Republicans suit up for race against Shuler

Republicans faced a major decision in the primary election: who is the best man to go head to head with Congressman Heath Shuler come fall?

The two front-runners going into election day came from opposite sides of the conservative spectrum: Dan Eichenbaum, a Tea Party activist at one end, and Jeff Miller, a more moderate small businessman at the other.

Ultimately, Republicans chose Miller — the more moderate of the two — as their man.

Miller, 55, is the owner of a dry-cleaning business in Hendersonville with 24 employees. He is well known for founding Honor Air, a program that charters airplanes to bring groups of WWII veterans to Washington, D.C., at no cost to see the WWII monument before they die. Hundreds of veterans from WNC have flown to D.C. with Honor Air. Rotary Clubs across the region have partnered with Miller as sponsors of the program to fund the charter jets and provide chaperone escorts for the elderly veterans during the trip.

With 40.15 percent of the vote, Miller barely eked out enough to avoid a primary runoff. If no candidate garners more than 40 percent of the vote, the top two voter-getters face off in a second election.

Eichenbaum, 67, an ophthalmologist in Murphy, had a strong grassroots army, drawing from the ranks of Tea Party members. At debates, he always won straw polls among audience members.

“He is a strong advocate of the Constitution,” said Bill Sterrett, who was volunteering at the polls for Eichenbaum in Waynesville Tuesday. “That’s important. There’s been too much concentration over the years with political parties. We need to get back to being Americans and solving problems.”

Heather Koonts, a Republican from Cullowhee and mother of two, voted for Eichenbaum. Eichenbaum’s strong conservative values and philosophy of limited government appealed to her, she said it an exit poll interview.

While Eichenbaum polled well among the disaffected ranks of conservatives, some voters may have questioned his electability come fall.

Eichenbaum was formerly registered Libertarian and could quote chapter and verse of the Federalist Papers. While he was the darling of the Tea Party movement, he may have been unable to court moderate voters needed to win in a general election against Shuler.

Republicans hope 2010 will be their year to reclaim the congressional seat representing Western North Carolina — a seat they had long held but was wrested away in 2006 by political newcomer and football star Congressman Heath Shuler.

Republicans are holding out hope that a national tide will carry them to victory against Shuler. But six months is a long time in American politics and no one can predict if the Republican fury will fade or sustain itself — or whether it could touch Shuler. Both years Shuler won — in 2006 and 2008 — were generally good years for Democrats.

Another major story in the congressional race is how poorly Shuler did among Democrats, many of whom punished Shuler at the polls for his conservative leanings. Aixa Wilson, a relatively unknown candidate from Asheville, pulled down nearly 40 percent of the primary vote. Wilson actually won in Buncombe County, the most liberal county in the region.

Democratic voters interviewed at the polls chastised Shuler for voting against Democratic initiatives.

“He stood against his party on important issues,” Mark Lancaster, a 32-year-old Waynesville Democrat, said in an exit poll interview.

Vangie Stephens, a Democrat with Sylva, is a self-described liberal was particularly upset by Shuler’s vote against health care reform. Stephens said there are a lot of poor people in the region who need help.

Gloria Nicholson, Republican voter from Waynesville, said she liked Shuler as much as any of the Republican candidates.

“We just wish Shuler was running on the Republican side,” Nicholson said.

U.S. Congress

Republican – one advances

Jeff Miller: 14,386

Dan Eichenbaum: 12,183

Gregory Newman: 4,180

Kenny West: 2,809

Ed Krause: 1,455

James Howard: 820

Democrat – one advances

Heath Shuler: 26,809

Aixa Wilson: 16,729

GOP hopes voter anger will help beat Shuler

Republicans hope 2010 will be their year to reclaim the congressional seat representing Western North Carolina — a seat they had long held but was wrested away in 2006 by political newcomer and football star Heath Shuler.

Whoever wins the Republican primary for the 11th Congressional District, however, will have their work cut out for them.

“This is not going to be a cake walk for anybody,” said Jake Howard, a candidate from Franklin.

While Democrats are vulnerable on the national stage, Shuler isn’t exactly a raging liberal, much to the chagrin of die-hard Democrats in the district. He’s good looking, a family man, and a devout Christian. People line up for his autograph when he makes public appearances — due more to his football fame than status as congressman

Money will be a major factor in the race against Shuler. Shuler has lots of it, and none of the Republican candidates in the running have a hope of matching it. The big question is how much money the national Republican Party will funnel to Shuler’s opponent.

“I think no matter who our primary voters elect we are going to see the national Republican Party here,” said Robert Danos, the chairman of the Henderson County Republican Party and a Shuler critic.

But Republicans have their eye on taking back many seats in 2010, so competition for national financial backing will be stiff.

“I think the Republican Party will focus first on open seats,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.

Shuler’s seat would likely be a close second in line, however.

“Shuler is a vulnerable Democrat in a district that has shown it will vote for Republicans, so after putting money into open seats, this will be one of the races they look to — especially if the nominee is a candidate the national party thinks will do well,” Cooper said.

