting fuels discussion in WNC

U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, is getting the word out: from now on, he’ll be carrying a gun when meeting with constituents.

Just a short time ago such an announcement from a member of Congress probably would have been considered outrageous, headline provoking, over-the-top political rhetoric.

But not so much now, in the wake of the shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Arizona, and the shooting deaths of six people standing nearby and the wounding of 11 others. Giffords was holding what has been described as a routine meeting with residents in her district when the massacre occurred.

“This weekend’s tragedy has touched many of us in a very personal way,” Shuler said. “With our thoughts on this tragedy, many of us are working with local law enforcement and the capitol police to coordinate safety measure for ourselves and our staff.”

Shuler worked closely with Giffords. He is co-chairman of the conservative Blue Dog caucus that Giffords, a former Republican, also belonged to. The two worked closely together on various pieces of legislation.

“I, like many of my constituents and staff in Western North Carolina, strongly support the Second Amendment and do exercise our right to legally and safely carry a firearm,” Shuler said. “In the days and weeks ahead, we will continue to work closely with federal, state and local law enforcement to ensure that our political process is not deterred by the violent acts of a few.”

The shootings, in the words of one local politician, “give pause” to those who currently hold or might seek public office in the future — the price one pays for serving could be very high, maybe too high, given the level of angry rhetoric many believe helped fuel the attack in Arizona.

“As far as this tragic event preventing good citizens from seeking public office, I believe that if the political environment does not improve it will give pause to anyone willing to get in involved on all political levels, which is very unfortunate,” said Ronnie Beale, a veteran county commissioner in Macon County. “I also think this event speaks to the importance of maintaining and improving mental health services on all levels.”

The alleged shooter in the massacre had been expelled from a local community college for exhibiting bizarre behavior. His ramblings on the Internet also seemed incoherent, though a thread of seemingly extreme right-wing beliefs could be discerned.

Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University and an expert on North Carolina politics, said it’s obvious the nation’s political discourse has grown more virulent in the past few decades.

“There are scores of studies to show that incivility is on the rise in Congress and in our political debate in general,” Cooper said. “Although it’s not ‘the media’s fault,’ name-calling and negative attacks are certainly more newsworthy, and thus more covered than stories about politicians who play nicely.

“The problem, therefore, is not just that there’s more negative, toxic rhetoric, but that we’re more aware of it than we’ve ever been. Did this cause the shooting? Of course not,” said Cooper. “Sarah Palin’s crosshairs ad is no more responsible for this shooting than Marilyn Manson was for the Columbine shooting. It does, however, create an environment that doesn’t suppress this kind of thing.”

Bob Scott, a former news reporter who now serves as an alderman in Franklin, said he believes the antigovernment movement in the U.S. is a contributing cause in the Arizona shooting.

“I am concerned that Congress will do one of its knee-jerk reactions and pass bills to provide security for congressmen and senators at a huge cost to the taxpayer,” Scott said. “But if you think about it, most of the attacks on politicians are at the local level such as town halls and school board meetings. Politicians at the federal level are so insulated by staffers that it would be pretty hard to get near them. It is much easier to get to a local politician who has no staffers and is not surrounded by lobbyists.”

Scott, a Democrat, also raised another issue likely to dominate coverage of the shootings: the right to bear arms.

“I believe in gun ownership for target shooting and hunting,” Scott said. “But you don’t need an AK-47 or a Glock 9 mm with a 31-round magazine to go hunting. Those type weapons that the National Rifle Association wants everyone to be able to own, apparently also including those who are unstable, are designed to kill human beings. Not wild game.”

North Shore Road funds in danger of disappearing

Battles in Congress are nothing new. Practically every day that the legislature is in session, there is a fight, argument or debate about something, some more trivial than others. But there’s one issue that residents of Swain County are watching intently, because the outcome of this fight may cost them $40 million.

The issue is earmarks. The new congressional leadership says it doesn’t like them, and some members are looking to axe them altogether. If that happens, county’s massive $52 million North Shore Road settlement is in danger of being classified as an earmark, which means the lion’s share of the money may never arrive.

