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While Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, was cleared two weeks ago by the House Ethics Committee of any wrongdoing related to a Tennessee real estate deal, controversy erupted again a week later when the Tennessee Valley Authority released a report that showed he’d been lying to the media for months.

Shuler’s lack of candor is likely to hound him in the run-up to next year’s election, especially given the fact that his only response has been a brief statement citing his exoneration in three separate investigations by government entities.

“This issue is closed and Congressman Shuler has nothing further to say on the matter,” the statement said.

After being cleared, Shuler has no pressing reason to explain his interactions with the TVA. Shuler has an ownership stake in a development in East Tennessee and was accused of using his influence in a land swap with TVA to gain better lake access.

But for months he has been adamant that he had no personal contact with the TVA over the matter, a fact plainly contradicted in the newest report.

“The appearance of preferential treatment was exacerbated by: (1) Shuler calling TVA’s CEO Tom Kilgore complaining about the lack of action on the permit; and (2) Shuler’s representatives dropping Shuler’s name with TVA employees,” the redacted report said.

An internal TVA communication included with the report shows that Shuler may have even threatened Kilgore with a lawsuit over the land swap delay.

The report still concludes that Shuler did nothing wrong, even suggesting he may have been held to a higher standard because of his position. The report noted TVA routinely granted land swaps to developers.

The question now –– posed by the TVA Inspector General Richard Moore in his report –– is why Shuler lied in the first place.

“The most astonishing aspect of the Blackberry Ridge transaction is how the parties have created a justified suspicion of their dealings with each other. Specifically, if all of this was above board, why did TVA and Shuler feel compelled to tell the media that there was no contact between the congressman and TVA in relation to ... the transaction. There obviously was,” Moore wrote.

After months of high-profile scrutiny, U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, has been cleared in an ethics inquiry that examined whether the congressman used his influence to benefit one of his real estate deals in East Tennessee.

While Shuler’s office maintains the exoneration will put the issue to bed, opponents in the 11th Congressional District are keen to use information that surfaced during a series of inquiries to weaken the congressman’s position going into an election year.

Last Wednesday, the House Ethics Committee sent a letter to Shuler informing him that he had been cleared of any wrongdoing. It refuted claims that Shuler had used his influence on a congressional committee that oversees the Tennessee Valley Authority to garner preferential treatment for The Cove at Blackberry Ridge, a lakeside development in which he holds an ownership stake.

“We’re just glad it’s over,” said Doug Abrahms, Shuler’s director of communications. “This has dragged on for several months, and this will put an end to the issue.”

The allegations have hounded Shuler since June when the TVA Office of the Inspector General released a report that acknowledged the congressman had “contributed to the appearance of preferential treatment by continuing to pursue water access for Blackberry while a part owner of Blackberry and while sitting on a congressional committee with direct oversight of the very agency from which Blackberry was seeking a permit for water access.”

The pressure on Shuler intensified in September when the Knoxville News obtained an internal TVA personnel report that showed an employee had lied about the level of contact between Shuler and the TVA during its initial review process.

While the House committee’s findings last week –– which reference reports from the TVA Inspector General’s office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation –– seem to leave Shuler in the clear, the long-term effects of the allegations on his reputation are not clear.

The letter Shuler’s office received last Wednesday from the House of Representatives Committee on Standards and Official Conduct categorically cleared him of using his influence to affect the outcome of the development’s land exchange application with the TVA’s Maintain and Gain Program.

“The Standards Committee, after thorough review, has determined that your actions in these matters were not improper in any way and did not violate House Rules,” the letter read. “Accordingly, after a careful review of the OIG report and findings, along with other information known to the Committee, the Committee is closing this matter without further action.”

The House committee went one step further in its exoneration, suggesting that Shuler had been made to suffer heightened scrutiny by TVA in an effort to avoid the appearance of political influence.

“In fact, the OIG also stated that it appeared that Blackberry was ‘forced to endure the Maintain and Gain gauntlet while others were simply told they could have their waterfront access,’” the letter said. “In other words, in order to avoid the appearance of partiality, Blackberry was held to a higher standard for approval than were others.”

