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Wednesday, 01 November 2006 00:00

Shuler camp presses message that change is needed

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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.

 

He’s distracted. A news story just came out that morning in the Washington-based paper The Hill that appears to debunk Rep. Charles Taylor’s claim that a Wall Street Journal report alleging he steered federal funds to projects that would benefit businesses in which he has an interest is false.

The Journal reported that Taylor owns land in Maggie Valley where federal funds were allocated to widen U.S. 19, which runs over the mountain to the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino. Taylor issued a response saying that he does not own holdings in two Maggie Valley subdivisions.

“There is no development called Maggie Valley Leisure Estates,” The Hill quoted from Taylor’s Oct. 12 statement about The Journal article. “A large development in Maggie Valley is called Wild Acres,” Taylor wrote, noting that he held land 36 years ago but sold it “over 20 years ago.”

However, Haywood County land records still list a company called Maggie Valley Leisure Estates Inc. that Taylor and two partners founded as the owner of 17 land parcels. Fourteen of those plots are in the Wild Acres development and one is in a development named Maggie Valley Leisure Estates. Tax records indicate the land is worth more than $500,000.

The story’s release had thrown the Shuler campaign’s day a bit off schedule. After spending the morning on the road to South Carolina for a short news spot of questionable worth given the time involved, Shuler headed north to Madison County and Whalen went back to campaign headquarters in West Asheville to issue this statement from the candidate: “Charles Taylor has shown the families of Western North Carolina time and time again that his word cannot be trusted. Today, The Hill showed Charles Taylor has once again misled the people of Western North Carolina. We have had enough of his falsehoods, distortions, and lies. The families of Western North Carolina deserve honest and trustworthy representation in Congress.”

There’s a temporary lull at campaign headquarters, where the clutter of bumper stickers (“Who’s going to clean up after the Elephants?” asks one) mixes with the chatting of staffers while Whalen hurriedly pecks at his laptop and calls for directions to Madison County High School. A white board on the wall that was prominently featured in CNN’s recent “Broken Government” series segment examining Shuler’s role as a conservative Democrat in what has become one of the nation’s most watched swing races displays the days until the election, “1.”

A staffer walks over, laughing, explaining how that’s not right and writes in a five next to the number one. Here they really don’t need the extra digit to tell them how far away Election Day is. It’s a countdown that for most everyone involved couldn’t go fast enough.

The election has gotten ugly. Negative campaign ads are commonplace on TV, coming from both sides.

Taylor criticizes Shuler as being a liberal Democrat in line with Hillary Clinton, Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi who will tax small businesses, married couples and even death. If anything, Shuler may lose votes within the Democratic Party for not being liberal enough, particularly in Buncombe County where his campaign is headquartered.

He’s pro-life and believes marriage should be between a man and a woman — two somewhat unpopular stances in the free-spirited, almost exceedingly open-minded town of Asheville. Shuler says that while there are extremes to the left and right, most people tend more toward the moderate, which he can offer.

“If you look at it around the district, we’ve tried it other ways and we haven’t gotten the job done,” Shuler says of the Democratic Party and previous candidates who have run against Taylor.

In his own campaign ads, Shuler fires back at Taylor, citing a scandal involving the congressman’s Blue Ridge Saving Bank that “led to felony convictions.” The convictions weren’t Taylor’s. They involved an attorney, notary and Jackson County Republican Party leader who were found guilty of fraudulent land dealings through the bank. Taylor said he never knew about the transactions and avoided testifying.

On the way to Madison County High School, Whalen asks what my general feeling is about the race and how people further west are thinking. I issue a simple observation in response — I’ve seen more Shuler signs than Taylor signs. It’s a statement that is supported by the most recent polling data. Shuler leads Taylor by 51 percent to 43 percent among likely voters, according to an OnPoint Polling and Research survey released Oct. 18.

We arrive at the high school early, the trip taking less time than expected. School’s just let out and a few kids linger in the parking lot. Whalen calls Shuler, who has been out with the local sheriff, to see if he can meet us now. No luck.

We head inside to the school’s library where a North Carolina Association of Educators meeting is scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. We make a few introductions with the handful of staff coordinating the meeting. They’ve set up a table of punch and snacks, chips, cheese and ... Heath bars.

We wait. And wait. No one comes. The school has invited everyone from the superintendent on down. A teacher comes in, fills a plate with food and leaves. The meeting coordinators shoo away another one before he can do the same, telling him he can only eat if he stays. He leaves.

Finally, just minutes before 4 p.m., a crowd begins to grow. Shuler walks in, immediately saying hello to friends and going from table to table to shake hands. At the front of the room, Joyce Elliot introduces Shuler to the 30 or so educators and school staff gathered.

“There’s a different side to him than all that sports stuff you’ve seen before,” she says, referencing his past as a star football player in Bryson City turned NFL quarterback.

Shuler steps forward and begins with a story about how when he was in fifth grade he had a homework assignment to write down 10 things he wanted to accomplish in life. At the top of that list was playing in the NFL (as a running back, not as a quarterback). He posted that list on his bedroom door and he ended up checking off just about every goal. It was all because of a teacher, he said.

