fr itsashulerA $4 million payment to Swain County for the so-called Road to Nowhere cash settlement may soon be freed of the bureaucratic purgatory where it’s been parked for more than two years.

By Shannan Mashburn • Intern

Democrat Hayden Rogers has commanded the lead in the money race for the congressional election to take over U.S. Congressman Heath Shuler’s seat in Washington next year.

Neither Rogers nor his Republican opponent Mark Meadows raised a staggering amount of money during the spring and summer, when most candidates typically see a drop off in political contributions before the big push going into fall.

While Swain County fights to secure the rest of the $52 million cash settlement its owed by the federal government for the North Shore Road, the $12.8 million already in the bank is generating hundreds of thousands in interest every year.

Since the initial payment of $12.8 million to Swain County in 2010, it has made nearly $1.5 million in interest.

The cash settlement money is held in a trust fund managed by the N.C. Treasury Department. Every year, the state remits a portion of the accumulated interest to the county. The principle itself is safeguarded, and can only be tapped if two-thirds of Swain’s registered voters agree to do so in a special vote, per the terms of the trust fund.

So far, Swain has gotten $150,000 of the interest generated on the account. Even though the actual interest earned on the fund is much higher, some has been reserved as a cushion, intended to safeguard the principle $12.8 million.

Should interest rates take a dive, or even post a lost, the cushion that has been held back should prevent an erosion of that principle sum from dipping below the $12.8 million.

The fund currently stands at just over $14 million, according to the state treasurer’s office. Now that a sizeable cushion has been built up, Swain can expect to see more interest flowing to it each year and less held back. This year, the county could expect as much as $500,000.

How to spend the money is ultimately up to the county commissioners. The current board of commissioners don’t want to merely dump the money into the county’s general budget, but instead want to see it go toward special projects, so the public can see the good the money is doing, according to County Manager Kevin King.

“They didn’t want to see any of the money going to the operational budget because it gets lost in the shuffle,” King said. “We want to be able to identify every penny that goes to every project.”

Likewise, the commissioners are hesitant to use the money for a big-ticket item, like a new school. Dedicating the money to that kind of recurring expense — such as annual debt payments on the same large construction project year in and year out — would tie up the cash settlement interest on a single project for the foreseeable future, King said. Instead, the county is interested in special projects that otherwise would be taxing, if not impossible, for the county to undertake.

So far, the county has spent its cash settlement interest money on public restrooms at a downtown riverside park in Bryson City, a series of historical monuments, a new trash truck and renovation of the historical county courthouse for a museum.

The commissioners have dedicated $50,000 so far for a cultural heritage museum being constructed inside the iconic Swain County courthouse, and have pledged another $100,000 from future interest payments.

The National Park Service is refusing to let go of a $4 million payment Swain County is due as part of the cash settlement over the North Shore Road.

The federal government is supposed to pay Swain County $4 million a year over the next decade — a deal intended to finally compensate the county for a road that was flooded when Fontana Lake was built in the 1940s.

Swain has had little luck getting the government to make good on the pledge, however.

Swain didn’t get the money in 2011 after Congress clamped down on earmarks. This year, the money was supposedly included in the National Park Service’s construction budget by both the President and Congress, but the park service isn’t releasing the money.

“It is currently sitting in the National Park Service’s account,” said Whitney Mitchell, spokesperson for Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville. “It is unclear why the National Park Service has delayed transferring the $4 million payment out of their budget into the Swain County trust fund.”

The National Park Service claims it doesn’t have proper authorization to make the payment.

Simply including the money in its budget isn’t enough. The park service claims it needs specific authorization — spelling out that $4 million should be handed over to Swain County — included as part of the budget bill that was passed by Congress last December.

SEE ALSO: Swain uses money from first North Shore Road payment on special projects

“While the funding was included in the final bill, the necessary language was specifically excluded,” said Jeffrey Olson, a spokesperson for the National Park Service in Washington, D.C.

Without that language, it won’t turn over the money, Olson said.

“Everybody agrees the $4 million for Swain County was passed,” said Leonard Winchester, a Swain County resident who has been working on behalf of the cash settlement for years. “Why this money can’t be turned loose because someone at Department of Interior said they didn’t have the proper authorization, I don’t know.”

Shuler’s office, meanwhile, claims the money included in the budget carries clear instructions to be handed over to Swain County.

Olson was unable to address the apparent stalemate, simply reiterating that the park service lacked authorization to release the money.

“That is the end of the question for us,” Olson said. “If a member of Congress says ‘Yes it is,’ and we say, ‘We don’t have it,’ that’s as far as I can take it. It either shows up in the language of the appropriation bill or it is not there.”

Specifically, the money for the cash settlement was included as part of the National Park Service’s construction budget, a total of some $159 million. That’s something even Olson agrees with.

But where he differs is whether the $4 million for the cash settlement needs its own authorization before it can be released.

Olson said everything else in the construction budget carried the necessary authorization. That authorization usually comes in the form of an itemized list of approved construction projects.

“When we have a construction budget, it often includes a list of projects. It is my understanding that list of projects is our authorization,” Olson said.

However, that itemized list doesn’t show up in the appropriation bill passed by Congress in December. The list was left out of the final bill.

