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Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, is leading a bipartisan call, asking the joint super committee to spare nothing in its cuts to the U.S. deficit.

“It will be heard throughout the world that we can do something together,” Shuler said in a phone interview, “and work for the united good of this nation.”

A Nov. 2 bipartisan letter signed by 100 members of Congress asks the super committee tasked with recommending budget solutions in Washington to cut $4 trillion rather than the mandated $1.2 trillion.

Analyses by multiple economic, partisan and bipartisan groups say the U.S must cut its deficit spending and place the amount of the cuts near $4 trillion, said Shuler.

The letter is not specific about what should be trimmed but states that the committee should keep all types of mandatory and discretionary spending and revenues.

“You can’t do one without the other,” Shuler said. “It has to be a combination of both.”

The committee, comprised of Senate and House of Representatives members, must create a plan by Nov. 23. Failure to do so will result in across-the-board cuts in 2013.

No compromise means “the political parties have won, and America has lost,” Shuler said.

Shuler has staked himself out as a moderate in his seven years in office, despite his formal label as a Democrat. He is also a leader of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of moderate Democrats in Congress that claim to rise above the political fray.

The letter was co-authored by Congressman Mike Simpson (R-ID) and signed by 100 members of Congress, including David Price, Howard Coble, Mike McIntrye and Mel Watt.

“We write to you as a bipartisan group of representatives from across the political spectrum in the belief that the success of your committee is vital to our country’s future,” states the letter. “We know that many in Washington and around the country do not believe we in the Congress and those within your committee can successfully meet this challenge. We believe that we can and we must.”

David Gifford proudly stood as a congressman presented him with medals for meritorious service in the Air Force and the Army. The assembled crowd applauded as the representative gave a short speech. Photos were snapped and a news camera rolled.

And Gifford, 61, beamed. He was not at the White House or a formal military ceremony, but in his humble backyard in Waynesville, surrounded by family and standing in front of a small banner emblazoned with the mantra Support Our Troops, finally receiving his accolades nearly 40 years after he earned them.  

This intimate ceremony was the culmination of years of work by his wife, Kim, who was told that to get her husband’s medals for his service in Vietnam, she’d have to pay for them.

Unable to do so, she eventually enlisted the help of U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, who threw his weight around to get the military awards free of charge.

Gifford’s story is far from unique among veterans, even though rewards recognizing bravery and service are promised for free to GIs coming home. They’re even supposed to get one replacement for every award without paying for it.

But that doesn’t always happen. Brandon Wilson knows that very well, as the veterans’ services officer for Haywood County.

“Most veterans’ services officers help widows or veterans themselves get medals,” said Wilson, because when the vets or their families try to do it on their own, they’re often stymied by red tape or get lost in the bowels of massive, draconian bureaucracy that is the U.S. military.

Or, in the cash-strapped recession economy, the particular branch of military may not have the right medals in stock or the money to order them. And what can and can’t be done is likely to change with every call, depending on who you talk to.

“It’s supposed to be free. That’s supposed to be what happens,” said Wilson. “But I’m supposed to be six feet tall and beautiful and worth half a million dollars.”

In his one-year tenure as Haywood’s veterans officer, he’s helped around 20 vets and their spouses get the medals owed to them, some dating as far back as World War I.

Each branch of service deals with its own medals and awards internally, and getting them depends largely on the diligence of a commanding officer to file the right paperwork and follow through with it. If they don’t, people like Gifford fall through the cracks.

“When you get the medal and you’ve earned the medal, right then they’re supposed to have an awards ceremony to give that Marine, soldier, sailor that medal on the spot. But it all depends on the command,” said Wilson. “Some commands do it when you get home, some do it on the field, some forget to do it altogether.”

Gifford spent seven years on active duty with the Air Force and another 14 with the Army. Two of those years were served in Vietnam, on a detail that he called “suicide jockey.”

“I drove a fuel tanker that was traffic yellow,” said Gifford.

In Vietnam and after, he said he was repeatedly promised medals for risking his life almost daily, but when he returned to U.S. soil, they never materialized.

“When we got home, the only thing we got was spit at and garbage thrown at us,” said Gifford.

His wife went around and around with the Army for years afterwards, trying to get them on his behalf.

“I’ve been fighting the VA (Veterans’ Affairs) for 18 years,” said Kim Gifford. “They kept telling me that his medals, he had to pay for them.”

It’s not so much that medals are in short supply. There are companies around the country that will supply you with nearly any U.S. military medal imaginable, for a price, of course.

Should you want to buy yourself a pair of military dress blues online and order a few dozen medals from an outfit like Medals of America, you too can appear to be a decorated serviceman in a matter of days, though it’s a felony if you didn’t earn them.

In fact, Medals of America is where the military itself refers veterans when they don’t have the resources to hand out their own medals.

They’re not inordinately expensive; a Purple Heart would set you back $34.95 plus tax.

“But if you can get a Purple Heart medal from the United States Marine Corps for free, why would you want to pay $35 for it?” asks Wilson. “I mean hell, you already paid for it, it’s yours.”

When even he can’t cut through the bureaucratic quagmire to get the medals gratis for veterans, Wilson and his compatriots — there’s a veterans’ services officer in every county — often turn to heavyweights like Rep. Shuler, whose clout is more effective at red-tape cutting.

“These men and women have made invaluable contributions to our nation and fought to defend the values of freedom and democracy that all Americans hold dear, and it is important that they receive the medals and awards they earned and deserve,” said Shuler, who said he’s long had a close relationship with vets and the VA in Western North Carolina.