The Republican challengers are downplaying the importance of funding in this year’s election.

“It will be incumbent on whoever wins to raise a lot of money, but money alone is not going to do it this year,” said Greg Newman, a candidate from Hendersonville. “The message this year is going to be more important than ever before.”

Fellow candidate Jeff Miller agrees to a point.

“It doesn’t mean you can go in there with $100,0000 and beat Heath Shuler. He is going to dominate airwaves and he is going to dominate mailings,” Miller said.

Only two candidates have paid campaign staffs at this point. Miller and Dan Eichenbaum, who each have three paid staff.

Shuler is not only a multi-millionaire, but has also already amassed a formidable war chest. He had $1.27 million in the hopper as of January before his main fundraising push has even started.

In 2008, Shuler raised $1.67 million but spent less than $800,000 against a comparatively weak opponent in Carl Mumpower.

Coattails effect

Republicans are holding out hope that a national tide will carry them to victory against Shuler.

“I think he is going to be very vulnerable precisely because this election, just like congressional elections across the country, is going to be much more about the national issues than just ‘Do you like the guy,’” said Danos.

But whether the country is headed for a Republican landslide this year that will hurt Shuler is unpredictable for now.

“I think this is definitely going to be a better year for Republicans than it is for Democrats,” Cooper said. “That said, I think where we are really going to see that is with the open seats. Shuler is an incumbent, and for incumbents to lose they pretty much have to shoot themselves in the foot during the election.”

Not just any candidate can ride a Republican tide to defeat Shuler, Miller said.

“I think you are going to have to have the right person,” Miller said.

All candidates agreed on that point, although opinions obviously vary on who that “right” candidate is.

“This race is all about who can beat Shuler,” said Jake Howard, a candidate from Franklin. “If the Republican voters send a neophyte up against Heath Shuler he will eat their lunch.”

The most electable candidate in a general election doesn’t always emerge as the top vote-getter in a primary.

“Only a fraction of the voters are going to get to the polls,” Howard said. “So it is so easy to select the wrong candidate.”

Both years Shuler won — in 2006 and 2008 — were generally good years for Democrats.

“Many people, including a number of Republicans, were angry about things the Bush Administration did a poor job of managing,” Danos said. “But now they see turning the keys over to Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama is much further to the left than many people who voted for Obama expected.”

Painting Shuler into the same corner as Pelosi and Obama is clearly part of the Republican strategy, but it might not be that easy. Shuler voted against the Wall Street bailout, against the auto bailout, against the stimulus bill and against the health care bill.

But Danos said as long as Shuler votes for Pelosi each year to serve as Speaker of the House, he is handing the agenda over to liberal Democrats.

“Shuler talks a good game at home of being a conservative,” Danos said. But in reality, he isn’t as conservative as he makes out to be, Danos said.

Nonetheless, many Democrats are angry with Shuler for being part of the Blue Dog caucus — a band of conservative Democrats who often vote as their own block.

But Cooper doubts that liberal Democrats will be angry enough to vote against Shuler.

“He will still be a better Democrat than a Republican will be,” Cooper said.

It would be too risky for Democrats to oust Shuler and sacrifice the seat to a Republican in the short term in hopes of getting a “real” Democrat to take the seat back two years from now, Cooper said.

“I think people aren’t willing to roll the dice that much,” Cooper said. “I think at the end of the day people vote for the candidate that holds the package of beliefs that are closest to them.”

Most electable?

Six months is a long time in American politics, and no one can predict if the Republican fury will fade or sustain itself. But Dan Eichenbaum, a primary candidate from Murphy, said the movement isn’t going away.

“The direction our country is going is so abhorrent to so many people,” Eichenbaum said.

Eichenbaum is a self-described Tea Party activist.

“I have been rolling up shirtsleeves and getting out my check book since last spring,” Eichenbaum said.

Candidates that cater to purist Republican ideals like Eichenbaum may resonate well in a primary. But the right-leaning base that dominates the polls in the primary may select a candidate that is less electable come the general election.

“In the primary you have to talk to the right, then in the general election move to the center,” said Ed Krause, a candidate from Marion.

But Eichenbaum said he refuses to compromise on his principles to win votes based on his audience.

“That’s what got us in this mess in the first place,” said Eichenbaum, who was at one time a registered Libertarian.

Eichenbaum is one of the leading contenders in the primary. But so is Jeff Miller, who is far more moderate.

Miller doesn’t engage in the level of Democrat bashing that has endeared Eichenbaum to his base.

“We all have a piece of this together,” Miller said of the national crisis.

Miller said his platform will make him a more viable opponent against Shuler come November.

“You have to decide what is going to play the best. The unaffiliated voter is huge in this district,” Miller said.

Especially if winning the general election could require wooing Democrats to break ranks.

“You can’t ignore this Tea Party movement. But I think in the end the established Republican is going to get the nomination and will get the most support from the national party and the voters of the 11th district,” Cooper said.

Unknown faces

Until now, the candidates are largely unknown except within their own counties. No one had true regional name recognition going into the race.