But not everyone is satisfied that the letter represents the end of the issue, particularly not the Republicans in Shuler’s district who are gearing up for a run against the former Tennessee football star who unseated long-time incumbent Charles Taylor in part because of questions about ethics.

Robert Danos, chair of the Henderson County Republicans, challenged the credibility of the House ethics committee and said the charges leveled against Shuler aren’t going away as a result of last week’s letter.

“It’s not going to go away. We have in black and white that the OIG of the TVA said that Heath Shuler did in fact contact the TVA on behalf of Blackberry Ridge, and Rep. Shuler has denied that,” Danos said. “One of those two things has to be false, and I know which one I believe.”

Danos believes the issue is doubly important for Shuler because he beat Taylor with the help of questions about his ethical conduct.

“I don’t know of any serious observers of the 11th District who don’t believe that the only reason the district elected a Democrat was because of outstanding ethics issues with his predecessor,” Danos said.

Shuler became a partner in the Cove at Blackberry Ridge in 2005 and was elected to Congress in November of 2006. According to a financial statement, Shuler’s investment in the real estate project amounted to between $5 and $25 million.

Following Shuler’s election and his committee appointment, a number of newspapers including the Knoxville News wrote about Shuler’s investment and suggested his committee assignment may have resulted in preferential treatment from TVA.

Blackberry Ridge submitted three applications through the TVA’s Maintain and Gain program to obtain a piece of lakefront property with water frontage in another county. The land swap would have allowed Blackberry Ridge to build a community boat dock and given the development valuable water access.

TVA denied two of the development’s applications before finally accepting a third in May 2008.

In May 2009, partly in response to pressure from the media, TVA released a review of its Maintain and Gain Program that specifically addressed whether Shuler and other people in influential positions had received special treatment from the agency.

While the May report acknowledged Shuler and his staff may have contributed to the appearance of wrongdoing, it concluded that there had been no improper contact between the Congressman and the agency.

“The OIG found no evidence however that either Shuler or his representatives used Shuler’s position as United States Congressman to pressure TVA to grant Blackberry water access,” the review read. “We also note that TVA could have simply granted Blackberry water access and exempted Blackberry from Maintain and Gain process as they did with others.”

The May report could have ended the matter, but in September the Knoxville News got its hands on an internal personnel complaint and a redacted version of the Maintain and Gain review that showed a TVA employee had lied about Shuler’s contact with the agency.

The redacted report found that the TVA employee was “not candid in two respects.” The employee denied knowing that Shuler was an owner in the Blackberry development project “despite evidence [the employee] was fully aware of his ownership status,” and denied that Shuler had contacted TVA regarding Blackberry’s application despite the fact that an internal e-mail showed the employee “knew or should have known otherwise.”

Shuler initially denied that his office had had any contact with the TVA over Blackberry until after the third Maintain and Gain application was accepted, but he later revised that statement when a document with his name on it turned up in the OIG’s redacted report.

In the wake of those discoveries, the Washington Post leaked late last month that the House ethics committee was formally investigating Shuler’s involvement in the Blackberry Ridge development.

Lingering impact

Now that Shuler has been cleared by the House ethics committee, the question becomes how voters will react to the allegations during next year’s election.

Gibbs Knotts, chair of Western Carolina University’s political science department, has co-edited a book on North Carolina politics. Knotts said research into the effects of political scandals has clearly demonstrated that voters react to ethics complaints.

“There’s been quite a bit of research on the impact of political scandals not only on political careers but on people’s attitudes towards government,” Knotts said. “Obviously in this instance he’s been cleared, but the research shows that political scandal does have electoral consequences.”

Knotts said he had not seen research that differentiated between ethics allegations that played out in the media and scandals that were supported by the findings of courts or oversight authorities.

“I don’t know of any studies that have looked at people who have merely been accused of scandals,” Knotts said. “I could come up with an opinion on that, but it wouldn’t be based on research.”