But for those without access to a congressman, there is Veterans’ Legacy, a group that popped up in North Carolina last year to help vets get the recognition they’re owed.

John Elskamp is a retired Air Force veteran, and when he was on active duty, tracking down medals for service members was part of his job. After getting out, he and some friends just kept going with it.

Ten years later, they’ve found the demand to be so great that they set up a nonprofit to help deal with the requests, and Veterans’ Legacy was born.

Elskamp said that while yes, it’s possible for a veteran or their family to pursue an unawarded medal, or even get recognized for service that was never awarded a medal but should have been — a much larger task — it’s hard for a layperson to manage alone.

“They have to do all the work, they have to go through a member of Congress to submit it, and that’s a tall order for most veterans,” said Elskamp, who is based in a small community just west of Ft. Bragg.

“Even if it was already awarded, (the veteran) just wants replacement medals, that’s something fairly simple, but something that requires a lot of research for the veterans’ services officer to do.”

Elskamp and his colleagues are part detective, part paper pushers, poring through old files in forgotten archival warehouses, tracking down platoon leaders and commanding officers and funneling it all through the administrative processes of the military.

They take the hard cases, and those can take anywhere from 30 to 40 days for the easier ones to several years for the trickiest.

The group offers their service free of charge, because, said Elskamp, they can relate to the importance veterans attach to these medals.

“I mean, I’m a military man so I know what I did in the military is important to me and my family, and the same goes for other veterans,” said Elskamp. “It’s something that you want to leave behind.” Which is why the group is called Veterans’ Legacy.

Though most of the work they do is for veterans of long-past wars, newer cases are finding their way into the groups’ caseload. And with new veterans coming back all the time, Elskamp doesn’t see his service becoming obsolete, even in the digital age.

“I think we’ll always be needed, because even though everything’s on the Internet, people just don’t know what questions to ask,” he said, which is often a good chunk of the battle.

In WNC, Rep. Shuler is pretty active in the field, working to get medals for war widows and vets across the region. Next on the docket is a war widow in Macon County.

Wilson, too, is busy working on new cases himself, trying to get a service medal to one of the last remaining WWI wives in the region. He’s also recently been able to return a Purple Heart to its rightful owner in Bryson City and get long overdue World War II medals for his own grandfather.

Although this work is really just a footnote to the main portion of his job, he sees it as an important part of supporting veterans.

“What I’m majorly here for is to improve the quality of life of these people, and at least I’ve done something for them to make them feel good about themselves or feel positive about themselves.”

Democrats are crying foul over new Congressional district lines that with seemingly surgical precision slice the City of Asheville, a liberal stronghold, out of the 11th Congressional District.

The maps, drawn by state Republican leaders in the the GOP-dominated General Assembly, are no doubt a political move, according to Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.

“This is the game that both parties play,” Cooper said. “They know exactly what they are doing.”

The new 11th Congressional District would include Mitchell, Avery, Caldwell and Burke counties. In exchange, the district divests itself of Asheville and eastern Buncombe, as well as Polk County. The mountain district will shift from 43 percent of the voters being registered Democrats to 36 percent.

The result: a far more conservative voting base, and much more difficult re-election campaing next year for three-term Democrat Congressman Heath Shuler of Waynesville.

Shuler seized the district in 2006 over eight-term incumbent Charles Taylor, R-Transylvania County, and has easily won back his seat every election since. His opponent last fall was considered an admirable opponent, and the year was a watershed for Republicans, but even then Shuler handily kept his seat with more than 54 percent of the vote.

That may not be the case in 2012 given the new district lines, however. Shuler is one of several previously Democratic-leaning districts that has been infused with just enough GOP voters to tip the balance.

As for what to do with all those Democratic voters? The best bet is to lump as many as possible into as few districts as possible. In otherwords, pick a few Democratic-leaning districts to be sacrifical lambs. Stack them heavily with Democrats, while spreading Republican voters around to have just enough of an edge in as many districts as possible.

“Any vote after 50 plus one is a wasted vote,” Cooper said. “The reason you do that is not to dominate a few districts but to win a lot of districts by a little bit.”

All the while, however, the districts must make geographic sense or else risk being overturned in a court battle. If the other party can prove gerrymandering and show that districts are not geographically “compact,” a lawsuit over the district lines is likely.

In this instance, Cooper doesn’t think the new mountain districts cross that line. He sees the districts being geographically close enough to be bullet proof in court, yet still achieving their purpose of favoring Republicans.

“They did a great job of it. The more I look at the more impressed I am,” Cooper said.

Mike Clampitt of the Swain County Republican Party said the redrawing wasn’t tit-for-tat as it might appear — Democrats have a long history of gerrymandering districts in North Carolina — but a case of putting likes with likes.

“This balances the playing field,” Clampitt said. “Asheville is more like the Greensboro and Charlotte area.”

That metropolitan, urban mindset is at odds with the rural understandings and needs of the bulk of the 11th Congressional District, Clampitt said.

Members of the opposing party see the situation differently, however: “Democrats will not take this lying down,” promised Janie Benson of the Haywood County Democratic Party.

“I’m stunned, because the distance between Caldwell county and Cherokee county is so great,” Benson said, adding that the redistricting proposed by Republicans is a “blatant” attempt to wrest the district from Democrats.