In a territory that spans 15 counties, candidates find themselves criss-crossing Western North Carolina several times a week in the final throws of primary season.

“It is very challenging,” Krause said. “My dogs don’t know who I am.”

Kenny West, who lives in Hayesville, has a long haul to get just about anywhere. He has been averaging 1,700 miles a week campaigning lately.

Newman said candidate forums and debates have been well attended.

“As opposed to a lot of primary election cycles people are very engaged about this particular election,” Newman said. “I believe it is symptomatic of how people feel about the country right now.”

GOP contenders

There are six Republicans vying for a shot to run against Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, this year.

The six Republican candidates share similar platforms on all the salient talking points: they are against the health care bill that passed, they want smaller government, they want to reduce debt and they all pledge to “get the country back on the right track.”

But they have vastly different backgrounds. And despite sharing the standard Republican agenda, there are differences that set them apart, with some further right than others.


Jeff Miller, 55, small business owner

Miller runs a dry-cleaning business with 24 employees that was started by his parents. He is married and has a 17-year-old son.

Miller founded Honor Air, a program that charters airplanes to bring groups of WWII veterans to Washington, D.C., at no cost to see the WWII monument before they die. His plan was initially to reach all the veterans in Henderson County. But the project took off and by the end of the first year of the project, he had flown 800 veterans to D.C. Last year, the Honor Air network under Miller’s supervision flew 18,000 veterans to D.C. from 35 states.

Why did you decide to run?

“I had never talked about it, never thought about it, but I had a lot of people asking me to do it.”

Those people happened to be what Miller called “bookend generations” that each meant the world to him — his 17-year-old son and WWII veterans who he works closely with through Honor Air flights. They convinced Miller he was the type of common sense leader people were looking for.

What do you hope to accomplish?

“The number one thing we have to do is drive down the national debt. I like to call it beginning the deconstruction of big government.”

What separates you from other candidates?

“I understand the pains and challenges of running a business. I know what it’s like to sign the front of a payroll check and have to back it up. I think right now if there is anything the country needs it is people who have had to balance a budget.”

Miller is more moderate that some candidates.

“I am not a far right-winger. I think both parties have a piece of this mess we are in.”

He avoids bashing the President or the Democratic Party, and he admits there are “some good things” in the health care bill.


Greg Newman, 48, attorney in Hendersonville

Newman is a partner in his firm and practices every type of law, from criminal to civil. He also served as a prosecutor in the 1990s. He served as mayor of Hendersonville for four years. He is married and has three kids ranging from 9 to 20 years old.

Why did you decide to run?

“I saw the fear and worry people were starting to experience. There are a lot of people beginning to think the government is too large, and our kids and grandkids are going to have an enormous tax burden on them. It is that lack of confidence that motivated me to want to get into this thing.”

What do you hope to accomplish?

“I want to restore people’s confidence in our future. We have to make some very bold actions about what we choose to fund in this government.”

What separates you from other candidates?

“I want to be honest with people about what it is going to take to get our fiscal house in order.”

On that note, Newman suggests axing the federal departments of Education, Energy and Homeland Security, considering them a duplication of existing departments or failing to provide any vital services.

“I am the only one who has been bold enough to state specifically what I intended to cut.”


Dan Eichenbaum, 67, ophthalmologist in Murphy

Eichenbaum has been a leader in the Tea Party movement and the 9/12 Project in the mountains. Eichenbaum was formerly registered as a Libertarian and ran for county commissioner in Cherokee County in 2002 on the Libertarian ticket. He said he became a Libertarian out of frustration at the direction of the Republican Party at one stage but was “never a big ‘L’ libertarian.”

Why did you decide to run?

Eichenbaum is fed up with government interference in his life and business.

“It got to the point where for the past year or so I have been screaming at my television set and yelling at my satellite radio in my truck.” He even found himself giving political speeches in the shower.

Last spring, he went to the Tea Party in Atlanta on tax day with a homemade sign with a single word: Liberty.

“We get there and there are 20,000 people. I was inspired and empowered.”

He came home and started a chapter of the 9/12 Project that grew from half a dozen to 600 members by the end of the summer. He inadvertently became the leader of a movement, and was ultimately convinced to run by those around him.

What do you hope to accomplish?

“I’ve had a platform from day one: limited government, individual freedom, personal responsibility, fiscal restraint and free market economy. Those are my five tools and my tool belt is the Constitution of the United States.”

What separates you from other candidates?

Eichenbaum said he is more knowledgeable than all the other candidates and has won straw polls at every Republican debate he has been in, which he credits to his ability to define a problem and pose a solution that will work.

“I can speak to those points on any issue anyone will ever ask me about. I am starting to hear my own words come back to me now from some of these other candidates.”

Eichenbaum is sick and tired of top down politics in Washington and RINOS, Republicans In Name Only.

Ed Krause, 63, attorney in Marion

Krause is married and has five grown children and an adopted teenager still at home. He has written three novels set in a fictitious small town in the rural Southern Appalachians. He is a fan of model railroads.

