Mr. Shuler goes to Washington—and a very different Congress

Heath Shuler
Washington bound: Heath Shuler thanked Jesus and his supporters during his acceptance speech at the Renaissance Asheville Hotel. photo by Jonathan Welch

Once considered virtually invincible at the polls thanks to weak opponents, his considerable personal fortune and his penchant for bringing home the bacon, Rep. Charles Taylor met his match this time around in conservative Democrat Heath Shuler.

Also wealthy and boasting strong name recognition (as a former local sports hero) and youthful energy to burn, Shuler stunned eight-term incumbent Taylor on Nov. 7, garnering 56 percent of the vote and besting his opponent by 17,335 votes out of a total of 230,637 cast. The final tally capped a bitter campaign that featured a slew of negative political ads and two botched debates.

In the past, Taylor dumped his own money into his campaign and successfully labeled his opponents as out-of-touch liberals. But Shuler trumped his opponent by campaigning vigorously both east and west of the Balsams in the district’s more conservative areas. As for the “too-liberal” tag, voters apparently didn’t buy it, thanks to Shuler’s moderate-to-conservative stands on gun control, abortion, immigration and other hot-button issues.

The Shuler campaign even made a foray into the world of NASCAR, becoming the primary sponsor of the No. 23 Heath Shuler for Congress Chevrolet at Lowe’s Motor Speedway last month.

Shuler, one of a handful of former professional athletes to run this year, returns to Washington as a hero after years of futility in the nation’s capital as the hapless quarterback of the Washington Redskins. His victory sparked news stories across the United States and Canada.

Shuler’s supporters expect his next stint in D.C. to be more successful than the last, though Taylor took a dimmer view of the new congressman’s prospects, saying: “I think he’s probably an agreeable, unqualified young man that’ll be used like a horse over in Congress. He’ll never know what he’s voting on.”

But Shuler, who received considerable help from the national party apparatus, says he won’t be going to Washington merely to rubber-stamp the Democratic agenda.

A devout Baptist, Shuler is more conservative than the average Democrat. He opposes abortion rights and gun control and says he plans to fight for balanced budgets as part of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of moderate and conservative Democrats that backed his campaign and that acts as a check on the party’s more liberal wing. Shuler, however, maintains that his family roots in the party are stronger than any differences he has with its leaders.

“My grandmother always gave me the advice, ‘Heath, help those who can’t help themselves.’ If you look at one reason why I am a Democrat, it’s because the party helps those who can’t help themselves. It’s a moral obligation,” he said on the campaign trail.

Shuler says he believes in the power of an active government and plans to push for greater local job creation, funding for children’s health care, and research into alternative energy sources. And because the 11th District includes so much public land, Shuler hopes his success in unseating an incumbent will help secure him a seat on key committees, notably a seat on the appropriations subcommittee that funds the Department of the Interior or on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Not all Democrats are happy Shuler won, however. One notable exception is San Diego resident Jason Woodmansee, a rabid Redskins fan who claims Shuler ruined his beloved team (see “Fear and Loathing in D.C.,” March 29 Xpress).

“Shuler is all about creating hope and crushing it,” Woodmansee, who created the Web site StopShuler.com, said at the time. “He was supposed to be the franchise QB, and he couldn’t play his way out of a paper bag.”

And Woodmansee, a Democrat who puts his team before his party, fears that old Shuler despair is now coming back to town: “We learned lots of things along the way,” he said after the election. “We realized that we’re glad that we don’t live in North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District — not just because we lack ‘mountain values’ but because of who they had to choose from in this election. … So what now? Do we protest Heath when he comes to D.C.? Do we do what we can to keep him away from the Redskins? No, our work is done here. It was a good run, but we’ve got other things to worry about.”

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