“Frankly the redistricting maps that I’ve seen just look unfair,” she said. “The Democrats, to my knowledge, have never been so obvious in whatever they were doing. This just seems almost like a punishment, and it feels that way somewhat.”

In addition to threatening Democrats hold on the 11th Congressional District, Democrats could also lose control of the 7th, 8th and 13th districts.

But Kirk Callahan of Haywood County, a self-described conservative, believes Republicans might be missing the mark some. While cautioning he hasn’t had time to fully assess the potential voter fallout, Callahan thinks the growing bloc of unaffiliated voters could actually dictate who wins and who loses.

“They are key,” Callahan said. “A candidate has to earn the votes, because they are not going to be swayed by party labels or an appeal to party loyalty.”

Callahan, by way of example, pointed to Taylor’s defeat, saying he was dismayed by the longtime congressman’s unabashed support of earmarks.

“That didn’t sit well with me, because (earmarks) really corrupted the budgeting process,” he said.

Lawmakers will vote on the redistricting plan in a special session that starts July 25.

Across the state, there were five districts that posted major geographical shifts. Four are seats currently held by vulnerable Democrats that have now seen the scales tip in their district to favor Republicans — as is the case with Shuler’s district. The fifth that showed the biggest changes was held by a vulnerable Republican, but is now more solidly Republican.

“It is really clear they targeted these vulnerable Democrats,” Cooper said.

Shuler’s new district would be the most Republican-leaning district in the state when judging by those who voted for McCain over Obama in 2008.

Shuler is a conservative Democratic at best — others considered him a DINO, or Democrat In Name Only — and plays well with conservative Southern Democrats and even many Republicans.

But under the new district lines, even that may not be enough, Cooper said.

“For Shuler to win he would have to practicaly completely separate himself from the Democratic party,” Cooper said. “This is going to be a really intersting race.”

 

Why the new voting maps?

Every 10 years, along with the census, state legislative and Congressional districts are redrawn to reflect the population change. As the population grows, so does the number of people each elected leader represents.

The state’s Congressional District will need to grow from the current 619,177 people to the 733,499 each, plus or minus 5 percent.

Since growth was more robust in urban areas, districts in rural regions like Western North Carolina will have to expand geographically to take in the required number of people.

Under the proposed new maps, which sever Asheville from the district, it would lose 9,000 Democrats and gain 26,000 Republicans.

The Department of Justice issues guidelines governing how states can and can’t be carved up, and they must approve a map before it can be put into action.

Currently, redistricting is done by legislators and is a highly partisan affair. With every redistricting comes a court challenge from one side or the other, claiming that the lines are unfair.

But under new legislation recently passed by the state House, the process would become staff-driven, with a simple up-or-down vote by legislators. It’s based on a system long used by Iowa, where no redistricting has been to court in the four decades since the system was put into place.

The measure is now headed to the Senate.

 

Speak up

Weigh in on new Congressional districts

A public hearing on the new Congressional district maps will be held from 3 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, July 7, at  Western Carolina University in the Cordelia Camp Building.

It is one of nine across the state on the same day and time. There is also one in the Ferguson Auditorium at A-B Tech.

The hearings are sponsored by the Joint House and Senate Redistricting Committee, and anyone wishing to comment can sign up online at www.ncga.state.nc.us or in person the day of the hearing.  Written comments can also be submitted on the North Carolina General Assembly’s Website.

A liberal Asheville city council member announced this week he’d run as an Independent in 2012 against U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, potentially eroding Shuler’s Democratic base and making for a tough re-election bid for the three-term congressman.

A former editor for the Asheville-based newspaper Mountain Xpress, Cecil Bothwell acknowledged he has an uphill battle gaining sufficient name recognition outside of Buncombe County to unseat the former NFL quarterback.

“I guess I’ll wear out some shoe leather,” said Bothwell, 60, who turned down a potential opportunity to serve as the chairman of the Buncombe County Democratic Party to tackle Shuler.

Shuler won re-election by more than 20,000 votes in November against Republican Jeff Miller of Hendersonville, who started out his campaign with considerably stronger name recognition than Bothwell.

First, to even get on the ballot as an Independent, Bothwell must by Jan. 1, 2012, garner enough voter signatures to equal 4 percent of the total number of registered voters in the 15-county congressional district — about 20,000 signatures. Then, to win, he must battle an experienced candidate with the ability to raise plenty of money to fund his re-election efforts against Shuler, who’s war chest will easily top $1 million by the time campaign season starts.

But, no matter how unlikely his actual chances of success, Bothwell’s bid is nonetheless important: as a third-party candidate, Bothwell will have the ability to help drive the political debate, plus his entry indicates a possible fracturing of the Democratic base.

Shuler got in hot water with many Democrats when he voted against health care reform. In the May primary last year, Democratic voters punished Shuler for his conservative leanings at the polls, allowing a relatively unknown candidate from Hendersonville to pull down nearly 40 percent of the primary vote and even carry Buncombe County, the most liberal county in the region.

If Bothwell pulls a piece of the Democratic pie away during the general election, and if the GOP mounts a meaningful challenge, Shuler really could be facing a challenge getting re-elected, said Chris Cooper, who teaches political science at Western Carolina University and helps oversee a blog on North Carolina politics.

“Surely he doesn’t think he’s going to win,” Cooper said of Bothwell. “And to me, that’s the really interesting question about why he’s running … clearly the liberal wing of the Democratic Party is not happy with Heath Shuler.”