“Where it went astray was they didn’t keep the list. It just devolved to a single number,” Winchester said. “Whatever wording the National Park Service thought ought to be there went away, and they ended up with a lump sum number for their construction budget.”

That begs the question: Can the National Park Service not spend any of the $159 million in its construction budget this fiscal year because it too lacks authorization due to the absence of the list? Or is Swain’s cash settlement is being held to a double standard?

Olson said the National Park Service doesn’t need specific authorization for the rest of its construction budget. When it comes to the rest of the $154 million construction budget, the passage of the appropriations bill itself counts as authorization even though the list was left out of the final budget bill, Olson said.

“There is no requirement that this list of construction projects be attached to the appropriations bill Congress passes and the President signs before we proceed with the projects,” Olson said.

But as for the $4 million cash settlement contained in that same construction budget? The park service wants Congress to pass specific language saying its OK to pay it out.

Apparently, even though the money was included in the park service construction budget, the park service isn’t willing to consider the cash settlement as “construction.”

Leonard points out that the cash settlement is a substitute for constructing the road itself, and so in a way, it is kind of construction — since it is “in lieu of” construction.

At one point, there was indeed an itemized park service construction list circulated in budget talks. The cash settlement was allegedly on the list. The list was even referenced in budget committee documents as the “go-to” list for what the National Park Service should spend its construction budget on.

“The amount provided will fully fund the NPS construction projects as prioritized by the Service pursuant to the Administration’s revised request list provided to the Committees on June 24, 2011,” according to a draft version of the National Park Service appropriation bill.

Olson didn’t want to talk about what type of authorization the National Park Service needs at this point to fix the situation.

“Those are conversations that happen between a congressman and the National Park Service,” Olson said. “We are not going to use your newspaper as a way to communicate with Swain County.”

However, that’s exactly the question that has stymied everyone working to secure the cash settlement.

“Somebody, somewhere, has to know if there is something missing, what it is,” Winchester said.

Winchester has followed the labyrinthian appropriations process through Congress. He even flew to D.C. in 2010 along with a delegation from Swain County to meet with Ken Salazar, the Secretary of the Department of the Interior, to remind him of the cash settlement promise.

Winchester said it is disappointing to fight so hard, to see the money included in the budget, but to come up empty-handed.

 

Insult to injury?

The cash settlement was intended to resolve a festering decades-old dispute between Swain County and the federal government over a road flooded during the construction of Fontana Lake back in the 1940s. At the time, the government promised to rebuild the road one day, but never did.

Nearly seven decades later, the government instead promised to make good on its broken promise by paying Swain the cash value of the road that was destroyed — a value pegged at $52 million.

The money was supposed to be appropriated by Congress to the tune of $4 million a year until the obligation was settled. But after an initial down payment of $12.8 million in 2010, Swain hasn’t seen a penny since.

The cash settlement was supposed to make right on the long-standing obligation to Swain County citizens. The federal government signed a memorandum of understanding amid great pomp and circumstance in 2010, a ceremony attended by some 200 people at Swain County High School, pledging to reimburse Swain County for the road.

If it’s authorization the park service wants in order to release the $4 million included in this year’s budget, how about that memorandum of understanding, signed by the Secretary of the Department of Interior Ken Salazar, promising to pay it? Winchester said that ought to be good enough.

“Each individual subsequent appropriation does not require a new additional authorization,” Winchester said. “These joint acts by the federal government and by Congress constitute the authorization, recognition, expectation and plan for future payments, if and when they are appropriated.”

Congressman Shuler has been a champion of the cash settlement. He grew up in Swain County and rode his football stardom there and at nearby Tennessee to his congressional seat in Washington.

Shuler had to lobby for the appropriation on two fronts. He worked closely with the Obama Administration to get the $4 million payment included in the National Park Service budget this year, Mitchell said.

He also had to shepherd the line item through Congress to make sure it remained intact during the budget process.

“Rep. Shuler worked closely with House leadership to ensure the $4 million annual payment the President promised and requested as part of the North Shore Road settlement was fully funded in the 2012 Appropriations bill,” Mitchell said.

Shuler is remaining optimistic.

“Rep. Shuler fully expects the National Park Service to fulfill the President’s request and uphold the federal government’s legally-binding obligation to Swain County by making the payment before the end of this year,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell pointed out that the government signed a “legally-binding” memorandum with Swain County.

Even with an ally in Shuler fighting for the cause, the cash settlement seems to have stalled out almost as soon as it was promised. Shuler is now serving his last year in office, however, having announced this winter he would not seek re-election.

Whether Shuler’s successor will fight with the same vigor for the settlement leaves the future of the payments in even greater limbo.

Shuler’s office says he will impress on whoever comes along after him to carry the torch.

“Our office will fully brief the incoming 11th District representative to ensure they have the information and resources they need to follow in Rep. Shuler’s footsteps and continue his leadership and hard-fought efforts on this front,” Mitchell said.

For now, Swain County leaders haven’t gotten actively involved in hunting down the $4 million that allegedly has their name on it somewhere in the National Park Service budget. Instead, they were counting on Shuler to fight that battle for them.

“The money is in the account ready to go but nobody is willing to sign the check,” Swain County Manager Kevin King said, proffering his version of the cash settlement’s status.

But Swain County commissioners might need to start rattling some cages.

“We might have to at some point in the future,” King said.