For Knotts, the issue is a grey area that will require strategic interpretation by both parties during the campaign cycle.

“I think there’s a long history of opposing candidates using these types of issues whether they’re legitimate or not,” Knotts said. “I think what the Republicans will have to figure out is walking that tightrope because that kind of strategy can backfire. There’s obviously pros and cons in going in either direction.”

Knots said that historically candidates with strong ethics records and strong internal party support do better at weathering scandals.

While it may seem early to consider Shuler’s exoneration in light of his upcoming election, if Danos’s attitude is a clear indication of Republican strategy, it won’t be the last time the Congressman hears about his ethics record.

So far, at least five Republicans have announced their candidacy for the February primary. With the opposition lining up on the other side of the aisle, Shuler also has to contend with displeasure in his own party stemming from his vote against the House Democrats’ healthcare reform bill.

The allegations

The House of Representatives Committee on Standards and Official Conduct –– commonly known as the House Ethics Committee –– recently conducted an inquiry into whether or not Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, used his influence to benefit one of his own real estate developments.

Shuler has held an ownership stake in a lakeside real estate development in East Tennessee since prior to his election to Congress in 2006. The development, called The Cove at Blackberry Ridge, is situated on Watt’s Barr Reservoir but lacked good waterfront access. Developers sought to swap parcels with Tennessee Valley Authority, which manages the lake, to gain better access.

Meanwhile, Shuler sits on the House Transportation Committee’s Subcommittee on Water Resources and the Environment, one of two committees with direct oversight authority over the TVA.

The inquiry was focused on whether or not Shuler used his influence as a member of the committee to push Blackberry Ridge’s application to obtain 145-feet of water frontage. TVA has a long-standing practice of granting land swaps for developers in similar situations.

By Kirkwood Callahan • Guest Columnist

Conservative victories and liberal angst – often repressed — characterized last week’s elections in Virginia and New Jersey. But what lies ahead as the nation’s politicians wrestle with the contentious issues of the economy, healthcare, and a war now in its eighth year? Much data suggest opportunities for conservative victories in 2010. There are also lessons for North Carolinians as well as voters in other states.

Let us look at the results.

In Virginia, governor-elect Bob McDonnell carried 59 percent of the vote. The result contrasts strongly with Obama’s 53 percent vote share last year – the first Democratic win at the presidential level since 1964. Furthermore, McDonnell’s victory was duplicated down the ticket as Republicans won the offices of lieutenant governor and attorney general while also securing seats in the legislature and local councils. Very notable were McDonnell victories in congressional districts won by Democrats in 2008.

In New Jersey Chris Christie defeated the incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine with 49 percent of the vote and a 4-point advantage. The GOP win was not a landslide — a third party candidate captured 6 percent — but the outcome is still very significant. New Jersey has long been a Democratic stronghold. The last Republican to win statewide in New Jersey ran in 1997, and Obama carried the state with 57 percent of the vote.

What conclusions can be drawn and how may they affect future conservative strategy?

First, Obama’s star power is limited. The President campaigned for Deeds in Virginia, but then appeared to back off — perhaps because of the candidate’s ambivalence. In New Jersey the president went all out to re-elect Corzine. Obama appeared twice with the governor on the Sunday before election.

Second, money does not guarantee results. In New Jersey, the incumbent Corzine, a multi-millionaire, reportedly spent about $30 million — $20 million or more from his own pocket. Christie, a former U.S. attorney, spent about $11.5 million.

Third, turnout can determine outcomes, and low turnouts can magnify the impact of third party candidates. Though this statement may seem obvious, its importance cannot be stressed too much.

Candidate Obama campaigned hard in Virginia, and his 53 percent of the vote was earned with a 76 percent voter turnout. The turnout this year in Virginia was 42 percent, a 34 percent difference. This year’s exit polls in Virginia indicated that young and African-American voters — part of Obama’s base last year — did not turn out in large numbers.