That’s clear because Bothwell, by most any standard, could be described as a liberal Democrat’s Democrat. Asked about his political connections west of Buncombe County, he mentioned anti-death penalty and anti-war advocates, plus interaction with the Canary Coalition, an environmental coalition that is based in Sylva.

He said he believes Shuler is vulnerable; that the congressman is “to the right” of mainstream Democrat Party politics.

“I think people who are Blue Dogs should feel free to switch parties,” Bothwell said.

Shuler has donned the mantle of a fiscally conservative Democrat, represented in Congress by the Blue Dog Coalition that he now helps lead.

Bothwell believes his message will resonate beyond disenchanted members of the Democratic Party. Libertarians and some Republicans likely will find parts of his platform attractive, such as a push for no-more-drug-war and opposition to the Patriot Act, he said.

A WCU/Smoky Mountain News poll in Jackson County before the 2010 November election revealed Shuler’s election successes are attributable to his appeal to a cross-section of voters on both sides of the aisle. Shuler pulled only a general approval rating of 46 percent, with 39 percent unfavorable and the remaining 15 percent undecided. What was striking about the poll is that Republicans gave Shuler just as high an approval rating as Democrats.

Shuler not only locked down the votes of conservative Democrats who would otherwise be quick to desert a more liberal candidate, he captured part of the Republican vote. At the time, Cooper pointed out Shuler also grabbed the liberal Democratic vote simply because they felt they had nowhere else to turn.

Until, that is, now — Bothwell’s entry into the race, no matter how unlikely his chances of pulling off an upset, give unhappy liberal Democrats an option to publicly air any displeasures with Shuler.

There are indications the congressman might well be reacting already to this possible erosion from the extreme left of his base, Cooper said. In a vote that struck many political observers as somewhat incongruous, Shuler voted against a recent resolution to eliminate funding for National Public Radio.

The legislation, which passed the House of Representatives, would eliminate federal funding for NPR and prohibit local stations from using federal funding for content. Shuler cited a need for rural areas such as Western North Carolina to have access to news and information, as provided by NPR.

As for why Bothwell’s running? Bothwell said he wants to improve children’s welfare, saying “I really think we need to retool our support for children in a meaningful way;” he wants to eliminate “corporate personhood,” or treating a company like it’s a person; stop trying to “police the world;” include a public option in health care; and renegotiate global deals to help ensure environmental protections.

Efforts to reach Shuler before press time were unsuccessful.c

The situation doesn’t look promising for the formation of a new wilderness area in the Nantahala National Forest, the dream child of Brent Martin, the Sylva-based Southern Appalachian program director for The Wilderness Society.

Martin envisioned easy political passage of the Bob Zahner Wilderness Area. He now acknowledges that his early optimism was misplaced. This veteran environmentalist remains puzzled, however, as to what exactly — politically speaking — happened to what he initially considered a “no-brainer.”

U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, has promised to support the designation, but on this condition: the Macon County Board of Commissioners must first pass a resolution of support. That, however, isn’t likely to happen when the five-man board meets Feb. 8, with a vote for or against the resolution set to take place.

Nor is the vote breaking down along predictable party lines — Democrats for the proposal and Republicans against. In fact, the only certain “yes” vote at this point would be cast by a Republican — Board Chairman Brian McClellan, who represents the Highlands district near where the new Bob Zahner Wilderness Area would be carved out.

A survey of commissioners taken last week by The Smoky Mountain News revealed two flatly against the proposal: Democrat Ronnie Beale and Republican Ron Haven. Two say they are still studying the issue but have reservations about whether it deserves their support: Democrat Bobby Kuppers and Republican Kevin Corbin.

 

What’s at stake

Martin wants to see more wilderness areas designated in North Carolina. He believes in wilderness, he loves the idea of wilderness, and he makes no bones about his commitment to the concept of permanently protecting special areas in these mountains by having them designated wilderness.

A protected, designated wilderness rules out certain uses. Logging, of course. But also machines such as chainsaws and vehicles can’t be used, the biggest sticking point for new Macon County Commissioner Haven.

“There are residences near there,” he said. “What if there is a fire?”

Martin also has run up against fears that a road through the Overflow Wilderness Study Area might eventually be closed to vehicular use. This even though, he said, any local resolution by commissioners and legislation by Congress would specifically spell out that the road would remain open.

The Wilderness Society representative has gotten plenty of support for the concept, but probably not enough to overweigh a thumb’s down from county commissioners. Voting yes to the idea: The Highlands Town Board, Highlands Biological Station, Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust, Jackson-Macon Conservation Alliance, Western North Carolina Alliance and the N.C. Bartram Trail Society, among others.  

So, what happened?

That’s hard to pinpoint, frankly. Martin himself is unsure. In nearby Buncombe County, commissioners there supported his proposal to change the 2,890-acre Craggy Mountains Wilderness Study Area to designated Wilderness without so much as a murmur of protest.

• Did Martin underestimate the power of the word “wilderness” in the farthest reaches of Western North Carolina, where many natives remain emotionally bruised by the forced exodus of residents during the formation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — and, during World War II, by the creation of Fontana Lake in Swain and Graham counties and Lake Glenville in southern Jackson County?

• Did a forest service recalcitrant to more stipulations placed on forest-health management throw a monkey wrench in the works by raising questions about what a wilderness designation might really mean?