Why did you decide to run?

“I am concerned and upset about the bad economic situation and the government’s inability to solve the problem.”

What do you hope to accomplish?

“We have to pay back the debt. We are mortgaging our children and grandchildren.”

What separates you from other candidates?

“We are all the same. There are only minor differences between us all. I stress that I am a problem solver. I am not a flashy person or eloquent person but I can get the job done.”


Kenny West, 52, insurance salesman in Hayesville

West is a representative for Liberty National Life Insurance company focused on businesses accounts and works strictly on commission. He is the eighth ranking salesperson out of 6,800 insurance reps, even though he has only been on the job three years. Before that, he was a regional director with a large company overseing 160 employee that published church directories around the Southeast.

Why did you decide to run?

“When I looked at things going on and the choices being made, I told my wife, ‘This is not the America Kenny West knows.’ I think we forgot about our founding fathers and the principles they stood for when they fought and died for our country.”

West invited over his pastor and friends over to pray and talk about whether West should run while sharing a bucket of chicken wings in his basement one evening.

What do you hope to accomplish?

“I submit to you there is a lack of character in Congress. If we don’t put God and character back in this county, it is over for my children.”

What separates you from other candidates?

West has made his belief in God, his family values and strong Christian principles a central part of his campaign message. He is surprised how absent God is in the other candidates’ platforms.

“I have already been called a theocrat by one of them. Am I a zealot? No, but I am a Christian. All blessings come from God.”

West, a Baptist, represents strong family values. He’s been married just once, never smoked or drank, and doesn’t cheat.


James Howard, 72, Franklin

Howard grew up in New York as one of 11 children. He retired to Franklin from Florida in 2002. In Florida, he was a commercial helicopter pilot, but also worked in law enforcement for a stint and owned a real estate title company.

When asked his age, Howard refused, saying it wasn’t an issue in the campaign. “That is the problem with reporters,” he said, and then insisted he was 39. His real age was obtained from his registration information at the board of elections, however.

Why did you decide to run?

Howard filed a class action lawsuit against Congress in 2009 following the passage of the stimulus bill. He filed it without a lawyer, “on behalf of himself and the American taxpayer,” according to the suit.

He claims Congress was “derelict in their duties” and “conspired collectively to undermine the people who hired them with their vote.”

In a nut shell, that’s why he decided to run.

“I am not going to stand by and watch our great country destroy itself under the present leadership of the current Congress,” Howard said. “I am going to give it more than a college try.”

What do you hope to accomplish?

He pledges to always put the interests of those who elected him first.

“They hire me, they elect me, I serve them when I get to Washington.”

What separates you from other candidates?

None of the others have the right experience in the “trenches” of the Republican Party. Howard cited his work as the executive director of the Broward County Republican Party in Florida.

Howard said even if one of the other candidates gets elected, they won’t know what to do when they get to D.C.

“That person will be buried for two years and won’t be able to take his hands out of his pockets. It’s a fraternity up there,” Howard said.

Shuler scores millions for Swain in North Shore Road debate

Claude Douthit has spent half his life fighting the federal government over the North Shore Road.

The decades-old debate dates back to the 1940s, when the federal government flooded a road outside Bryson City with the construction of Lake Fontana. The government promised to rebuild it but never did. While Swain gave up its quest for the long-promised road and agreed to take a cash settlement instead, the government had been dragging its feet lately on that as well.

Douthit, 81, began to wonder whether he would live long enough to see the cash settlement come to fruition or whether his decades of work would go to waste. He occasionally wanted to give up.

“I felt like it many times. I felt like it was so futile,” Douthit said. “[But] I just kept working on it. I am very pleased that a 66-year injustice to Swain County has finally been resolved.”

So when word trickled down that Congress would finally be passing an earmark with Swain County’s name on it, an afternoon in front of CSPAN seemed like a small price to pay. Douthit camped out in front of his television through hours of Congressional drudgery last Wednesday to witness an otherwise anti-climactic vote by the House on the defense spending bill. Tucked deep in that bill was a Christmas present to Swain County: $12.8 million secured by Congressman Heath Shuler toward repairing a decades-old broken promise.

“After 66 years I’d say it is history in the making to get something instead of nothing,” Douthit said. “I wanted to see it. After working on this issue for 40 years, it was time to get something, time for me to see some results.”

County Commission Chairman Glenn Jones said the news was heartwarming after such a long struggle.

“The people of Swain County can now share this settlement,” Jones said.

Douthit credits Shuler for getting the appropriation.

“I think he has done a good job. He has finally got them to realize they owe Swain County,” Douthit said.

While others before him failed, Shuler was keenly positioned to bring the long-standing issue to a close. For starters, he grew up in Swain County, and to him, the debate was more than just political posturing.

“To grow up in that community and see how that road has divided families and divided the community, when there is an opportunity to settle something that has lingered for that many decades, to put it to rest, I hope we can bring the community back together,” Shuler said.