 

What is the North Shore Road?

The so-called “Road to Nowhere” is a source of bitter resentment for the people of Swain County. Before it was flooded, the road traveled for more than 30 miles from Bryson City to Tennessee. The route was dotted with homes, farms, schools, churches, cemeteries and general stores of numerous Appalachian settlements going back generations.

When Fontana dam was built in the 1940s, what wasn’t consumed by the rising water of Fontana Lake was folded into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Hundreds of people were forced to leave their homes forever.

The federal government promised in writing at the time to rebuild the road, but after pecking away at a dozen or so miles in the 1950s and 1960s, it was abandon due to the exorbitant costs and environmental hurdles of building the remaining 20 or so miles.

It became a symbol of Washington’s failure to keep promises to rural Appalachia. Swain County, after all, had paid to build the road in the first place — and had to keep paying off the construction debt for years after the road didn’t exist anymore.

A deep-seated distrust and disillusionment set in over the intervening decades.

When it comes to the election season, 2012 has turned into a bellwether year for North Carolina, and Republicans are clammoring to claim state and federal seats currently held by Democrats.

Even the popular N.C. House Democrat Ray Rapp, who has enjoyed two uncontested election seasons, is now facing mounting competition for his 118th District seat. Rapp has represented Haywood and Madison counties in the N.C. House for 10 years.

“I think this is a really interesting year,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University. “There is so much uncertainty.”

Rapp will be pitted against one of three Republican candidates come fall.

The make-up of Rapp’s district changed only slightly when new lines were drawn following the national census, a political shuffle that occurs every 10 years to ensure that each district still has roughly the same number of residents.

Rapp’s district has lost parts of Haywood County and picked up the whole of Yancey County.

Prior to the reconfiguration, the district was 28 percent Republican, but it is now 31 percent.

The three Republican candidates hoping to take on Rapp are:

• Jesse Sigmon, 63, is retired from the Department of Revenue but works part-time at Builders Express in Mars Hill, where he currently resides. Sigmon ran unsuccessfully for state office in 1998 and again in 2000, but he said the new district make-up could be the change he needs to win.

“The numbers are more favorable to a fair election for a Republican,” Sigmon said. “I did not feel I could win in the past few elections because of the numbers.”

• Michele Presnell, 60, is a current Yancey County Commissioner and owner of Serendipity Custom Frames in Burnsville. She is also the wife of former state senator Keith Presnell. Presnell said that the district needs a change — someone who can better represent its constituents.

“This is a new district, and I feel that I can represent the people of this district in a more conservative way,” she said.

• Ben Keilman, a Canton resident and Pisgah graduate, is by far the youngest competitor at 23. He recently graduated with a political science degree from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where he was active in College Republicans. Keilman currently works for his father at Asheville Cabinets.

In the last election two years ago, Republicans took control of the state legislature for the first time in a century. And, the political tide in North Carolina continues to turn in favor of the traditionally more conservative party, Cooper said.

“More Republicans think they’ve got a shot,” he said, later adding that the once-light blue state now has a purple tint. “This is all just a path to becoming a red state.”

However, disorganization among the state Republican Party, witnessed by the outpouring of so many candidates in the primary, will benefit Democrats in the long run, Cooper said.

“The Republican’s don’t seem to have an organized party to sift through these candidates,” Cooper said. “The lack of party organization is really striking to me.”

The race for Heath Shuler’s seat in Congress is another election in which Republicans will need to narrow the field. It is even more hotly contested with eight Republicans battling for their party’s nomination.

Although the House district held by Rapp is still majority Democrat, it does not mean that the race will be a cakewalk for Rapp, however.

“I think it will be a little more difficult,” Cooper said.

Rapp agreed that the district is more competitive than it once was and said he will focus on visiting all corners of the district and meeting with constituents — something he has become known for.

“It’s too easy to get drawn into the world in Raleigh and forget your roots,” Rapp said. “Accessibility, I hope, has been a hallmark of my terms.”

Rapp said he is occasionally teased that he will show up anywhere-even a goat roping.

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.

The race for the Congressional seat representing Western North Carolina was flipped on its head last week when incumbent U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, announced he would not seek re-election this year — leaving no heir apparent within his party.

“It is somewhat difficult for the Democrats to find someone at this late date to run,” said Tommy Jenkins, former Democratic state senator and state representative in Macon County. “The Republican candidates, some of them, have been out there campaigning for a year.”

The Republican side of the race was already overcrowded with at least eight people declaring that they will run. But now, with Shuler out of the picture, the election is anyone’s game.

“(Shuler’s decision) changes everything,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.

The Republican primary was already hotly contested, and that won’t change, according to Jeff Hunt, a Republican candidate from Brevard. But the Republican nominee will no longer have to do battle with Shuler come the general election.

SEE ALSO: As Shuler steps down to spend time with family, finding a Shuler-esque candidate to fill the void has Democrats scrambling

“It makes November a different ball game,” said Hunt.

The lack of a frontrunner for the Democratic Party could mean that the seat falls under Republican control.

“Shuler is the one Democrat in my mind who had a chance,” Cooper said. “One, he was extremely moderate. Two, he has the name recognition. Three, he had a fundraising advantage.”

Even if Shuler betroths his war chest to a candidate who is Shuler-esque in their political views, they still won’t have the name recognition that Shuler did — not given his football stardom on top of Congressman status.