A similar picture emerges in New Jersey, where the turnout this year was 45 percent compared to 73 percent in the past presidential election. In New Jersey, voters in areas once supportive of the incumbent just stayed home. New Jersey gubernatorial races, as in Virginia, tend to draw less than half of registered voters, while presidential contests draw about 70 percent or more. Candidates who figure out how to get voters to the polls will be victorious in future elections, while those who can’t get voters out of their homes are likely to lose. The growing number of independent voters suggests a growing dissatisfaction with the major parties.

The proportion of New Jersey’s unaffiliated voters — 46 percent — clearly suggests their electoral strength. Unlike our state, New Jersey voters cannot vote in partisan primaries, but this limitation is coupled with easier ballot access for general elections. Christopher Daggett, who bagged 6 percent of the vote, received national publicity, but there were also nine other independent gubernatorial candidates. Daggett’s vote could have made the difference between victory and defeat for Corzine, according to pre-election polls.

Virginia’s voters register on a non-partisan roll. Therefore, it is more difficult to say how many voters consider themselves independent, but research indicates that over a million do so.

Here there is certainly a message for North Carolinians. The share of unaffiliated voters in the Tar Heel state has grown from little more than 8 percent in 1993 to 23 percent today. Over this same period the Democrats went from almost 60 percent to 45 percent. The GOP today has less than a 32 percent share, a fraction less than in 1993.

If the Republican Party intends to extend its winning campaigns into 2010, it must be able to appeal to those who may share its values but have not yet been convinced to identify with the party. Finally, the 49 Democratic congressman — including Heath Shuler, of North Carolina’s Eleventh — who were elected from congressional districts carried by John McCain in 2008 will find themselves in dire straits next fall if they ignore the conservative voices of their constituents back home. Conservative Republican candidates for these congressional seats in Virginia and North Carolina have announced their intent to run, and some have begun fund raising. Conservative Republicans also plan to win seats in Raleigh.

Listen closely: You may hear a Blue Dog howl.

(Kirkwood Callahan has taught American government at southern universities. He is retired and lives in Waynesville.)

Health insurance reform has garnered a seemingly incongruous ally: the already well-insured workers of the State Employees Association of North Carolina.

The association held a forum in Haywood County last week to educate state employees on exactly what the 1,017-page health care reform bill entails. The meeting at Haywood Community College was one of several held across the state. The organization did not publicize the meeting to the masses to avoid a big turnout by protestors, but as a result the audience was small, numbering fewer than two dozen.

Will Cubbison, health care campaign director for SEANC, said his organization supported health care reform even though its members have quality health care coverage.

“Many of the spouses and children of state employees are not covered,” Cubbison said.

Speakers rattled off a barrage of statistics to win over the audience, mentioning the million-dollar profits of BlueCross BlueShield, the thousands of people who die each year because they do not have insurance, and the immense amount of time and money insurance companies spend on administration. Meanwhile, they disputed claims raised by opponents that illegal immigrants and abortions would be covered under health insurance reform.

The SEANC representatives directly admonished Rep. Health Shuler, D-Waynes-ville, who does not support H.R. 3200.

Dr. Ed Morris from Macon County, who was a guest speaker at the forum, suggested health insurance for members of Congress should be suspended until a reform bill passed, prompting the audience to break out in applause.

Morris, a family physician, added that he has seen at least two dozen doctors move away from the Franklin area because so many of their patients were unable to pay for their care. Given the lower average income of residents in the mountains, doctors here write off up to 23 percent of their patients.

“So these doctors end up going to Charlotte or Atlanta or somewhere,” Morris said.

Chuck Stone, director of North Carolinians for Affordable Health Care, said while many in the past considered the institution of Medicare as a move toward socialism, Americans now don't think twice about the government-supported health care. Stone asked members of the audience to raise their hand if they opposed Medicare, but no hands went up.

According to Stone, the cost of doing nothing is far greater than reform.

“The current system is unsustainable,” Stone said.

