Shuler selects a familiar face to help bid for national prominenceWritten by Quintin Ellison
Andrew Whalen, an up-and-coming political insider who helped craft U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler’s entry onto the political scene five years ago, has rejoined the congressman’s staff.
Whalen, 30, announced he would leave his position as executive director of the N.C. Democratic Party at the beginning of the year. He will take charge of Shuler’s leadership political action committee, 3rd and Long.
Shuler was a Swain County High School football standout who went on to play for the University of Tennessee and the NFL.
Whalen, an Ohio native, served as the young congressman’s deputy campaign manager in 2006 and as his campaign manager in 2008. The state party, like the national Democratic Party, took a whipping from Republicans during the midterm elections. Democrats lost control of the state General Assembly, both the House and the Senate, for the first time in more than a century. Nationally, Republicans took control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Following the state shellacking, N.C. Democratic Party Chairman David Young, a former Buncombe County commissioner, announced he wouldn’t seek re-election to the post. With the party’s executive committee set to meet in late January to choose Young’s replacement, some N.C. Democratic Party staffers in Raleigh promptly started searching for new jobs.
Whalen, however, said he wasn’t forced off the staff. Whalen said he chose to leave because he believes in Shuler’s ability to help a wounded national Democratic party find common ground and rebuild its membership base.
In short, Shuler’s determination to help Democrats regain control in Washington, D.C., simply drew him back, Whalen said.
“As he started expanding his national profile we started talking about this,” said Whalen, who will also serve as a senior advisor to the congressman. “He wants to win that majority back — and I certainly wanted to be part of his team.”
Shuler took a calculated loss in a bid to oust U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for House Democratic leader. His gains on the national stage were huge in terms of coast-to-coast coverage by television and newspapers — the party leadership fight took place during what is traditionally a slow news cycle between the November elections and the holidays.
Shuler took advantage of the national exposure to blame Democrats themselves for the beating they took at the polls. The party has moved too far left, he said, and needs to move toward the center. That’s where Shuler himself — a conservative Blue Dog Democrat — resides politically.
Shuler handily won reelection in the 11th Congressional District over Republican challenger Jeff Miller. The 11th Congressional District is made up of the state’s westernmost counties.
“It would be hard to find a Democrat whose stock has risen more in the last few months than Heath Shuler,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University who helps oversee a blog on state politics for the school’s Public Policy Institute. “His ploy to feign a run for minority leader achieved its goal — to raise his national profile. He could never win and he knew that. Nonetheless, his move was brilliant political theatre and shows that you can be the winner in politics without actual winning the contest.”
Politicians use leadership PACs such as the one Whalen will head to promote causes and like-minded candidates — usually by raising money. Whalen said he would oversee fundraising, recruitment, communications and Shuler’s political travel.
Though Whalen’s jump back to Shuler’s staff might look like the ultimate inside baseball, Cooper said it serves as an important signal about Shuler’s political aspirations. And it speaks to Democrats’ increasing faith in Shuler’s abilities to lead.
“Now he’s stolen the head of the state Democratic Party away,” Cooper said. “It’s unlikely Whalen would be leaving Raleigh unless he thought Shuler had a chance to be much more than a junior member from a relatively small district. Shuler clearly has an eye on the leadership, and as one of the only Democrats who can survive in a competitive district, there’s every reason to believe he’ll be successful sooner rather than later.”
Shuler now becomes co-chair of the Blue Dog Caucus, a step up from his former position as Blue Dog whip. Additionally, he has been elected to the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, which selects which fellow party members serve on other House committees, and advises party leaders on policy.
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