Outgoing Congressman Heath Shuler hopes to pass the torch to his own chief of staff, a like-minded, conservative Democrat who is rapidly being embraced by the party establishment as a replacement for Shuler on the ballot come November.
Hayden Rogers, native of Robbinsville and longtime chief of staff to Shuler, announced his candidacy last Wednesday — one week after Shuler declared that he would not seek re-election.
“He would be an extremely strong candidate,” Shuler said, quick to offer an endorsement of Rogers. “My theory has always been I wanted to surround myself with the best and brightest.”
Shuler said Rogers is “very, very smart” and already known and well-respected by the other members of Congress, giving him a leg up when it comes to serving the district should he win.
Rogers said his decision to run comes from a desire to continue the work he and Shuler have started.
“It stemmed from much of my experience with Heath and the enjoyment and pleasure we have gotten from working for the people of Western North Carolina,” Rogers said. “That is what I would like to continue to do.”
Similar to Shuler, Rogers, who now lives in the Murphy area with his wife and daughters, played football in high school in Graham County. He grew up 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. Prior to working for Shuler, he owned his own wholesale nursery and landscaping business.
Rogers said that like Shuler, he will work with people from across party lines and will not pout and whine if he does not get his way.
“I think we’ve got plenty who do that now,” he said.
In the primary, Rogers will face competition from Cecil Bothwell, an Asheville city councilman, who planned to run even before Shuler stepped down. After Shuler announced he was bowing out, Bothwell issued a press release proclaiming himself the “frontrunner” for the Democratic nomination.
“Apparently, Cecil Bothwell is the frontrunner. I read that he said that somewhere,” Rogers said wryly. “I will do the best I can to catch up.”
With his more conservative stance, Rogers has a better chance of pulling out a victory in November than the comparatively liberal Bothwell, according to political observers.
“I am more consistent with the views of this district than probably Mr. Bothwell will be,” Rogers said, citing his affiliation as a Blue Dog Democrat like Shuler.
Rogers declined to say how much he has raised during his first week of campaigning.
“I certainly will have a well-funded campaign and a well-run campaign,” Rogers said.
The seasoned campaign veteran already has a couple of paid staff members, including Shuler’s former communication officer Andrew Whalen, and two-dozen active volunteers.
“Just getting out there. I started that now. (But), I am not starting at scratch,” he said. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
Shuler’s endorsement is what may take Rogers the furthest.
Shuler brought Rogers on as his campaign manager in his first bid for office in 2006 after firing his first campaign manager.
“I wanted people who weren’t yes people. I wanted people who were straight forward and honest who could make me a better candidate and better member of Congress,” Shuler said.
Shuler credits Rogers with helping pull off his win over longtime incumbent Charles Taylor six years ago, despite everyone being novices.
“Consider this: we ran against a 16-year incumbent with all the money in the world and we didn’t have one person who had ever been involved in a campaign before except one, and he had never won one,” Shuler reflected.
Rogers will face at least two other opponents during the Democratic primary. In addition to Bothwell, two lesser-known candidates have announced they will run: Heath Wynn of Caldwell County and Tom Hill of Henderson County.
Wynn was a teacher in the sociology department at Catawba Valley Community College.