• Or, is the formation of a designated wilderness area simply unnecessary, as several of the commissioners indicate they believe to be the case, because the acres being eyed already have protection as a wilderness study area? As a study area, no road building and no timber management now.

Whatever the truth, Macon County Commission Chairman McClellan wants the issue resolved, and soon. He is more worried about what the $3.7 billion projected state budget shortfall might do to his county.

“We just need to make some kind of decision and move forward,” McClellan said.

 

 

Nuts and bolts

What: The 3,200-acre Overflow Wilderness Study Area southwest of Highlands would be designated the Bob Zahner Wilderness Area. The area is accessible by N.C. 106, Forest Service Road 79 (1.79 miles, accesses the popular Glen Falls trailhead), and the Bartram Trail.

The area contains the headwaters of the West Fork of Overflow Creek and ranges from 2,500 feet to 4,000 feet in elevation. It includes upland oak forest, with some cove hardwoods and white pine, according to the U.S. Forest Service, with most timber stands 60 to 80 years old. There is also old-growth forest in the area, conservations say. Heavy recreational use of the area includes fishing, hiking, camping and backpacking.

Why: The name suggested is in honor of the late Highlands conservationist Bob Zahner. The purpose is to protect this area permanently from logging and any kind of future development.

How: A Wilderness designation would require approval by the U.S. Congress, via legislation introduced by Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville. He wants Macon County commissioners’ OK, however, before doing so.

 

Timeline

1979: During the nationwide Roadless Area Review, the Overflow Area was recommended for “further planning.” This meant that additional review was necessary before the Forest Service could recommend the Overflow Area be designated wilderness.

1984: The N.C. Wilderness Act designated the Overflow Area as a Wilderness Study Area. This meant the Forest Service should conduct a wilderness study and make a recommendation to Congress.

1987: The Forest Land Management Plan for the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests recommended the area not be designated a wilderness Area. Usage directions were for semi-primitive, non-motorized recreation.

1991: A bill introduced by then U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor would have released the Overflow Area from the designation as a wilderness study area, but did not make it out of committee.

Source: U.S. Forest Service

U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, is getting the word out: from now on, he’ll be carrying a gun when meeting with constituents.

Just a short time ago such an announcement from a member of Congress probably would have been considered outrageous, headline provoking, over-the-top political rhetoric.

But not so much now, in the wake of the shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Arizona, and the shooting deaths of six people standing nearby and the wounding of 11 others. Giffords was holding what has been described as a routine meeting with residents in her district when the massacre occurred.

“This weekend’s tragedy has touched many of us in a very personal way,” Shuler said. “With our thoughts on this tragedy, many of us are working with local law enforcement and the capitol police to coordinate safety measure for ourselves and our staff.”

Shuler worked closely with Giffords. He is co-chairman of the conservative Blue Dog caucus that Giffords, a former Republican, also belonged to. The two worked closely together on various pieces of legislation.

“I, like many of my constituents and staff in Western North Carolina, strongly support the Second Amendment and do exercise our right to legally and safely carry a firearm,” Shuler said. “In the days and weeks ahead, we will continue to work closely with federal, state and local law enforcement to ensure that our political process is not deterred by the violent acts of a few.”

The shootings, in the words of one local politician, “give pause” to those who currently hold or might seek public office in the future — the price one pays for serving could be very high, maybe too high, given the level of angry rhetoric many believe helped fuel the attack in Arizona.

“As far as this tragic event preventing good citizens from seeking public office, I believe that if the political environment does not improve it will give pause to anyone willing to get in involved on all political levels, which is very unfortunate,” said Ronnie Beale, a veteran county commissioner in Macon County. “I also think this event speaks to the importance of maintaining and improving mental health services on all levels.”

The alleged shooter in the massacre had been expelled from a local community college for exhibiting bizarre behavior. His ramblings on the Internet also seemed incoherent, though a thread of seemingly extreme right-wing beliefs could be discerned.

Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University and an expert on North Carolina politics, said it’s obvious the nation’s political discourse has grown more virulent in the past few decades.

“There are scores of studies to show that incivility is on the rise in Congress and in our political debate in general,” Cooper said. “Although it’s not ‘the media’s fault,’ name-calling and negative attacks are certainly more newsworthy, and thus more covered than stories about politicians who play nicely.

“The problem, therefore, is not just that there’s more negative, toxic rhetoric, but that we’re more aware of it than we’ve ever been. Did this cause the shooting? Of course not,” said Cooper. “Sarah Palin’s crosshairs ad is no more responsible for this shooting than Marilyn Manson was for the Columbine shooting. It does, however, create an environment that doesn’t suppress this kind of thing.”

Bob Scott, a former news reporter who now serves as an alderman in Franklin, said he believes the antigovernment movement in the U.S. is a contributing cause in the Arizona shooting.

“I am concerned that Congress will do one of its knee-jerk reactions and pass bills to provide security for congressmen and senators at a huge cost to the taxpayer,” Scott said. “But if you think about it, most of the attacks on politicians are at the local level such as town halls and school board meetings. Politicians at the federal level are so insulated by staffers that it would be pretty hard to get near them. It is much easier to get to a local politician who has no staffers and is not surrounded by lobbyists.”

Scott, a Democrat, also raised another issue likely to dominate coverage of the shootings: the right to bear arms.

“I believe in gun ownership for target shooting and hunting,” Scott said. “But you don’t need an AK-47 or a Glock 9 mm with a 31-round magazine to go hunting. Those type weapons that the National Rifle Association wants everyone to be able to own, apparently also including those who are unstable, are designed to kill human beings. Not wild game.”

