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Healthcare debate civil at tele-town meeting

Against the backdrop of a nation embroiled in an emotional, high-stakes debate on health care reform, the voices of Western North Carolina citizens seemed remarkably calm and polite during a telephone town hall meeting with Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, last week.

Shuler reiterated his opposition to H.R. 3200, the House health care reform bill, to the deeply concerned callers throughout the “meeting,” which lasted more than an hour.

Callers had to state their questions before being allowed to directly talk to Shuler during the teleconference. Citizens who dialed in to listen to the conversation were sometimes met with busy signals due to the teleconference reaching full capacity.

A cautious attitude toward the meeting was evident, as Shuler’s office at first held back the telephone number to prevent organized political groups from infiltrating the meeting.

Participating citizens on both sides of the issue voiced wide-ranging concerns. Some worried about paying for illegal immigrants’ health care, covering abortions with public money, losing Medicare coverage, and adding millions of new patients without also adding doctors and health care facilities. Others asked how much of Shuler’s campaign contributions came from the health care industry, recommended looking to countries like Switzerland that are reportedly happy with their health care system, and expressed anxiety about the political process stymieing the passage of reform.

Carole Larvee, a Waynesville resident who listened in to the meeting, said as a retired nurse and volunteer for the Good Samaritan Clinic, she has personally experienced the plight of uninsured patients and hopes to see a solution soon.

“I know Congressman Shuler wants to get the health care reform bill right, but again I see people suffering. I see a sense of urgency,” she said.

According to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, about 23 percent of the population — or 154,000 individuals in the 11th Congressional District — are uninsured.

Shuler has said that he wants to spend time crafting a bill, even if it takes longer than the end of this year.

He is pressing for a bill that will stress wellness, disease management, and prevention to drive down costs; does not place mandates on small businesses; does more to cut waste, fraud, and abuse; and adds a clause to ensure abortions are not funded with government money.

“We’re only going to get one shot at this,” said Shuler. “Let’s do this right.”

Shuler expressed much hope about driving down health care costs by promoting healthier lifestyles and possibly providing tax incentives to curb excessive smoking or drinking.

A few callers from Waynesville, Maggie Valley and Franklin were able to get through and ask questions, though many of the callers came from Asheville.

Susan from Waynesville said Congress could not reform health care without also tackling tort reform. But Shuler said doing that has not lowered costs in states like Texas and Alabama.

“There’s still gross negligence on behalf of everybody,” said Shuler.

Kathy from Hendersonville expressed her concern about pre-existing conditions.

“I have a daughter with a congenital heart defect and I’m very concerned about people being penalized by pre-existing conditions and just the high cost of health care [and] insurance premiums in general,” she said. “I don’t want to see this issue die because the perfect plan doesn’t evolve.”

Shuler responded, “We need to get a health care reform done ... but we have to do it right ... Could you imagine, the bill was presented to us and then three weeks later to actually vote on the piece of legislation? That’s very, very difficult.”

Ron from Maggie Valley asked for Shuler’s position on the center of comparative effectiveness, which has been characterized by opponents of the bill as a “death panel” that makes health decisions for the elderly.

Shuler laughed, and said, “Obviously there is no panel. You don’t have to worry.”

He added that he understands why citizens do not want the government to make health decisions for them.

“You don’t want the federal government doing it, and you certainly don’t want the insurance companies telling you,” he said. “We need to put it in the hands of qualified people who understand health care, and that’s our physicians, our nurses, and the people that are in our hospitals.”

Shuler plans to gather more input from his constituents with another tele-town hall meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. on Sept. 1.

Shuler proving his independence

Openly conservative Democratic Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, is blazing his own path in Congress. That characteristic is easy to admire, especially in these days of strident bickering and blind party allegiance.

Last week The Smoky Mountain News interviewed both Republicans and Democrats about Shuler and his position on the issues, and the results confirmed what many in the district already knew: most left-leaning Democrats are willing to forego Shuler’s conservative stance on social and fiscal issues as long as he continues to represent their views on foreign policy, the environment, and business policy. Many Republicans also support Shuler, agreeing with what former Macon County Republican Chairman Harold Corbin and Haywood County GOP County Commissioner Kevin Ensley told this newspaper: he represents the values of his mountain district.

Still, not all Democrats support Shuler’s record, which includes casting votes against the stimulus bill, supporting pro-life measures, supporting gun rights, and voting against stem cell research.

“I expected him to be more of a Democrat than he seems to be,” says Jane Allison, a Democrat from Swain County.

When it comes strictly to the issues, we also take exception to some of Shuler’s positions and think his district would be better served by different votes on several important issues.

Despite that truth, however, Shuler is one of those rare politicians able to vote his conscience instead of his party and do so without coming off as wishy-washy. The reason, by most accounts, is that he is sincere. His votes are who he is, and not molded by the Washington party elite and lobbyists.

“The most important thing is to be true to who you are, and what your beliefs are, and don’t change based upon influence,” Shuler told The Smoky Mountain News.