Shuler said his heart goes out to those with deep feelings on both sides in the debate, but his position for a settlement has been driven by the need for closure.

Shuler’s politics may have given him leverage in winning the earmark. As a Blue Dog Democrat — part of a coalition of conservative Democrats — he has angered the Democratic majority for voting against them on key legislation but also staked out his position as a swing voter for the party, potentially making it easier to curry favors.

“I’m glad Heath had a enough clout to get what we got right now,” Jones said.

The quest for a cash settlement has been vehemently opposed by those who would rather see the flooded road rebuilt as originally promised. Road supporters have fought equally long and equally hard.

But the environmental resistance to building a 30-mile road through a remote section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — not to mention a price tag of $600 million — led many to realize rebuilding the road would never happen and that a cash settlement in lieu of the road was Swain’s best chance at putting the issue to bed.

The National Park Service formally spoke out against the road in 2007. Now, with the cash settlement cemented in a Congressional act, it becomes virtually impossible to roll back. Douthit said it is time for warring sides to move on.

“Swain County citizens will no longer be divided over this issue and can press ahead toward a brighter future for every resident of the county,” Douthit said.

More to come

While the appropriation falls short of the $52 million Swain hoped to get from a cash settlement, it’s an important milestone.

“Before this, they never had made a commitment,” Jones said. “To me, that shows that they realize they do owe Swain County something.”

The settlement amount of $52 million is based on the value of the road at the time it was flooded plus interest and inflation. The $12.8 million has been coined a “down payment” on a total sum to come.

“The congressman has said this is a down payment. He is not giving up,” Jones said.

Negotiations between Swain County and the federal government over the dollar amount of a cash settlement have been stalled for a year and a half but may finally be on track again.

Shuler said attorneys on both sides are drawing up the draft language for a settlement agreement “as we speak.”

“I certainly hope in the next 30 to 60 days we get something that is concrete,” Shuler said.

As for the amount, no one is saying how much Swain compromised on the sum of $52 million.

“I feel like we will get something we can be very proud of,” Shuler said.

Shuler said he will fight for another round of appropriations next year.

Shuler collects baggage, but he’ll likely survive this one

Now that it’s clear that Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, did indeed mislead everyone about his involvement in a land deal that one of his companies negotiated with the Tennessee Valley Authority, constituents will be forced to make a character judgment that could stick for the rest of his political career.

This controversy could be a turning point in a political career that just a short while ago seemed to be arcing upward, or it may merely fall by the wayside. Either way, the sad fact is that the entire controversy was self-inflicted.

The land swap involved a Tennessee real estate development in which Shuler was a partner. Apparently, there was an agreement to swap parcels to provide the Shuler development better water access. It’s a routine matter with the TVA, and the agreement was apparently agreed to before Shuler ever became a congressman.

The problem arose when rumors began flying that Shuler pressured the TVA into making the deal. Shuler sits on a committee that oversees the TVA, and he repeatedly told the press he did not contact the agency about the deal.

As it turns out, Shuler did — according to the TVA — call the top TVA official and complain about the land deal happening too slowly. If the TVA is to believed, then Shuler was lying.

Shuler’s office — the congressman himself isn’t talking to reporters — hasn’t addressed the revelations about the contradiction, only telling all media who ask that the congressman was cleared of any wrongdoing in the case, and that Shuler has been cleared by the House Ethics Committee, federal authorities and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). All agree he did not use his office to influence the outcome of the land swap.

But the question now left for constituents to ponder was included in the TVA final report: “Specifically, if all of this was above board, why did TVA and Shuler feel compelled to tell the media that there was no contact between the congressman and TVA in relation to the Maintain and Gain application? There obviously was,” the report reads.

Lies, little or big, have sunk more politicians than any bribe or sexual misconduct. And in a very conservative district, this could spell trouble. Shuler will, of course, be attacked from Republicans who want to take this seat back. He’s also taking heat from his own party for a voting record that swings as far right as any Democrat in Congress.

In the end, this mistake will likely be written off as a political miscue from a relatively green newcomer to the arena of big-time politics. We hope that’s the case, and that Shuler and his handlers learn a valuable lesson about dealing with the public and the press.

Shuler caught short of truth

While Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, was cleared two weeks ago by the House Ethics Committee of any wrongdoing related to a Tennessee real estate deal, controversy erupted again a week later when the Tennessee Valley Authority released a report that showed he’d been lying to the media for months.

Shuler’s lack of candor is likely to hound him in the run-up to next year’s election, especially given the fact that his only response has been a brief statement citing his exoneration in three separate investigations by government entities.

“This issue is closed and Congressman Shuler has nothing further to say on the matter,” the statement said.

After being cleared, Shuler has no pressing reason to explain his interactions with the TVA. Shuler has an ownership stake in a development in East Tennessee and was accused of using his influence in a land swap with TVA to gain better lake access.

But for months he has been adamant that he had no personal contact with the TVA over the matter, a fact plainly contradicted in the newest report.