He talks about how his three aunts, all teachers, have complained to him about the No Child Left Behind Act and teaching for the test — a comment that earns a few smiles from the crowd. He finally gets a nod of approval when he brings up how classes like shop and mechanics and welding have been cut, which is a problem for kids who don’t plan to go to a traditional four-year college but do need work skills.

He wants to better teachers’ wages — more smiles — and keep the U.S. government out of how teachers teach — more nods. At some point an Associated Press reporter and photographer have snuck in, and a camera shutter clicks open and shut, open and shut.

And then Shuler takes questions from the audience. An older woman raises her hand to say that she is a registered Democrat who is passionately against abortion and consequently very often has voted Republican. She asks Shuler about his stance on the issue. Shuler responds that he’s pro-life and uses a reference from the CNN piece.

“I consider myself an old-timey Democrat, the way that you were once raised,” he said.

However, he doesn’t belabor the point, moving on to say that it’s just as moral to make sure that children have quality health care, aren’t in poverty or in danger, and have good square meals. He says he wants to make sure families are protected overall, and launches into an explanation of how the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited and the most polluted of all the national parks.

The school principal isn’t paying attention. He’s fidgeting with a napkin and looking around the room.

One of the meeting organizers asks Shuler about getting more funding for the Veteran’s Affairs hospital, saying that if we’re going to keep sending soldiers over to Iraq to get shot we should provide care for them once they get home, which in turn begets a question about his stance on the war.

“The status quo we have in Iraq is not acceptable,” Shuler says.

We need a plan to secure Iraq and bring the troops home quickly and safely, he says, adding that he looks forward to a chance to discuss the matter with commanding generals.

The meeting comes to a close and Shuler stays for a while to mingle.

“Because I’m a teacher, I want to know what he’s going to do for teachers,” says Angela Sanderson, a young, blond English teacher at the high school, when asked what brought her out to the meeting.

It’s her first time meeting a big time politician in person, and the experience appears to have been a good one.

“He seems a lot more down to earth,” she says.

She tries not to pay attention to the television commercials and doesn’t describe herself as being particularly in to politics, but it doesn’t take much.

“I know enough that I’m not pleased,” she says.

The NCAE supports Shuler, which contributes to her response when asked who she plans to vote for.

“Mr. Shuler,” Sanderson replies.

More relaxed, and momentarily out of his politicking persona, Shuler takes a moment to joke with a few teacher friends. Like teachers often do, they mother him, asking if he’s gotten enough sleep as his eyes are red. One of them presses a Heath bar into his hand before he heads out the door and down the hall.

Once outside, Shuler takes off his jacket and climbs into a big white pickup truck. He and Whalen briefly discuss the next event, the Environment NC candidate forum at Pack Place in downtown Asheville.

Just before the forum, Shuler gathers with a representative of the National Utility Contractors Alliance and Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer in the Pack Place gallery for a press conference.

The NUCA, along with the National Construction Alliance, has taken a stand against funding cuts for wastewater infrastructure improvements, criticizing Taylor — chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies — for providing a “grossly inadequate $688 million” for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund program.

North Carolina alone faces more than $7 billion in existing wastewater infrastructure needs, says NUCA’s Jade Ramey of Ramey, Inc., which conducts utility construction projects across the state. As a result of Taylor’s funding cuts, NUCA and NCA have come out in support of Shuler. It’s another endorsement added to the ranks that so far also includes former U.S. Senator and vice-presidential nominee John Edwards, and U.S. Senator and Vietnam Veteran Max Cleland.

As the forum begins, the moderator introduces the candidates. There’s a titter from the crowd when he explains that Taylor was unable to attend the forum. Taylor has a reputation as being unfriendly to the environmentally conscientious, heralding himself as the only registered forester in Congress. This crowd is decidedly eco-friendly.

Shuler gets the first chance to speak.

“One of the first things that we have to do is not put another oil man in the White House ever again,” he says.

There’s applause, and cheering.

Throughout the forum, Shuler appears to earn nods of approval from the audience, though he looks uncomfortable — a little too hot in his coat and tie in front of the standing room only crowd; a little too tall for the folding chairs, his legs stretched out past the edge of the table where he sits; and a little too aware of the AP photographer trying to get a good shot from both sides.

In a later interview Shuler says he feels good about his chances. At a football game the night before, voters approached him to express their support.

“People were coming up and saying, ‘Hey, I’m a Republican and you’ve got my vote,’ or ‘Hey, I’ve already been to the polls to vote for you,’” Shuler said.

The positive reinforcement also has been coming in the form of phone calls and emails to campaign headquarters and the number of volunteers willing to help.

However, Shuler is combating a powerful force. Knowlegis, a Washington-based legislative tracking firm, named Taylor North Carolina’s most powerful Capitol Hill legislator, and 15th overall among the 435 members of the House of Represen-tatives. Last year, Taylor ranked 23rd. And with power comes money.

“We don’t have the money to spend that Taylor does,” said Shuler, whose West Asheville headquarters were selected at least in part for their low rent.

Between now and the election, Shuler said that he plans to continue his person-to-person campaign.

“Now is the time to continue to shake hands with as many folks as you can,” he said.

Anything he wishes he’d done differently?

“Maybe on the eighth is a better time to ask,” he says.

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