Observers call it a political tightrope that he’s walking. While Democrats are overwhelmingly in control of the House and Senate, his vote against some Democratic bills is not necessary for passage. If that balance tips and the votes are closer, some wonder if he can endure the wrath of his party and still survive.

“He has to be careful voting against a popular president,” said Western Carolina University political science professor Gibbs Knotts. “He also has to be careful that he does not upset the Democratic leadership too much. The leadership can withhold resources and make it more difficult for Shuler to advance his agenda.”

Right now, though, Shuler has carved out an enviable position most congressmen would covet: he can be himself. Here’s what he told an Asheville audience about the stimulus bill and getting money to WNC:

“I didn’t vote for it, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t support Western North Carolina getting its fair share. We’re prepared to fight for that.”

Too many politicians these days are all about ideology, which squelches debate and belittles opponents. Shuler’s ability to stray from his own party while staying true to its bedrock principles make him very different from your average politician. That’s a badge of honor in this day and age, one to wear proudly.

Heath Shuler: Too conservative for his party or right on the money?

He was endorsed by the Family Research Council for his pro-life stance and by the NRA for his support of the Ssecond Amendment. He championed an act for more border security, chaired the national prayer breakfast, and voted against the auto bailout, the Wall Street bailout, and the stimulus bill.

Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, isn’t a Republican, though these recent votes and endorsements might cause one to assume otherwise. In his second term in the U.S. House of Representatives, Swain County native Heath Shuler has earned the accolade of fourth least likely to vote in line with his party, according to the Washington Post.

Shuler has never kept his conservative leanings a secret. But the extent to which he votes against his party has taken some off guard.

“I expected him to be more of a Democrat than he seems to be,” said Jane Allison, a Swain County Democrat who called Shuler’s office to voice her disagreement with his stimulus vote.

Others say the Democratically-controlled Congress has allowed Shuler the freedom to vote against his party with more frequency than ever. Since Shuler is in a conservative leaning district, he’s able to score points for his stance with consituents back home without jeapordizing the Democratic Party’s agenda.

“My take is that it’s a Democratically controlled House right now, and he seems himself as basically having the leeway to vote against his party in order to tag himself with our more conservative voters,” said Mary Alice Lamb, a Haywood County Democrat. “You can fight your own party — that’s fine — as long as it’s in line with what your constituents tell you to believe.”

Jeff Israel, a Canton Democrat, is willing to cut Shuler a little more slack on his votes. Given the demographics of the mountain region, it’s fairly remarkable that a Democrat like Shuler won a Congressional seat at all — particularly one held by a Republican incumbent for 16 years.

“We had other candidates that I felt like were really qualified, but none of them could quite make it across the finish line like Heath could,” Israel said.

According to Israel, Shuler is able to walk a “political tight wire” between democratic populism and the conservative beliefs of rural voters.

“You’re not going to get anybody that follows the Democratic party line right down the middle elected here,” agreed David Hall of Waynesville, a lifelong Democrat who changed his party affiliation to independent in recent years. “The Democrats here are not your far left liberal — they’re not for abortion; they own guns. We’re a different breed of Democrat.”

As testament to the “different breed” idea, Shuler won the 11th Congressional District in the last election by a landslide — but every county except Buncombe and Jackson voted for John McCain in the presidential race.

Not surprisingly, Shuler garners support from a number of Republicans as well. He was the first candidate in years able to do so, said Haywood County Commissioner Kevin Ensley, a Republican.

“The district is conservative, and when I was watching the Democrats fill the candidates, they’d get these liberals from Asheville and Hendersonville,” Ensley said. “When they got a conservative Democrat, I knew they’d do real well.”

Ensley finds that many of his views are in line with Shuler’s, though the two men are of different party affiliations.

“I rarely disagree with him,” Ensley said. “Overall, he’s pretty well voted the way I would probably vote if I was up there.”

Harold Corbin, the former GOP district chair in Macon County, said he disagrees with the views of the current Congressional leadership, but Shuler is an exception.

“I think he represents the 11th District well,” Corbin said. “He falls in line with the values of voters.”

Shuler’s views fit with those of his mostly rural constituent base, said Gibbs Knotts, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.

“Shuler’s views fit pretty well with many of the rural areas of the district, though his views probably differ considerably from some of the urban areas,” Knotts said.

To those who question his voting record, Shuler points out the difficult balance he must strike in a district that houses polar opposite viewpoints.

“There are some people that are just hardline-based party,” Shuler said. “What I would encourage them to do is get out and let’s go to Madison, Yancey, Clay, and Graham, and be able to see I represent 15 counties, not an isolated group.”

 

Moral compass

It’s commonly argued that Shuler’s conservative votes aren’t the result of a political agenda — rather, they come out of his core belief system developed in the rural mountains where he grew up.

“He has the same moral compass that most of the people around here have,” Israel said.

Shuler keeps two paintings in his Washington, D.C. office — one of Swain, where he was born and bred, and one of Haywood County, where he resides now with his wife and two kids. He says the scenes help to remind him of where he’s from and the moral foundation he adopted growing up in rural Appalachia.