“The appearance of preferential treatment was exacerbated by: (1) Shuler calling TVA’s CEO Tom Kilgore complaining about the lack of action on the permit; and (2) Shuler’s representatives dropping Shuler’s name with TVA employees,” the redacted report said.

An internal TVA communication included with the report shows that Shuler may have even threatened Kilgore with a lawsuit over the land swap delay.

The report still concludes that Shuler did nothing wrong, even suggesting he may have been held to a higher standard because of his position. The report noted TVA routinely granted land swaps to developers.

The question now –– posed by the TVA Inspector General Richard Moore in his report –– is why Shuler lied in the first place.

“The most astonishing aspect of the Blackberry Ridge transaction is how the parties have created a justified suspicion of their dealings with each other. Specifically, if all of this was above board, why did TVA and Shuler feel compelled to tell the media that there was no contact between the congressman and TVA in relation to ... the transaction. There obviously was,” Moore wrote.

House clears Shuler on ethics rap

After months of high-profile scrutiny, U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, has been cleared in an ethics inquiry that examined whether the congressman used his influence to benefit one of his real estate deals in East Tennessee.

While Shuler’s office maintains the exoneration will put the issue to bed, opponents in the 11th Congressional District are keen to use information that surfaced during a series of inquiries to weaken the congressman’s position going into an election year.

Last Wednesday, the House Ethics Committee sent a letter to Shuler informing him that he had been cleared of any wrongdoing. It refuted claims that Shuler had used his influence on a congressional committee that oversees the Tennessee Valley Authority to garner preferential treatment for The Cove at Blackberry Ridge, a lakeside development in which he holds an ownership stake.

“We’re just glad it’s over,” said Doug Abrahms, Shuler’s director of communications. “This has dragged on for several months, and this will put an end to the issue.”

The allegations have hounded Shuler since June when the TVA Office of the Inspector General released a report that acknowledged the congressman had “contributed to the appearance of preferential treatment by continuing to pursue water access for Blackberry while a part owner of Blackberry and while sitting on a congressional committee with direct oversight of the very agency from which Blackberry was seeking a permit for water access.”

The pressure on Shuler intensified in September when the Knoxville News obtained an internal TVA personnel report that showed an employee had lied about the level of contact between Shuler and the TVA during its initial review process.

While the House committee’s findings last week –– which reference reports from the TVA Inspector General’s office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation –– seem to leave Shuler in the clear, the long-term effects of the allegations on his reputation are not clear.

The letter Shuler’s office received last Wednesday from the House of Representatives Committee on Standards and Official Conduct categorically cleared him of using his influence to affect the outcome of the development’s land exchange application with the TVA’s Maintain and Gain Program.

“The Standards Committee, after thorough review, has determined that your actions in these matters were not improper in any way and did not violate House Rules,” the letter read. “Accordingly, after a careful review of the OIG report and findings, along with other information known to the Committee, the Committee is closing this matter without further action.”

The House committee went one step further in its exoneration, suggesting that Shuler had been made to suffer heightened scrutiny by TVA in an effort to avoid the appearance of political influence.

“In fact, the OIG also stated that it appeared that Blackberry was ‘forced to endure the Maintain and Gain gauntlet while others were simply told they could have their waterfront access,’” the letter said. “In other words, in order to avoid the appearance of partiality, Blackberry was held to a higher standard for approval than were others.”

But not everyone is satisfied that the letter represents the end of the issue, particularly not the Republicans in Shuler’s district who are gearing up for a run against the former Tennessee football star who unseated long-time incumbent Charles Taylor in part because of questions about ethics.

Robert Danos, chair of the Henderson County Republicans, challenged the credibility of the House ethics committee and said the charges leveled against Shuler aren’t going away as a result of last week’s letter.

“It’s not going to go away. We have in black and white that the OIG of the TVA said that Heath Shuler did in fact contact the TVA on behalf of Blackberry Ridge, and Rep. Shuler has denied that,” Danos said. “One of those two things has to be false, and I know which one I believe.”

Danos believes the issue is doubly important for Shuler because he beat Taylor with the help of questions about his ethical conduct.

“I don’t know of any serious observers of the 11th District who don’t believe that the only reason the district elected a Democrat was because of outstanding ethics issues with his predecessor,” Danos said.

Shuler became a partner in the Cove at Blackberry Ridge in 2005 and was elected to Congress in November of 2006. According to a financial statement, Shuler’s investment in the real estate project amounted to between $5 and $25 million.

Following Shuler’s election and his committee appointment, a number of newspapers including the Knoxville News wrote about Shuler’s investment and suggested his committee assignment may have resulted in preferential treatment from TVA.

Blackberry Ridge submitted three applications through the TVA’s Maintain and Gain program to obtain a piece of lakefront property with water frontage in another county. The land swap would have allowed Blackberry Ridge to build a community boat dock and given the development valuable water access.

TVA denied two of the development’s applications before finally accepting a third in May 2008.

In May 2009, partly in response to pressure from the media, TVA released a review of its Maintain and Gain Program that specifically addressed whether Shuler and other people in influential positions had received special treatment from the agency.