Battles in Congress are nothing new. Practically every day that the legislature is in session, there is a fight, argument or debate about something, some more trivial than others. But there’s one issue that residents of Swain County are watching intently, because the outcome of this fight may cost them $40 million.

The issue is earmarks. The new congressional leadership says it doesn’t like them, and some members are looking to axe them altogether. If that happens, county’s massive $52 million North Shore Road settlement is in danger of being classified as an earmark, which means the lion’s share of the money may never arrive.

Leonard Winchester, chairman of citizen group Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County and active participant in the settlement process, said he thinks that’s unlikely. But it’s still a possibility.

“I think it’s more a matter of when, not if, “ said Winchester, of whether the money will arrive.

He thinks that the money will come through, but in the worst case, the county may have to go back to the bargaining table with Congress. Again.

The real issue, said Winchester, is education. The problem is just convincing Congress members that the settlement isn’t an earmark, it’s a debt owed to Swain County.

When the North Shore Road between Bryson City and Tennessee was flooded in 1943 as part of the war effort, there was little complaint in such dire times. Especially because the county came away with a promise from the federal government that a new road would be built. That was a pretty crucial promise, considering the county still owed $695,000 on the road when it was flooded.

The war came and went, as did two subsequent decades, and the county continued paying the loans for 30 years at the expense of the taxpayer for a road that seemed as though it would never come.

Cut to 2010, and fight still raged, both between Congress and the county and within the county itself. Today, many said, the road isn’t needed and cash would be a better deal. Others were adamant that the road was owed and should be built.

But when Congressman, former football star and native son Heath Shuler stepped in, he proved – along with his tireless efforts to persuade his fellow congressmen to his side – to be the missing piece.

A settlement was finally agreed to: $52 million over 10 years, with the county able to use the annual at its own discretion.

The county already has $12.8 million, and the next chunk has been added to President Obama’s 2011 budget. But the subsequent funds will come only if Congress doesn’t slice them out with other earmarks that may go under the blade in tough economic times.

Winchester said he thinks the county has the right amount of power on its side. Not only is Rep. Shuler plugging hard for the money, the Secretary of the Interior and the parks service are behind the measure.

“The Secretary of the Interior does not consider it an ear mark,” said Winchester. “But politics is an ever-moving target. I don’t think that it will be classified as an earmark. Certainly it’s not in Rep. Shuler’s mind or in Sen. Hagan’s mind. But there’s also other things that contribute significantly towards it not being considered an earmark,” and he’s hoping the clout from the interior department will prove enough to pull the settlement out of that category.

Even the money in the President’s budget is somewhat in jeopardy, since no budget has been passed and Congress has kept the country running by passing a series of continuing resolutions. They funnel money to necessary departments but don’t fund non-necessities of the budget — like the settlement.

For his part, Rep. Shuler said he’s committed to bringing this money back home, crusading against its classification as an earmark.

“No matter what happens with the appropriations process, there is a clear path for us to make sure Swain County gets this settlement funding,” said Rep. Shuler in a statement. “With strong support from President Obama and the Department of Interior, we will make sure that Swain County gets the funding it is due.”

Winchester said he’s actively trying to educate key Congress members, but isn’t too worried about losing the funding altogether, a possibility that he sees as highly unlikely. The economy, he maintains, will not be broken forever, and when the financial ship rights itself, Swain County will be on board.

“Once the economic conditions improve, it’s entirely plausible that the rest of the payments will be paid off in one payment,” Winchester said. “But we have to be at a point where the economic conditions are not so severe that everything that goes before Congress has to be compared with how important it is to the defense of the country.”

Opponents of the cash settlement say they are unsurprised by this unexpected turn. County Commissioner David Monteith, who was outspoken against the settlement throughout the process, said he opposed it for that very reason: because it takes control completely out of county hands.

“I was opposed to the settlement to start with,” said Monteith. “It was a bad deal because things like this can happen. It was real idiotic.”

The fight, however, is not quite over. The 112th Congress has yet to come in session, and the proposal to slash earmarks doesn’t have universal support among even one party. But Winchester and Shuler said they both recognize that it’s a battle of education, and to win, they have to get the sentiment of those outside the region on their side.

Having the interior department in their corner is the first step, said Winchester, but it doesn’t stop there. It is a complex issue that, at first blush, seems like a money-funnel straight from Washington for a road that will never even be built. It’s easy to see how Congress sees earmark all over it, and Shuler and his compatriots will have their work cut out for them in the new year.

“That political battle is not something we can say is behind us,” said Winchester. “Once we get that behind us, I think we’ll be OK.”

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.

 

It takes a village to tend a congressman

For all offices:

• Hayden Rogers, chief of staff

D.C. Office:

229 Cannon House Office Bldg.

Washington, D.C. 20515

Phone: 202.225.6401

Fax: 202.226.6422

• Julie Fishman, communications director and senior advisor

• Jed Bhuta, legislative director

• Erin Georges, legislative assistant

• Ryan Fitzpatrick, legislative assistant

• Whitney Mitchell, legislative assistant

• Grant Carlisle, staff assistant

Asheville District Office:

205 College St., Suite 100

Asheville, N.C. 28801

Phone: 828.252.1651

Fax: 828.252.8734

• Myrna Campbell, director of constituent services

• Chad Eaton, director of public affairs

• Kelly Sheehan, director of grants and special projects

• Shelley Townley, constituent liaison

• Erica Griffith, constituent services representative

• Kate Gunthorpe, veterans services representative

• Randy Flack, district field representative for the eastern counties

Sylva Office:

125 Bonnie Lane

Sylva, N.C. 28779

Phone: 828.586.1962 x223

• Boyce Deitz, district field representative for the western counties.