SMN: What did you learn from the teletown meeting? Anything new?

Heath Shuler: “The meeting reinforced my belief that most people don’t fully understand what is in the health-care reform bill and they have many valid questions about it. It also showed that we shouldn’t rush to pass this bill that will have a dramatic effect on most Americans’ lives.”

Why do a teletown meeting, rather than a regular regular town hall meeting?

“I decided to hold a tele-town hall meeting because I wanted to explain my position on health care reform and listen to constituents’ questions and comments without the grandstanding from political groups. It also allowed constituents in the western region to dial in from their own homes rather than having to drive hours to attend.”

How much have you been affected by the grassroots efforts on both sides?

“I listen to all my constituents, but at the end of the day, I still must vote for what I feel is right for the people of Western North Carolina. While I support health-care reform, I still oppose the H.R. 3200 legislation.”

There is a wellness, disease management, and prevention aspect in the bill. What specifically would you add to that? How much could focusing on this bring down costs?

“I’d like to see more tax benefits for individuals and companies to promote wellness and prevention. I’m looking at several proposals on this currently. The problem is that it’s hard for government agencies to quantify saving from wellness and prevention programs. But it makes sense that spending money on prevention will save costs down the road.”

Same with preventing waste, fraud and abuse – what specific measures would you add to the bill that aren’t already there?

“One item is streamlining medical codes for all procedures. Doctors often can get paid different prices for the same procedure depending on which medical procedure code they use to bill.”

H.R.3200 proposes that small businesses with under $500,000 in payroll be exempt from providing health care to their employees. What is your opinion on that proposal?

“I oppose any measure that mandates that business provide health care benefits and would saddle small businesses with higher costs at a time when many already are struggling in these economic times.”

Are you for or against having a public option for health care?

“So far, I have not seen a public-option proposal that I can support.”

What do you hope accomplish with the next tele-town hall meeting?

“I want to continue to listen to my constituents about their thoughts on health care and answer as many questions as possible.”

Against the backdrop of a nation embroiled in an emotional, high-stakes debate on health care reform, the voices of Western North Carolina citizens seemed remarkably calm and polite during a telephone town hall meeting with Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, last week.

Shuler reiterated his opposition to H.R. 3200, the House health care reform bill, to the deeply concerned callers throughout the “meeting,” which lasted more than an hour.

Callers had to state their questions before being allowed to directly talk to Shuler during the teleconference. Citizens who dialed in to listen to the conversation were sometimes met with busy signals due to the teleconference reaching full capacity.

A cautious attitude toward the meeting was evident, as Shuler’s office at first held back the telephone number to prevent organized political groups from infiltrating the meeting.

Participating citizens on both sides of the issue voiced wide-ranging concerns. Some worried about paying for illegal immigrants’ health care, covering abortions with public money, losing Medicare coverage, and adding millions of new patients without also adding doctors and health care facilities. Others asked how much of Shuler’s campaign contributions came from the health care industry, recommended looking to countries like Switzerland that are reportedly happy with their health care system, and expressed anxiety about the political process stymieing the passage of reform.

Carole Larvee, a Waynesville resident who listened in to the meeting, said as a retired nurse and volunteer for the Good Samaritan Clinic, she has personally experienced the plight of uninsured patients and hopes to see a solution soon.

“I know Congressman Shuler wants to get the health care reform bill right, but again I see people suffering. I see a sense of urgency,” she said.

According to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, about 23 percent of the population — or 154,000 individuals in the 11th Congressional District — are uninsured.

Shuler has said that he wants to spend time crafting a bill, even if it takes longer than the end of this year.

He is pressing for a bill that will stress wellness, disease management, and prevention to drive down costs; does not place mandates on small businesses; does more to cut waste, fraud, and abuse; and adds a clause to ensure abortions are not funded with government money.

“We’re only going to get one shot at this,” said Shuler. “Let’s do this right.”

Shuler expressed much hope about driving down health care costs by promoting healthier lifestyles and possibly providing tax incentives to curb excessive smoking or drinking.