Leonard Winchester, chairman of citizen group Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County and active participant in the settlement process, said he thinks that’s unlikely. But it’s still a possibility.

“I think it’s more a matter of when, not if, “ said Winchester, of whether the money will arrive.

He thinks that the money will come through, but in the worst case, the county may have to go back to the bargaining table with Congress. Again.

The real issue, said Winchester, is education. The problem is just convincing Congress members that the settlement isn’t an earmark, it’s a debt owed to Swain County.

When the North Shore Road between Bryson City and Tennessee was flooded in 1943 as part of the war effort, there was little complaint in such dire times. Especially because the county came away with a promise from the federal government that a new road would be built. That was a pretty crucial promise, considering the county still owed $695,000 on the road when it was flooded.

The war came and went, as did two subsequent decades, and the county continued paying the loans for 30 years at the expense of the taxpayer for a road that seemed as though it would never come.

Cut to 2010, and fight still raged, both between Congress and the county and within the county itself. Today, many said, the road isn’t needed and cash would be a better deal. Others were adamant that the road was owed and should be built.

But when Congressman, former football star and native son Heath Shuler stepped in, he proved – along with his tireless efforts to persuade his fellow congressmen to his side – to be the missing piece.

A settlement was finally agreed to: $52 million over 10 years, with the county able to use the annual at its own discretion.

The county already has $12.8 million, and the next chunk has been added to President Obama’s 2011 budget. But the subsequent funds will come only if Congress doesn’t slice them out with other earmarks that may go under the blade in tough economic times.

Winchester said he thinks the county has the right amount of power on its side. Not only is Rep. Shuler plugging hard for the money, the Secretary of the Interior and the parks service are behind the measure.

“The Secretary of the Interior does not consider it an ear mark,” said Winchester. “But politics is an ever-moving target. I don’t think that it will be classified as an earmark. Certainly it’s not in Rep. Shuler’s mind or in Sen. Hagan’s mind. But there’s also other things that contribute significantly towards it not being considered an earmark,” and he’s hoping the clout from the interior department will prove enough to pull the settlement out of that category.

Even the money in the President’s budget is somewhat in jeopardy, since no budget has been passed and Congress has kept the country running by passing a series of continuing resolutions. They funnel money to necessary departments but don’t fund non-necessities of the budget — like the settlement.

For his part, Rep. Shuler said he’s committed to bringing this money back home, crusading against its classification as an earmark.

“No matter what happens with the appropriations process, there is a clear path for us to make sure Swain County gets this settlement funding,” said Rep. Shuler in a statement. “With strong support from President Obama and the Department of Interior, we will make sure that Swain County gets the funding it is due.”

Winchester said he’s actively trying to educate key Congress members, but isn’t too worried about losing the funding altogether, a possibility that he sees as highly unlikely. The economy, he maintains, will not be broken forever, and when the financial ship rights itself, Swain County will be on board.

“Once the economic conditions improve, it’s entirely plausible that the rest of the payments will be paid off in one payment,” Winchester said. “But we have to be at a point where the economic conditions are not so severe that everything that goes before Congress has to be compared with how important it is to the defense of the country.”

Opponents of the cash settlement say they are unsurprised by this unexpected turn. County Commissioner David Monteith, who was outspoken against the settlement throughout the process, said he opposed it for that very reason: because it takes control completely out of county hands.

“I was opposed to the settlement to start with,” said Monteith. “It was a bad deal because things like this can happen. It was real idiotic.”

The fight, however, is not quite over. The 112th Congress has yet to come in session, and the proposal to slash earmarks doesn’t have universal support among even one party. But Winchester and Shuler said they both recognize that it’s a battle of education, and to win, they have to get the sentiment of those outside the region on their side.

Having the interior department in their corner is the first step, said Winchester, but it doesn’t stop there. It is a complex issue that, at first blush, seems like a money-funnel straight from Washington for a road that will never even be built. It’s easy to see how Congress sees earmark all over it, and Shuler and his compatriots will have their work cut out for them in the new year.

“That political battle is not something we can say is behind us,” said Winchester. “Once we get that behind us, I think we’ll be OK.”

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