While the May report acknowledged Shuler and his staff may have contributed to the appearance of wrongdoing, it concluded that there had been no improper contact between the Congressman and the agency.

“The OIG found no evidence however that either Shuler or his representatives used Shuler’s position as United States Congressman to pressure TVA to grant Blackberry water access,” the review read. “We also note that TVA could have simply granted Blackberry water access and exempted Blackberry from Maintain and Gain process as they did with others.”

The May report could have ended the matter, but in September the Knoxville News got its hands on an internal personnel complaint and a redacted version of the Maintain and Gain review that showed a TVA employee had lied about Shuler’s contact with the agency.

The redacted report found that the TVA employee was “not candid in two respects.” The employee denied knowing that Shuler was an owner in the Blackberry development project “despite evidence [the employee] was fully aware of his ownership status,” and denied that Shuler had contacted TVA regarding Blackberry’s application despite the fact that an internal e-mail showed the employee “knew or should have known otherwise.”

Shuler initially denied that his office had had any contact with the TVA over Blackberry until after the third Maintain and Gain application was accepted, but he later revised that statement when a document with his name on it turned up in the OIG’s redacted report.

In the wake of those discoveries, the Washington Post leaked late last month that the House ethics committee was formally investigating Shuler’s involvement in the Blackberry Ridge development.

Lingering impact

Now that Shuler has been cleared by the House ethics committee, the question becomes how voters will react to the allegations during next year’s election.

Gibbs Knotts, chair of Western Carolina University’s political science department, has co-edited a book on North Carolina politics. Knotts said research into the effects of political scandals has clearly demonstrated that voters react to ethics complaints.

“There’s been quite a bit of research on the impact of political scandals not only on political careers but on people’s attitudes towards government,” Knotts said. “Obviously in this instance he’s been cleared, but the research shows that political scandal does have electoral consequences.”

Knotts said he had not seen research that differentiated between ethics allegations that played out in the media and scandals that were supported by the findings of courts or oversight authorities.

“I don’t know of any studies that have looked at people who have merely been accused of scandals,” Knotts said. “I could come up with an opinion on that, but it wouldn’t be based on research.”

For Knotts, the issue is a grey area that will require strategic interpretation by both parties during the campaign cycle.

“I think there’s a long history of opposing candidates using these types of issues whether they’re legitimate or not,” Knotts said. “I think what the Republicans will have to figure out is walking that tightrope because that kind of strategy can backfire. There’s obviously pros and cons in going in either direction.”

Knots said that historically candidates with strong ethics records and strong internal party support do better at weathering scandals.

While it may seem early to consider Shuler’s exoneration in light of his upcoming election, if Danos’s attitude is a clear indication of Republican strategy, it won’t be the last time the Congressman hears about his ethics record.

So far, at least five Republicans have announced their candidacy for the February primary. With the opposition lining up on the other side of the aisle, Shuler also has to contend with displeasure in his own party stemming from his vote against the House Democrats’ healthcare reform bill.

You may hear a Blue Dog howl

By Kirkwood Callahan • Guest Columnist

Conservative victories and liberal angst – often repressed — characterized last week’s elections in Virginia and New Jersey. But what lies ahead as the nation’s politicians wrestle with the contentious issues of the economy, healthcare, and a war now in its eighth year? Much data suggest opportunities for conservative victories in 2010. There are also lessons for North Carolinians as well as voters in other states.

Let us look at the results.

In Virginia, governor-elect Bob McDonnell carried 59 percent of the vote. The result contrasts strongly with Obama’s 53 percent vote share last year – the first Democratic win at the presidential level since 1964. Furthermore, McDonnell’s victory was duplicated down the ticket as Republicans won the offices of lieutenant governor and attorney general while also securing seats in the legislature and local councils. Very notable were McDonnell victories in congressional districts won by Democrats in 2008.

In New Jersey Chris Christie defeated the incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine with 49 percent of the vote and a 4-point advantage. The GOP win was not a landslide — a third party candidate captured 6 percent — but the outcome is still very significant. New Jersey has long been a Democratic stronghold. The last Republican to win statewide in New Jersey ran in 1997, and Obama carried the state with 57 percent of the vote.

What conclusions can be drawn and how may they affect future conservative strategy?

First, Obama’s star power is limited. The President campaigned for Deeds in Virginia, but then appeared to back off — perhaps because of the candidate’s ambivalence. In New Jersey the president went all out to re-elect Corzine. Obama appeared twice with the governor on the Sunday before election.

Second, money does not guarantee results. In New Jersey, the incumbent Corzine, a multi-millionaire, reportedly spent about $30 million — $20 million or more from his own pocket. Christie, a former U.S. attorney, spent about $11.5 million.

Third, turnout can determine outcomes, and low turnouts can magnify the impact of third party candidates. Though this statement may seem obvious, its importance cannot be stressed too much.

Candidate Obama campaigned hard in Virginia, and his 53 percent of the vote was earned with a 76 percent voter turnout. The turnout this year in Virginia was 42 percent, a 34 percent difference. This year’s exit polls in Virginia indicated that young and African-American voters — part of Obama’s base last year — did not turn out in large numbers.