A few callers from Waynesville, Maggie Valley and Franklin were able to get through and ask questions, though many of the callers came from Asheville.

Susan from Waynesville said Congress could not reform health care without also tackling tort reform. But Shuler said doing that has not lowered costs in states like Texas and Alabama.

“There’s still gross negligence on behalf of everybody,” said Shuler.

Kathy from Hendersonville expressed her concern about pre-existing conditions.

“I have a daughter with a congenital heart defect and I’m very concerned about people being penalized by pre-existing conditions and just the high cost of health care [and] insurance premiums in general,” she said. “I don’t want to see this issue die because the perfect plan doesn’t evolve.”

Shuler responded, “We need to get a health care reform done ... but we have to do it right ... Could you imagine, the bill was presented to us and then three weeks later to actually vote on the piece of legislation? That’s very, very difficult.”

Ron from Maggie Valley asked for Shuler’s position on the center of comparative effectiveness, which has been characterized by opponents of the bill as a “death panel” that makes health decisions for the elderly.

Shuler laughed, and said, “Obviously there is no panel. You don’t have to worry.”

He added that he understands why citizens do not want the government to make health decisions for them.

“You don’t want the federal government doing it, and you certainly don’t want the insurance companies telling you,” he said. “We need to put it in the hands of qualified people who understand health care, and that’s our physicians, our nurses, and the people that are in our hospitals.”

Shuler plans to gather more input from his constituents with another tele-town hall meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. on Sept. 1.

Openly conservative Democratic Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, is blazing his own path in Congress. That characteristic is easy to admire, especially in these days of strident bickering and blind party allegiance.

Last week The Smoky Mountain News interviewed both Republicans and Democrats about Shuler and his position on the issues, and the results confirmed what many in the district already knew: most left-leaning Democrats are willing to forego Shuler’s conservative stance on social and fiscal issues as long as he continues to represent their views on foreign policy, the environment, and business policy. Many Republicans also support Shuler, agreeing with what former Macon County Republican Chairman Harold Corbin and Haywood County GOP County Commissioner Kevin Ensley told this newspaper: he represents the values of his mountain district.

Still, not all Democrats support Shuler’s record, which includes casting votes against the stimulus bill, supporting pro-life measures, supporting gun rights, and voting against stem cell research.

“I expected him to be more of a Democrat than he seems to be,” says Jane Allison, a Democrat from Swain County.

When it comes strictly to the issues, we also take exception to some of Shuler’s positions and think his district would be better served by different votes on several important issues.

Despite that truth, however, Shuler is one of those rare politicians able to vote his conscience instead of his party and do so without coming off as wishy-washy. The reason, by most accounts, is that he is sincere. His votes are who he is, and not molded by the Washington party elite and lobbyists.

“The most important thing is to be true to who you are, and what your beliefs are, and don’t change based upon influence,” Shuler told The Smoky Mountain News.

Observers call it a political tightrope that he’s walking. While Democrats are overwhelmingly in control of the House and Senate, his vote against some Democratic bills is not necessary for passage. If that balance tips and the votes are closer, some wonder if he can endure the wrath of his party and still survive.

“He has to be careful voting against a popular president,” said Western Carolina University political science professor Gibbs Knotts. “He also has to be careful that he does not upset the Democratic leadership too much. The leadership can withhold resources and make it more difficult for Shuler to advance his agenda.”

Right now, though, Shuler has carved out an enviable position most congressmen would covet: he can be himself. Here’s what he told an Asheville audience about the stimulus bill and getting money to WNC:

“I didn’t vote for it, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t support Western North Carolina getting its fair share. We’re prepared to fight for that.”

Too many politicians these days are all about ideology, which squelches debate and belittles opponents. Shuler’s ability to stray from his own party while staying true to its bedrock principles make him very different from your average politician. That’s a badge of honor in this day and age, one to wear proudly.