While a replacement Democrat might be coming from behind in the name recognition field, so are all the Republican challengers, Shuler pointed out.

“The Republican candidates, no one has ever heard of them at all,” Shuler said.

 

11th-hour bomb

Thus far, Asheville resident Cecil Bothwell is the only Democrat to officially declare his candidacy. He was already planning to run in the Democratic Primary against Shuler. Bothwell is considerably more liberal than Shuler, one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress, and faces overwhelming odds in a historically conservative district.

“I don’t understand how Bothwell has much of a chance here,” Cooper said.

Despite this, with Shuler out of the running, Bothwell said he is confident that he will compete in November’s election.

“That is good news for the campaign,” he said. “I look forward to being the nominee of the Democratic Party for Congress in 11th District.”

But, a wide-open seat could draw a number of potential candidates out of the woodwork before the candidate filing period closes at the end of the month.

So far, however, Shuler’s Chief of Staff Hayden Rogers is the only Democrat to say he is considering a run for Shuler’s seat. (See related article)

Despite a relative lack of name recognition, Rogers is a conservative Democrat and could potentially garner votes from across the political spectrum similar to Shuler.

A 2010 Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute poll of almost 600 registered Jackson County voters revealed an anomaly in Shuler’s supporter base: Republicans gave him just as high an approval rating as Democrats.

The Democratic nominee — no matter who it is — will have a tough battle ahead in the November election.

“Of course the election will be difficult. It’s always difficult,” said Luke Hyde, head of the Democratic Party in the 11th District. But, “We expect to win in the fall.”

But the 11th-hour bomb dropped by Shuler hasn’t done his party any favors.

“I think he’s done a tremendous injustice to the Democrats for announcing so late,” said Ralph Slaughter, Jackson County GOP chair. “This assures (Republicans) of a victory in 2012.”

Last year, the state reshuffled the 11th District, cutting the liberal-concentrated Asheville out of the district and stirring in four Republican-leaning counties. Now, only 36 percent of voters in the district are registered Democrats, compared to 43 percent prior to the redistricting.

“This Republican redistricting was masterful,” Cooper said. “It is shocking at how good a job they did to take a state that was about 50-50 Democrat Republican and draw districts that will result in a state with about three Democrats in (U.S.) Congress.”

However, the district is still home to a decent bloc of unaffiliated voters who could sway the election either way.

“You never take for granted that a Republican is going to win even if it has been redrawn,” Hunt said.

The head of the district’s Republican Party said that Shuler bowing out of the competition does not ensure a Republican victory. However, it does improve the odds.

“That fact that it is an open seat rather than an incumbent … can’t help but encourage the Republicans,” said Dave Sawyer, an attorney from Bryson City. “I think we are more optimistic about being able to do so now.”

Mark Meadows, a Republican candidate from Jackson County, agreed with Sawyer.

It would be a “great mistake” to think the election is a cinch now, Meadows said. However, “You look at it as a much easier campaign.”

One obstacle that still faces Republicans is the current size of its candidate pool.

“I think the field right now is extremely large,” Meadows said.

At least eight Republicans are currently battling for the nomination, and the party will need to narrow the field and focus on beefing up the profile of a few candidates.

 

Democratic decline

Shuler is not the only prominent Democrat from North Carolina who decided to retire this year.

Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue announced in late January that she would not seek re-election. Perdue served only one-term as governor, but it was plagued by battles with the Republican-controlled state legislature.

And, just a month prior, long-time N.C. Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, divulged that his 14-year stint in politics would come to an end this year. The nearly 76-year-old state representative decided to retire to spend more time with his grandchildren and possibly travel.

These retirements leave their vacant positions in limbo.

“It is not a good sign for the Democratic party in North Carolina,” Cooper said. The state is shifting from the “old solid democratic South” to “a state dominated by the Republican party.”

In the case of the governor’s race, there is no standout candidate or frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, whereas Pat McCrory, the former mayor of Charlotte, seems the natural choice for the Republican Party. McCrory made a good showing during the last gubernatorial race against Perdue.

“I would be very surprised if the Democrats pulled out a victory in the governor’s mansion in November,” Cooper said.

When Coach Boyce Dietz got a call from his former standout quarterback Heath Shuler asking him to meet for breakfast at Clyde’s Restaurant one morning several years ago, Dietz dutifully got in the car and headed toward Waynesville to hear what was on the mind of his old Swain County High football player gone-pro.

“I always told my players if you ever need to talk about anything through the years, no matter how much time has passed, to just give me a call,” Dietz said. He will never forget what came next as they dug into their biscuits and gravy at the roadside diner.

“He said, ‘Coach I’m, thinking about running for Congress,’” Dietz recounted. Needless to say, it was the first time one of his players had leveled that particular question.

Dietz offered some sage advice. Shuler’s children were just 2 and 5 at the time. Dietz warned him the toughest part of the job wouldn’t be anything that happened in Washington, but what he was missing out on back home.

Six years later, it seems Dietz was right. Shuler is throwing in the towel on his congressional career representing North Carolina’s 11th District, trading in the long trips back and forth to Washington for more time at home in Waynesville with his wife and kids, now 7 and 10.