A similar picture emerges in New Jersey, where the turnout this year was 45 percent compared to 73 percent in the past presidential election. In New Jersey, voters in areas once supportive of the incumbent just stayed home. New Jersey gubernatorial races, as in Virginia, tend to draw less than half of registered voters, while presidential contests draw about 70 percent or more. Candidates who figure out how to get voters to the polls will be victorious in future elections, while those who can’t get voters out of their homes are likely to lose. The growing number of independent voters suggests a growing dissatisfaction with the major parties.

The proportion of New Jersey’s unaffiliated voters — 46 percent — clearly suggests their electoral strength. Unlike our state, New Jersey voters cannot vote in partisan primaries, but this limitation is coupled with easier ballot access for general elections. Christopher Daggett, who bagged 6 percent of the vote, received national publicity, but there were also nine other independent gubernatorial candidates. Daggett’s vote could have made the difference between victory and defeat for Corzine, according to pre-election polls.

Virginia’s voters register on a non-partisan roll. Therefore, it is more difficult to say how many voters consider themselves independent, but research indicates that over a million do so.

Here there is certainly a message for North Carolinians. The share of unaffiliated voters in the Tar Heel state has grown from little more than 8 percent in 1993 to 23 percent today. Over this same period the Democrats went from almost 60 percent to 45 percent. The GOP today has less than a 32 percent share, a fraction less than in 1993.

If the Republican Party intends to extend its winning campaigns into 2010, it must be able to appeal to those who may share its values but have not yet been convinced to identify with the party. Finally, the 49 Democratic congressman — including Heath Shuler, of North Carolina’s Eleventh — who were elected from congressional districts carried by John McCain in 2008 will find themselves in dire straits next fall if they ignore the conservative voices of their constituents back home. Conservative Republican candidates for these congressional seats in Virginia and North Carolina have announced their intent to run, and some have begun fund raising. Conservative Republicans also plan to win seats in Raleigh.

Listen closely: You may hear a Blue Dog howl.

(Kirkwood Callahan has taught American government at southern universities. He is retired and lives in Waynesville.)

The allegations

The House of Representatives Committee on Standards and Official Conduct –– commonly known as the House Ethics Committee –– recently conducted an inquiry into whether or not Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, used his influence to benefit one of his own real estate developments.

Shuler has held an ownership stake in a lakeside real estate development in East Tennessee since prior to his election to Congress in 2006. The development, called The Cove at Blackberry Ridge, is situated on Watt’s Barr Reservoir but lacked good waterfront access. Developers sought to swap parcels with Tennessee Valley Authority, which manages the lake, to gain better access.

Meanwhile, Shuler sits on the House Transportation Committee’s Subcommittee on Water Resources and the Environment, one of two committees with direct oversight authority over the TVA.

The inquiry was focused on whether or not Shuler used his influence as a member of the committee to push Blackberry Ridge’s application to obtain 145-feet of water frontage. TVA has a long-standing practice of granting land swaps for developers in similar situations.

State workers group chastises Shuler for health care opposition

Health insurance reform has garnered a seemingly incongruous ally: the already well-insured workers of the State Employees Association of North Carolina.

The association held a forum in Haywood County last week to educate state employees on exactly what the 1,017-page health care reform bill entails. The meeting at Haywood Community College was one of several held across the state. The organization did not publicize the meeting to the masses to avoid a big turnout by protestors, but as a result the audience was small, numbering fewer than two dozen.

Will Cubbison, health care campaign director for SEANC, said his organization supported health care reform even though its members have quality health care coverage.

“Many of the spouses and children of state employees are not covered,” Cubbison said.

Speakers rattled off a barrage of statistics to win over the audience, mentioning the million-dollar profits of BlueCross BlueShield, the thousands of people who die each year because they do not have insurance, and the immense amount of time and money insurance companies spend on administration. Meanwhile, they disputed claims raised by opponents that illegal immigrants and abortions would be covered under health insurance reform.

The SEANC representatives directly admonished Rep. Health Shuler, D-Waynes-ville, who does not support H.R. 3200.

Dr. Ed Morris from Macon County, who was a guest speaker at the forum, suggested health insurance for members of Congress should be suspended until a reform bill passed, prompting the audience to break out in applause.

Morris, a family physician, added that he has seen at least two dozen doctors move away from the Franklin area because so many of their patients were unable to pay for their care. Given the lower average income of residents in the mountains, doctors here write off up to 23 percent of their patients.

“So these doctors end up going to Charlotte or Atlanta or somewhere,” Morris said.

Chuck Stone, director of North Carolinians for Affordable Health Care, said while many in the past considered the institution of Medicare as a move toward socialism, Americans now don't think twice about the government-supported health care. Stone asked members of the audience to raise their hand if they opposed Medicare, but no hands went up.

According to Stone, the cost of doing nothing is far greater than reform.

“The current system is unsustainable,” Stone said.

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