He was endorsed by the Family Research Council for his pro-life stance and by the NRA for his support of the Ssecond Amendment. He championed an act for more border security, chaired the national prayer breakfast, and voted against the auto bailout, the Wall Street bailout, and the stimulus bill.

Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, isn’t a Republican, though these recent votes and endorsements might cause one to assume otherwise. In his second term in the U.S. House of Representatives, Swain County native Heath Shuler has earned the accolade of fourth least likely to vote in line with his party, according to the Washington Post.

Shuler has never kept his conservative leanings a secret. But the extent to which he votes against his party has taken some off guard.

“I expected him to be more of a Democrat than he seems to be,” said Jane Allison, a Swain County Democrat who called Shuler’s office to voice her disagreement with his stimulus vote.

Others say the Democratically-controlled Congress has allowed Shuler the freedom to vote against his party with more frequency than ever. Since Shuler is in a conservative leaning district, he’s able to score points for his stance with consituents back home without jeapordizing the Democratic Party’s agenda.

“My take is that it’s a Democratically controlled House right now, and he seems himself as basically having the leeway to vote against his party in order to tag himself with our more conservative voters,” said Mary Alice Lamb, a Haywood County Democrat. “You can fight your own party — that’s fine — as long as it’s in line with what your constituents tell you to believe.”

Jeff Israel, a Canton Democrat, is willing to cut Shuler a little more slack on his votes. Given the demographics of the mountain region, it’s fairly remarkable that a Democrat like Shuler won a Congressional seat at all — particularly one held by a Republican incumbent for 16 years.

“We had other candidates that I felt like were really qualified, but none of them could quite make it across the finish line like Heath could,” Israel said.

According to Israel, Shuler is able to walk a “political tight wire” between democratic populism and the conservative beliefs of rural voters.

“You’re not going to get anybody that follows the Democratic party line right down the middle elected here,” agreed David Hall of Waynesville, a lifelong Democrat who changed his party affiliation to independent in recent years. “The Democrats here are not your far left liberal — they’re not for abortion; they own guns. We’re a different breed of Democrat.”

As testament to the “different breed” idea, Shuler won the 11th Congressional District in the last election by a landslide — but every county except Buncombe and Jackson voted for John McCain in the presidential race.

Not surprisingly, Shuler garners support from a number of Republicans as well. He was the first candidate in years able to do so, said Haywood County Commissioner Kevin Ensley, a Republican.

“The district is conservative, and when I was watching the Democrats fill the candidates, they’d get these liberals from Asheville and Hendersonville,” Ensley said. “When they got a conservative Democrat, I knew they’d do real well.”

Ensley finds that many of his views are in line with Shuler’s, though the two men are of different party affiliations.

“I rarely disagree with him,” Ensley said. “Overall, he’s pretty well voted the way I would probably vote if I was up there.”

Harold Corbin, the former GOP district chair in Macon County, said he disagrees with the views of the current Congressional leadership, but Shuler is an exception.

“I think he represents the 11th District well,” Corbin said. “He falls in line with the values of voters.”

Shuler’s views fit with those of his mostly rural constituent base, said Gibbs Knotts, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.

“Shuler’s views fit pretty well with many of the rural areas of the district, though his views probably differ considerably from some of the urban areas,” Knotts said.

To those who question his voting record, Shuler points out the difficult balance he must strike in a district that houses polar opposite viewpoints.

“There are some people that are just hardline-based party,” Shuler said. “What I would encourage them to do is get out and let’s go to Madison, Yancey, Clay, and Graham, and be able to see I represent 15 counties, not an isolated group.”

 

Moral compass

It’s commonly argued that Shuler’s conservative votes aren’t the result of a political agenda — rather, they come out of his core belief system developed in the rural mountains where he grew up.

“He has the same moral compass that most of the people around here have,” Israel said.

Shuler keeps two paintings in his Washington, D.C. office — one of Swain, where he was born and bred, and one of Haywood County, where he resides now with his wife and two kids. He says the scenes help to remind him of where he’s from and the moral foundation he adopted growing up in rural Appalachia.