SEE ALSO: Democrats face uphill battle to hang on to seat

“It feels like time has just flown by,” said Shuler, 40. “They are growing up, and I don’t want to miss those moments.”

Shuler said the decision came out of heart-to-heart talks with his wife, Nikol, as he contemplated whether to run for governor following the recent and equally surprising news that Gov. Beverly Perdue will step down.

The suddenness of Shuler’s announcement has sent shock waves through the Democratic Party, left in the lurch without an heir apparent who is prepped and ready to fill the void.

“I wish we’d had a little more advance notice that the Congressman wasn’t going to run,” said Brian McMahan, chairman of the Jackson County Democratic Party, who added that as a new father himself, he understands Shuler’s decision.

Shuler’s announcement came less than two weeks before the mandatory sign-up period for candidates to declare their intentions to run.

Shuler has gotten some backlash from Democrats who feel slighted by his 11th-hour decision. While a darling among moderates, Shuler has learned to accept the black sheep status from elements in his own party who reject him for being too conservative.

“I wasn’t Democratic enough, but now they want me back,” Shuler joked.

Mostly, however, Shuler said he has had a humbling outpouring of support from well-wishers from both parties. Shuler was one of the true middle-of-the-aisle members of Congress. In his last two years he served as the leader of the Blue Dog Coalition, an alliance of moderate Democrats in Congress.

“Republican House members have said ‘Please don’t leave, please don’t leave,’” Shuler said. “And, of course, all my Blue Dog guys.”

Rather than guilt him into staying on, however, those bidding Shuler farewell have largely enforced that his decision is the right one.

“So many have said don’t miss that time, you never get that childhood back. Those times are gone forever,” Shuler said.

Shuler has spent the past six years living a double life of sorts — flying to Washington Monday morning to do his job as a congressman and returning late Thursday night for a weekend as a family man.

Nikol’s parents live in Waynesville and serve as a support network when Shuler is out of town. But raising two kids alone for much of the week is hard work, Shuler said. He won’t forget his first solo stint with the kids one weekend when his wife had commitments of her own. He found himself wondering how in the world she did it.

“There is nothing like the two of us being together and to share the load and the work that it takes to raise kids,” Shuler said.

Spending time with family has become a cliché status often cited by people stepping down from a job.

“I think people use that as an excuse,” said Dietz, who joined Shuler’s staff as a field representative on the ground in the seven western counties. “I think it is a cop out a lot of the time, but I don’t really think it is with him. It really bothered him when we would go out the door on Monday morning and his kids would cry.

“He had a choice to make and he put his family before his job,” Dietz said.

 

Tough road to re-election

Political observers, however, question whether Shuler was simply fearful of losing this year’s election. Congressional lines were re-drawn this year by a Republican-led General Assembly, making Shuler’s district decidedly more conservative.

But Dietz doubts a fear of losing the race led to Shuler’s decision. Shuler won re-election easily in 2008 and even in 2010 — a dismal year for Democrats by all accounts but one that Shuler survived with hardly a battle scar to show for it. He beat his Republican challenger by 20,000 votes with 54 percent of the ballots.

But, there’s no question the fight to win would have been much tougher this time.

“I think he knew it was going to be a really hard campaign, and it was going to take a lot of time,” Dietz said. “He realized he was really going to be away.”

The new district lines cut Asheville out of Western North Carolina like a bite out of an apple. Asheville’s large bloc of Democratic voters were swapped out for the markedly conservative-leaning voters in Avery, Mitchell, Burke and Caldwell counties.

“I can’t believe he didn’t do the math and figure out it was going to be a lot harder,” said Chris Cooper, a political analyst and professor at Western Carolina University.

Shuler, however, says he wasn’t daunted.

“I know what my polling numbers were,” Shuler said.

Just because the new district includes more Republicans doesn’t mean they would have necessarily supported his opponent, said Shuler, who has gotten votes from a lot of Republicans in each of his previous elections.

“Graham County is a perfect example of a county that is a so-called Republican county and we won it by 66 percent of the vote,” Shuler said of the 2010 election.

Dietz believes Shuler could have kept the seat as long as he wanted it — although he never would have guessed it sitting in Clyde’s Restaurant that morning six years ago.

Dietz admits he was doubtful Shuler could unseat the powerful, wealthy, longtime Congressman Charles Taylor, R-Brevard.

“I told him it would be an uphill battle. Nobody else has been able to even come close to doing this. You have never even been in politics before,” Dietz recalled saying.

Dietz’s mind was whirling with all the issues Shuler would have to brush up on, from obscure historical factoids to foreign policy.

“I was thinking how in the world can you prepare yourself for that?” Dietz said. “He proved he to be a quick learner on a lot of things.”

Still, Dietz said he was surprised when Shuler actually pulled off a victory over Taylor in 2006. And he wasn’t the only one.

“On paper, no Democrat should have won this district,” said Cooper.

Once in office, the surprises kept coming.

“Your preconception is we got us a big, dumb football player, but to anyone who had that preconceived notion, it turned out that this guy was sharp as a tack, and he really got it,” said Joe Sam Queen, a former state senator from Waynesville. “I found him to be one of the quickest studies in politics I’ve ever met.”

Shuler quickly made a name for himself and began wearing the title of congressman with confidence.