Murphy Office:

75 Peachtree St., Suite 100

Murphy, N.C. 28906

Phone: 828.835.4981

• Sandy Zimmerman, constituent services representative

I don’t particularly remember U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, from our days growing up in Swain County. He is younger than I am by a few years, more my brother’s contemporary than mine.

His father delivered our mail. I don’t remember him at all. Most kids don’t pay attention to their postal carrier, and I was no exception.

I’ve never been an avid fan of the game of football, either. I did, however, take heed of Shuler’s career at the University of Tennessee and in the NFL. Somehow, because he was from Swain County, each time he threw or ran for a touchdown his athletic abilities seemed to reflect positively on us all. Though by then I wasn’t living in Western North Carolina, but downstate in Greensboro.

I remember feeling vaguely saddened when Shuler’s football career faltered and puttered out. For him, for me and for Swain County at large, our shared glory ended ignominiously with his foot injury.

There is something about a small school that makes you hyper-connect with others who attended the same school. Even now, in my mid 40s, I am the girl who went to Bryson City Elementary and Swain County High School, home of the Maroon Devils. And everyone who did the same, at about the same time, remains a classmate.

Since there were only 79 of us in my graduating class, you’d think it would be easy for me to remember who was there. It isn’t, though. I’m terrible at names and faces. This often proves embarrassing, because others don’t seem to have this problem. I’ll be in a grocery store and someone will say hello and use my nickname. Instantly I know they are from Swain County, and I start sorting through who they might be, hoping this wasn’t a particularly close high school friend I’ve inexplicably forgotten. But even if I can’t dredge up specific memories, the association of having been classmates creates bonds and commonalities.

Including, I must acknowledge, with Shuler, whom I’ve covered sporadically for various newspapers since he first ran for political office in 2006. I suspect he feels something along the same lines. There is a kinship, a shared history, and a common background. No matter that my politics and the congressman’s diverge sharply at points. Or that, as a journalist, my job is to monitor and report on how he performs his job representing us in Congress.

Still, all that said, I can’t help but admit to hoping Shuler does us proud.

The truth is the girl who went to Swain County High School doesn’t want Shuler to embarrass us on national television by saying something particularly stupid. As ridiculous as it seems, his mixing up North and South Korea, sounding like an illiterate hillbilly or doing a Dan Quayle and misspelling potato would reflect poorly on our schooling.

So I’m happy to note Shuler seems to have grown into his job, which is the subject of this week’s cover story. He is becoming an increasingly adept politician.

These days, when Shuler gives a speech, it no longer sounds like an approximation of the English language. There is actually a beginning, middle and an end, and even a message one can generally discern without undo straining.

Although I often don’t personally approve of the political stances he takes, I am happy Shuler is capable of articulating his beliefs. We might not have had debate classes at Swain County High School, or lessons in Latin. But all in all, we were given the tools to make of ourselves what we would. And Shuler, at least, is taking full advantage of every gift and tool he was given.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

In his initial bid for political office, U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., often seemed unsure of himself.

The former NFL quarterback, while clearly comfortable in the limelight, had difficulty articulating his political beliefs and staking out positions. Back in 2006 there were jokes among reporters about the difficult task of extracting printable quotes from the Swain County native, who now lives in Haywood County.

That was then.

These days, Shuler, who turns 39 this month, seems transformed. Leading up to the Nov. 2 election, he displayed intellectual agility and political aggressiveness in debates with Republican challenger Jeff Miller, who often relied on notes to combat the incumbent’s grasp of current issues. After trouncing Miller and winning his third term in office, Shuler turned his attention toward elevating his standing in the Democratic Party, left stumbling for answers following a thrashing in the midterm elections.

This time, Shuler took a calculated loss. He challenged Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for the soon-to-be-open position of minority leader. Pelosi, speaker of the House, has been demonized as a liberal harridan by her Republican foes. Democrats had to defend against being paired with her by opponents during the election. Even Shuler, pro-life and pro-gun Blue Dog Democrat that he is, felt the need to run ads declaring: “I am not Nancy Pelosi.”

“I can add and subtract,” Shuler said of his challenge to Pelosi. “I knew we could not win. But it was so important that the leadership in the Democratic caucus should be made to realize why we lost so many seats.”

That would be because the leadership, as personified by Pelosi, needs to be more moderate and centrist, Shuler said. Just like him.

And just like that, Shuler emerged a player on the national stage. He was interviewed on CNN and other major networks and cable shows. He was featured in news articles from sea to shining sea, quoted on the front pages of the nation’s greatest newspapers. Not bad for a boy from the mountains of Western North Carolina who could play a bit of football.

It certainly doesn’t hurt Shuler’s prospects that his now-polished speaking abilities are complemented by a winning political combination of awe-shucks country boy manners and photogenic good looks.

 

“Big tent” sure has a nice ring

The vote came on Nov. 17. Shuler versus Pelosi was not exactly David and Goliath, but those underdog overtones were evident in the news coverage that followed. As predicted, Shuler lost, 150 to 43, by secret ballot.