“The most important thing is to be true to who you are, and what your beliefs are, and don’t change based upon influence,” Shuler says.

 

Out of line, out of favor?

So far, Shuler hasn’t risked much by continuing to vote out of line with his party.

“I think he’s a smart politician,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at WCU. “He knows it would be hard for him to move so far to the right that the Democrats would choose to vote for a Republican. It’s not a very big gamble.”

But times are changing, particularly in Congress. Some say leaders aren’t going to overlook Shuler’s votes against his party forever.

“It was cute when the Democrats weren’t going to get anything passed anyway,” said Alison, but not anymore.

Traditionally, many Democrats from the South differentiate themselves from the national Democratic party, said Knotts. But it isn’t always a risk-free venture.

“(Shuler) has to be careful voting against a popular president,” Knotts said. “He also has to be careful that he does not upset the Democratic leadership too much. The leadership can withhold resources and make it more difficult for Shuler to advance his agenda.”

Cooper suggests some things voters can watch for.

“Is he not able to curry favor with Democratic leadership in the House?” Cooper said. “I think that’s the kind of thing that people should be watching out for — things like, does he get good committee assignments?”

Shuler has never been completely in line with the leaders of his party in Washington. Early in his first term, Shuler sought to align himself with the Blue Dogs, a coalition of conservative Democrats. The group was viewed as a force to reckon with, as their voting bloc could make or break the passage of a bill in Congress.

But Shuler’s Blue Dog affiliation doesn’t always excuse his conservative votes in the eyes of party leaders.

Earlier this month, the Washington-based newspaper Politico wrote that Shuler was No. 1 on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s “bad list” due to his vote against the bailout package and telling a Raleigh audience that House leaders “failed.”

The newspaper reported that Pelosi felt Shuler’s motives were political as much as ideological, and that Shuler was positioning himself for a Senate run against incumbent Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.). Buzz about a possible Shuler Senate run had circulated for months, but on March 9, Shuler formally announced he would not seek the seat.

But as Israel points out, ultimately, “it’s not the Democrats in Washington that get Heath elected — Heath gets himself elected on his own merits.”

Voters in Western North Carolina won’t necessarily continue to vote for a Democrat as right-leaning as Shuler, said Lamb.

“I think that a lot of conservative younger folks will move to the cities to find jobs, and the older conservative generation will be dying off,” Lamb said. “I think you’re going to see, with Asheville being the hub that it is, the district as a whole tipping. We can’t vote in a more progressive Democrat right now, but give us another five to 10 years. Heath Shuler should be concerned — don’t get too comfortable voting conservative.”

Israel agrees on some points. “Change is a constant in politics,” he says, and adds that the district will change. But, he says, Shuler is young enough that he’s flexible, and will be able to change with the district.

Plus, Israel says Shuler is the best bet to win if the tides turn back in favor of the Republicans.

“Eventually, the Republicans will get their act together,” he says. “If you got someone in office that was maybe a little more left leaning than Heath when Republicans had high tide years, they would be swept out of office. I think Heath is the type of candidate who could weather that storm.”

U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, spoke to a crowd of about 200 town and county government officials from Western North Carolina last Thursday at the Renaissance hotel in Asheville about the $787 billion stimulus plan.

North Carolina is set to receive $6.1 billion in stimulus funds for various infrastructure projects. Shuler voted against the stimulus bill but said that does not mean he will not fight to get WNC its share of the money. He said now that the bill has passed he supports it.

Shuler said there are some good pieces to the stimulus bill and it can help with the budget shortfalls towns and counties are dealing with.

“No group can manage money better than local government,” Shuler said.

He added that WNC must fight for its portion of the funding, saying the state doesn’t stop in Charlotte, Winston-Salem or Asheville. Shuler added that he thinks there will be another stimulus package to continue bolstering the economy.

Following Shuler’s speech, officials from the Department of Energy and Natural Resources spoke on how towns and counties go about applying for the funds.

— By Josh Mitchell

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