“I think he was more effective than one would expect a freshman congressman to have been,” said Mark Swanger, the chairman of the Haywood County Board of Commissioners and a Democrat. “I do think he established a higher profile than one would expect in his short tenure.”

Swanger said he is very disappointed Shuler is dropping out of Congress, a sentiment echoed time and again since the news broke last week.

“I really, really regret that he is not running again because he is good at what he does,” said Luke Hyde, an attorney in Shuler’s hometown of Bryson City and head of the Democratic Party in the 15-county congressional district.

 

Blue Dog at heart

Shuler’s ability to win and retain a seat in Congress as a Democrat from a conservative mountain district is a testament to his middle-of-the-road philosophy. He is pro-gun, pro-life and doesn’t support gay marriage. He voted against health care reform and against federal bailouts, winning the title as one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress.

“I think he found a voice for the people of Western North Carolina that was right down the center. I certainly respected and admired that,” said Queen. “He struck a good balance.”

Republicans aren’t exactly chirping a chorus of  “good riddance” over Shuler’s departure.

“I think Heath did a good job,” said Floyd Rogers, owner of Haywood Insurance in Waynesville and a Republican. “He tried to vote the heart and the conscious of the people in his district. It was a very difficult thing for Heath to balance. Overall, I would give him a good rating.”

For counties west of Asheville, having a congressman from their neck of the woods was a nice change in a political landscape increasingly dominated by metro population centers.

“Heath is the kind of person you could just pick up the phone and reach him or he would call you right back,” said Swanger.

From his own staff to political opponents, the sheer number of people who refer to him as “Heath” — not congressman and certainly not Mr. Shuler — is in itself a testament to his approachable persona.

“There was one thing I always thought about Heath,” Dietz said. “I thought he was a better person than he was a football player, and he was a heck of a football player.”

Unlike some athletes who think they are above their peers at school, Shuler always gave his teammates credit and went out of his way to reach out to the younger kids, Dietz said.

Shuler remembers going out to dinner with his parents after a football game his freshman year at the University of Tennessee, being constantly interrupted by people wanting his autograph. When Shuler gave a sigh under his breath, his mom looked at him and told him that one day he would look back and wish people still wanted his autograph like they used to.

He never forgot his mom’s words that night, and it helped shape the gracious and humble personality he still exhibits.

Shuler says he’ll miss the camaraderie of other congressman more than anything else about the job. He equated it to the locker room fellowship of other football players, which is precisely what he missed most after exiting his pro football career following an injury.

“As much as people want to demonize members of Congress, the truth is there are some great, quality people,” Shuler said. “As a whole we don’t poll very well, but individually, there are great guys.”

But, Shuler had disdain for what he called the gamesmanship of politics in D.C.

“I had people who wouldn’t even shake my hand in a public setting because they knew I was a Democrat. I was like, really? Really?” Shuler said. “I am glad I won’t have to put up with it any longer.”

Queen wondered whether the toxic political atmosphere is partly to blame for Shuler walking away.

“Given the tenure in Washington, I am sure it has not been fun,” Queen said.

Shuler, a devout Christian, rented a room in a D.C. house run by a religious group for congressmen. His roommates are all currently Republicans.

While Shuler is conservative as far as most Democrats go, not all Republicans were willing to embrace him as one of their own. Jeff Norris, a Republican attorney in Waynesville, hopes to see a Republican win the seat, something that will certainly be easier with Shuler out of the way.

“Hopefully the next representative will help the district and country solve some of the critical issues facing us,” Norris said, questioning whether Shuler has any tangible accomplishments from his six years in Congress.

Dietz said the national deficit weighed heavily on Shuler and indeed became one of his leading causes in Washington in recent years. During the height of the deficit talks last fall, when the so-called Super Committee was wrestling with how to trim the budget by a $1.5 trillion, Shuler amassed the “Go Big” coalition — urging the committee to instead trim the deficit by $4 trillion during the next decade. He ultimately got 150 members from both parties in the House and Senate to sign on.

“He felt so strong about the deficit and the threat to the country,” Dietz said.

 

Filling Shuler’s shoes

With news of Shuler’s departure less than a week old, no Democrats have yet emerged to run for the seat other than Cecil Bothwell, an Asheville city councilman who was already in the race and planned to challenge Shuler in the Democratic primary.

But, Bothwell’s more liberal stance than Shuler may not go over with the district’s conservative leanings, leaving Democrats in a quandary in finding a candidate they think has a shot at winning. Meanwhile, Republican challengers for Shuler’s seat announced their intentions months ago. The frontrunners have campaign staffs assembled, headquarters humming, web sites up and running and fundraising well under way.

Cooper, the political analyst and public policy professor at Western Carolina University, doesn’t give the Democrats much hope.

“It is going to be darn near impossible,” Cooper said. “Ideologically, I can’t imagine anyone who is going to line up with the district the way Shuler did.”

But, there may be one. Hayden Rogers, Shuler’s chief of staff, is contemplating a run.

Rogers grew in the small town of Robbinsville and like Shuler played football in high school, but on an opposing team. Hardly rivals now, however, Rogers is Shuler’s closest advisor and political strategist, commuting back and forth to D.C. from his home in Murphy.

Rogers can walk both walks. He grew 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.

“He would be an extremely strong candidate,” Shuler said.