Shuler promptly expressed surprise he’d received so many votes, spinning defeat into a good college try. After all, he pointed out to various news agencies, the caucus he represents, the conservative Democratic Blue Dog Coalition, shrank from 54 to 25 members in the midterm election.

That’s one of the more interesting aspects of covering Shuler these days: His ability to spin the news, plus stay on message. He finds a sound bite that works and delivers it, over and over again:

• The Huffington Post, Nov. 14: “You know, I can add and subtract pretty well. I don’t have the numbers to be able to win, but I think it’s a proven point for moderates and the Democrat Party that we have to be a big tent.”

• Politics Daily, Nov. 15: “I can add and subtract pretty well. I don’t have the numbers to be able to win, but I think it’s a proven point for moderates and the Democrat Party that we have to be a big tent. We have to be all-inclusive. We have to invite everyone into the party.”

• Asheville Citizen-Times, Nov. 18: “We are strong because we are a big-tent party, not in spite of it.”

• To The Smoky Mountain News on his defeat: “We are the big tent party. I wanted to make sure our corner of the tent still stands strong.”

 

A liberal in sheep’s clothing?

Boyce Deitz is one of the most accomplished football coaches in WNC. He guided Swain County High School to five state championships, getting help from Shuler for three of those. Today, the shoe is on the other foot, with Deitz working for his former player as a field representative out of an office in Sylva.

Deitz is pleased, but not particularly surprised, to see his former football player blossom into his role as congressman.

“When he was in school he was a good student, but it didn’t come easily to him,” Deitz said. “Heath knew if he wanted to accomplish some of his goals, he had to make good grades.”

To that end, Deitz clearly remembers Shuler sitting in the school’s library putting in the necessary time studying. Shuler applied that willingness to work on the football field, as well as the classroom. Shuler focused on his weaknesses instead of glorying in his gifts. He strengthened his vast natural athletic talent, and became even better.

“I just see that same thing in him now,” Deitz said of Shuler’s ability to define goals and focus on them.

The longtime coach added he believes the former football star suffered a bad case of nerves early in his political career, but has since been able to settle down and find a comfortable stride.

After attending Swain County High School, Shuler became a standout football player for the University of Tennessee. He was a runner-up in 1993 for the Heisman Trophy. After leaving the NFL he returned to the University of Tennessee to finish a degree in psychology. He built a real-estate business in Knoxville, and moved to Waynesville in 2003.

Not everyone is as enamored of Shuler as his former coach. Kirkwood Callahan, a former college political science professor who serves as an officer in the Haywood County Republican Party, believes Shuler is guilty of posturing.

“If Shuler is a committed moderate why did he vote for Pelosi as speaker twice before?” Callahan said. “Shuler is what he is — an inconsistent opportunist who will enable the advancement of the liberal agenda in the House of Representatives when it is essential to retain favor with leftist party leaders. When there is nothing to lose with the leadership, he will resume his charade as a moderate.”

Callahan cited votes of support on cap-and-trade legislation (limits on carbon emissions, with permits for emissions issued that allows companies to buy and sell them) and card check (majority sign-up, a method for workers to organize into a labor union), saying it would have deprived workers of a secret ballot in union-organizing drives.

 

The inner game of politics

“I think when he came to Congress, people did see him as a retired NFL quarterback,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark. “Now they see Heath as a national leader. He’s gone from being able to hold a football to holding a mike.”

Ross and Shuler are the newly minted co-chairs of the greatly diminished Blue Dog Coalition. They are also good buddies, with Ross characterizing the N.C. representative as one of his best friends in the Congress.

Ross, first elected to the House in 2000, has made no secret that his long-term goal is to help lead his home state of Arkansas. The only question is the timing of his move from national to state politics.

Shuler isn’t publicly stating what career trajectory he is seeking, though he seems much more enamored with national party politics than Ross. It is dead certain, however, that Shuler has crystal-clear goals in mind. And whatever his other shortcomings might or might not be, the football player-turned-congressman is like a chicken on a June bug once he’s focused. And these days, Shuler is looking very focused indeed.

“The game in Washington is about getting re-elected and gaining power,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University who helps oversee a nonpartisan N.C. politics blog for the school’s Public Policy Institute. “Shuler’s move to run for Pelosi’s seat accomplishes both.”

The 11th Congressional District, made up of North Carolina’s 15 westernmost counties, is essentially a conservative Democratic district, Cooper said. There might be more Democrats than Republicans, but by the same token, they are decidedly not Nancy Pelosi Democrats.

“Running against Pelosi sends a strong message to Shuler’s constituents that a vote for him is not a vote for Nancy Pelosi,” Cooper said. “That helps him carry over a major theme from the election and build a name brand for his next re-election. This move also accomplishes the second goal — power.”

The traditional method of gaining power is to pay your dues and work up a ladder based on seniority, the political science professor said. By going directly to the people, Shuler worked around this system, al la Newt Gingrich in the mid-1990s.

“By running for minority leader, Shuler’s been covered in virtually every major newspaper and media source in the country,” Cooper said. “Heath Shuler’s now a household name — and not just for football.”

 

 

What are the Blue Dogs?

The Democratic Blue Dog Coalition formed in 1995, ostensibly to represent the center of the House of Representatives and mirror mainstream American values. The current 54-member coalition will decrease almost by half, however, as a result of this month’s election. Heath Shuler, formerly Blue Dog whip, now is a co-chair of the coalition.

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