“The most important thing is to be true to who you are, and what your beliefs are, and don’t change based upon influence,” Shuler says.

 

Out of line, out of favor?

So far, Shuler hasn’t risked much by continuing to vote out of line with his party.

“I think he’s a smart politician,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at WCU. “He knows it would be hard for him to move so far to the right that the Democrats would choose to vote for a Republican. It’s not a very big gamble.”

But times are changing, particularly in Congress. Some say leaders aren’t going to overlook Shuler’s votes against his party forever.

“It was cute when the Democrats weren’t going to get anything passed anyway,” said Alison, but not anymore.

Traditionally, many Democrats from the South differentiate themselves from the national Democratic party, said Knotts. But it isn’t always a risk-free venture.

“(Shuler) has to be careful voting against a popular president,” Knotts said. “He also has to be careful that he does not upset the Democratic leadership too much. The leadership can withhold resources and make it more difficult for Shuler to advance his agenda.”

Cooper suggests some things voters can watch for.

“Is he not able to curry favor with Democratic leadership in the House?” Cooper said. “I think that’s the kind of thing that people should be watching out for — things like, does he get good committee assignments?”

Shuler has never been completely in line with the leaders of his party in Washington. Early in his first term, Shuler sought to align himself with the Blue Dogs, a coalition of conservative Democrats. The group was viewed as a force to reckon with, as their voting bloc could make or break the passage of a bill in Congress.

But Shuler’s Blue Dog affiliation doesn’t always excuse his conservative votes in the eyes of party leaders.

Earlier this month, the Washington-based newspaper Politico wrote that Shuler was No. 1 on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s “bad list” due to his vote against the bailout package and telling a Raleigh audience that House leaders “failed.”

The newspaper reported that Pelosi felt Shuler’s motives were political as much as ideological, and that Shuler was positioning himself for a Senate run against incumbent Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.). Buzz about a possible Shuler Senate run had circulated for months, but on March 9, Shuler formally announced he would not seek the seat.

But as Israel points out, ultimately, “it’s not the Democrats in Washington that get Heath elected — Heath gets himself elected on his own merits.”

Voters in Western North Carolina won’t necessarily continue to vote for a Democrat as right-leaning as Shuler, said Lamb.

“I think that a lot of conservative younger folks will move to the cities to find jobs, and the older conservative generation will be dying off,” Lamb said. “I think you’re going to see, with Asheville being the hub that it is, the district as a whole tipping. We can’t vote in a more progressive Democrat right now, but give us another five to 10 years. Heath Shuler should be concerned — don’t get too comfortable voting conservative.”

Israel agrees on some points. “Change is a constant in politics,” he says, and adds that the district will change. But, he says, Shuler is young enough that he’s flexible, and will be able to change with the district.

Plus, Israel says Shuler is the best bet to win if the tides turn back in favor of the Republicans.

“Eventually, the Republicans will get their act together,” he says. “If you got someone in office that was maybe a little more left leaning than Heath when Republicans had high tide years, they would be swept out of office. I think Heath is the type of candidate who could weather that storm.”

Shuler said he’ll fight for stimulus funds

U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, spoke to a crowd of about 200 town and county government officials from Western North Carolina last Thursday at the Renaissance hotel in Asheville about the $787 billion stimulus plan.

North Carolina is set to receive $6.1 billion in stimulus funds for various infrastructure projects. Shuler voted against the stimulus bill but said that does not mean he will not fight to get WNC its share of the money. He said now that the bill has passed he supports it.

Shuler said there are some good pieces to the stimulus bill and it can help with the budget shortfalls towns and counties are dealing with.

“No group can manage money better than local government,” Shuler said.

He added that WNC must fight for its portion of the funding, saying the state doesn’t stop in Charlotte, Winston-Salem or Asheville. Shuler added that he thinks there will be another stimulus package to continue bolstering the economy.

Following Shuler’s speech, officials from the Department of Energy and Natural Resources spoke on how towns and counties go about applying for the funds.

— By Josh Mitchell

North Shore area won’t be designated a wilderness

By Rep. Heath Shuler

After more than 60 years of contentious debate that has divided our community, we are finally nearing a fair and conclusive solution to the issue of the North Shore Road. This solution will provide a fair monetary settlement to the people of Swain County that will be used to improve our schools and economy well into the years ahead.

Two more seek 11th District GOP nomination

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

Spence Campbell, chair of the Henderson County Republican Club, declared his intentions two weeks ago to run for the 11th Congressional District seat against Rep. Heath Shuler.

On being Heath Shuler

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

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

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

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

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

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

Shuler touts Heritage Area funding

Representative Heath Shuler announced Monday that the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area has been allocated a federal appropriation of $748,955 for 2007. BRNHA’s appropriation was the third largest amount allocated to any of the 24 National Heritage areas that received federal funding this year.

Shuler camp presses message that change is needed

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

It’s 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 25, and Andrew Whalen, 11th Congressional District candidate Heath Shuler’s Deputy Campaign Manager and Communications Director, sits at a small desk in a small office strewn with small stacks of paper.

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