Shuler’s endorsement of his own chief of staff has led some to speculate as to whether he intentionally timed the announcement of his decision not to run at this late stage in order to give Rogers a leg up. While any other Democrat would have to scramble to get a campaign rolling, Rogers would arguably have an easier time of it as Shuler’s anointed replacement, potentially inheriting a good share of Shuler’s half-million dollar war chest and many of his campaign workers.

Shuler said there was no plan to hand the seat to Rogers. In fact, Shuler didn’t know Rogers might be interested until after he made the announcement last Thursday.

Rogers approached him later that evening and asked “What would you think if I ran in your spot?” Shuler recounted.

If stepping down indeed was part of a grand plan, it was a well-kept secret indeed.

“I was totally shocked to learn Heath Shuler wasn’t going to run. I’ve not talked to anyone who knew it was coming,” said Jean Ellen Forrister, active party Democrat in Jackson County.

From Democratic insiders to Shuler’s own staff, the announcement came as a surprise.

Dietz says he didn’t know Shuler was planning to step down until he called an all-staff video conference last Thursday.

“None of us definitely knew, but we all had a bad feeling about it,” Dietz said of those hours leading up to the conference call. “It depresses me to think about not being able to do this anymore.”

Shuler pointed out he isn’t quitting tomorrow. He still has another 11 months to go — 11 more months to hit his favorite DC restaurant, Oceanaire, an upscale seafood restaurant popular in political circles. And 11 more months to represent the people of the 11th District.

Despite his limited name recognition and his significantly smaller war chest, Cecil Bothwell is confident he can outrun U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler during next May’s primary race for the 11th Congressional District’s Democratic nomination.

“I would not be doing it if I did not intend to win,” said Bothwell, a city councilman and former newspaper reporter in Asheville.

Bothwell and Shuler are at opposite ends of the Democratic spectrum, with Bothwell in the liberal corner and Shuler in the more conservative camp. Should Bothwell make it past the primary, however, he is not concerned about how his liberal leanings or Asheville ties will play with the region’s rural and historically conservative mountain voters.

“I think I am more likely to win in November than he is,” Bothwell said.

In past elections, Shuler, D-Waynesville, has demonstrated an ability to curry favor with voters from both political parties.

A 2010 Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute poll of almost 600 registered Jackson County voters revealed an astonishing anomaly in Shuler’s supporter base: Republicans gave him just as high an approval rating as Democrats.

Shuler said Bothwell would be unlikely to pick up the necessary independent or conservative voters in a general election.

“They won’t get any support from the other side on any issue they have,” Shuler said.

Bothwell originally planned to run as an independent but found the requirements to get his name on the ballot overwhelming.

“When I began to explore the possibility, it turned out I would need to collect something close to 20,000 verified signatures,” Bothwell said.

Bothwell added it would be “very, very difficult to win” with three candidates vying for the position.

Bothwell decided to run against Shuler in March after the three-term congressman voted against key bills in the national Democratic agenda: namely health care reform and the federal stimulus bill.

“I decided somebody had to run against him,” Bothwell said.

 

Uphill battle

Name recognition could be Bothwell’s biggest challenge if he hopes to defeat Shuler, said Chris Cooper, a political science professor from Western Carolina University.

“I think that is a major reason why incumbents win,” Cooper said.

As a former editor at the Mountain Xpress and member of the Asheville City Council, Bothwell is known in Buncombe County. However, it is unknown how many voters outside of Asheville recognize Bothwell as compared to Shuler — an incumbent and revered football hero.

Last election, however, a relatively unknown candidate from Asheville pulled down nearly 40 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary and carried Buncombe County, the most liberal county in the region.

Shuler’s conservative stance helps him during the general election but drags down his primary numbers. Democratic voters punished Shuler during the last primary for not being liberal enough.

The fact that a “newcomer to politics” received such as large percent of the votes “indicates widespread dissatisfaction” among 11th District Democrats, Bothwell said.

But, the same dip in poll numbers did not hold true in the general election.

Shuler handily won re-election by more than 20,000 votes in 2010 against Republican Jeff Miller of Hendersonville.

“We went through the most difficult election in history for Democrats, and we still won by 10 percent,” Shuler said. “We feel very good.”

But, the primary race could also force Shuler, who has received flack for his not-always-party-line voting record, to prove he is a Democrat by taking a leftist standpoint, Cooper said.

And, that could come back to bite him in the general election.

“In some ways, the best thing for the Republican Party is for Cecil Bothwell to do well,” Cooper said.

While Bothwell has already started his campaign for the Democratic nomination, Shuler said he does not expect to spend much time or money running a primary race.

“Campaign mode does not kick in til August,” Shuler said.

Until then, Shuler said he will continue to do what he was elected to do — work.

“You still have to focus on the job at hand,” Shuler said. “Being placed on the budget committee … takes priority over fundraising.”

Shuler said he thinks the new district make-up gives him an advantage over the more liberal Bothwell now that Asheville, a traditionally liberal sect of voters, has been cut out.

Shuler said the district has “a Blue Dog type make-up,” referring  to the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of fiscally conservative Democrats in Washington that Shuler heads.

 

Asheville booted out

Come Election Day, Bothwell won’t be able to vote for himself.

Although he is still legally allowed to run for its congressional seat, Bothwell no longer lives in the district he hopes to represent.

Every 10 years, the lines for Congressional districts are redrawn following the national census, to ensure that each district has roughly the same number of voters.

The re-organization of the 11th District added several Republican-leaning counties and carved out Asheville’s liberal voters.

Now, the district is 38 percent registered Republicans and only 36 percent of voters in the district are registered Democrats, a possibly election-making difference when compared to the 43 percent who were registered Democrats before the re-organization. That means the general election could be decided by the 26 percent of unaffiliated voters that making up the remaining portion.

Meanwhile, Asheville was shunted into the 10th Congressional district, which is already a Republican stronghold and could absorb Asheville’s Democratic voting bloc without tipping the scales.

Bothwell chose not to run in the 10th District, which reaches from the foothills to the outskirts of Charlotte, because he does not agree with how the state’s congressional districts were redrawn. State law does not require a candidate to live in the Congressional district he represents.

“The fact that the headstrong Republican idiots in Raleigh have temporarily tried to move Asheville into the Piedmont is laughable,” Bothwell said.

Bothwell still considers himself a resident of the 11th Congressional District even though the maps say otherwise. He hopes it won’t be the case for long.

“I will do all I can to speed the redrawing of district maps to reflect reality. In the meantime, I aim to represent my people, the people of the western counties, in Washington,” Bothwell said.

Whoever wins the Democratic primary will face one of at least eight Republican candidates that have joined the race. The Republican candidate will face slightly better odds this election as a result of the re-organization of the congressional district.

At least eight Republicans have lined up to spar with incumbent Democratic Rep. Heath Shuler for Western North Carolina’s 11th U.S. Congressional seat, but they have to knock their fellow party members out of the competition first.

The controlling political party — whether Democrat or Republican — has never had an easy time securing the 11th District seat, but the cluster of Republicans planning to file will face better odds this election season following the re-organization of the state’s congressional districts.

“This is always a competitive district,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University. “I think the big change this year is redistricting.”

The 11th District formerly included Asheville, with its traditionally liberal voters. After some shuffling earlier this year, however, Asheville was booted out of the district while Republican-leaning counties were brought into the fold. Now, only 36 percent of voters in the district are registered Democrats, a possibly election-making difference when compared to the 43 percent who were registered Democrats before the re-organization.

“It makes it a lot more likely that a Republican is going to win,” Cooper said.

Even though the district is weighted more heavily toward Republican candidates, it in no way ensures a win for the party, especially given Shuler’s appeal to conservative mountain voters despite the word “Democrat” beside his name.

A Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute poll of almost 600 registered Jackson County voters in 2010 revealed a striking anomaly in Shuler’s supporter base: Republicans gave him just as high an approval rating as Democrats.

The huge field of candidates could be daunting to voters in the run-up to the May primary. Having too many candidates divides the Republican Party’s funding and support.

“The key (now) will be whittling down the field,” Cooper said. “The party as a whole will be a lot better off if they can get behind one candidate sooner.”

But, the growing field of candidates does not concern Jeff Hunt, a candidate from Brevard, who touted his 17 years of experience as a district attorney.

“The more the better,” Hunt said.

Once the party has narrowed the field to one or two candidates, name recognition will be one of its biggest hurdles.

“It’s going to be huge,” Cooper said. “I think that is a major reason why incumbents win.”

Compared to Shuler, an incumbent and hometown football superstar, the current Republican candidates have little or no name recognition. The candidate who may be able to beat Shuler is “a moderate Republican, a fiscal conservative,” Cooper said.

“Somebody with some name recognition who isn’t too far to the right,” he said.

The district is now 38 percent registered Republicans and 36 percent Democrat — a toss-up that could put the contest in the hands of the unaffiliated voters making up the remaining 26 percent.

Republican primary candidate Mark Meadows, who hails from Jackson County, said the change makes Western North Carolina one of the strongest, if not the strongest, Republican districts in the state.

Meadows, a 52-year-old real estate developer from Cashiers, noted that even with Asheville as a part of the old district, former Republican presidential candidate John McCain still received 52 percent of the vote in the 11th Congressional District in 2008.

As a testament to the shift in party leanings, almost 59 percent of the district’s voters would have cast their ballot for McCain under the new district lines.

Chris Petrella, a 44-year-old candidate from Spindale, said it is no surprise that so many Republicans are entering the race. Ousting Shuler, given his appeal among moderates and even many conservatives, was a daunting prospect before redistricting took Asheville’s liberal voters out of the picture.

But don’t expect the candidates to tell you that, said Petrella, who owns an economic development firm.

“The politically correct answer is that Obama has done something so terribly wrong that it is time to change the change,” Petrella said of why the Republican field is so crowded. “Any idiot who wants to have Congressman on their resume has decided to throw their hat in the ring.”

But it isn’t going to be as easy as it looks, not even with the new voting demographic in the 11th district favoring Republicans.

“There is a misperception that winning the nominee in the Republican primary will automatically anoint you to winning the general election,” Petrella said, adding that he had gotten into the race “before it looked easy.”

Candidates will official declare their intention to run during a filing period in the month February.

Because he is running for re-election in a swing district, from a national standpoint, Shuler is one of the Democrats to beat. If Shuler expects to win, he must spend time in the district and remind people of what he has accomplished during his term, Cooper said.

“Good old-fashioned retail politics is going to win this race,” he said.

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