Fighting off a cold and bundled in a long, black overcoat, the eight-term Republican incumbent from Brevard appears more reserved than the peppy John Cooper, North Carolina’s director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“Congressman, you’re gonna drive, but just don’t put it in gear,” Cooper jokes.
The crowd chuckles along.
Minutes before, Taylor and Cooper, along with Swain County commissioners, U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, and Graham Fields, the western regional representative for U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole’s office, kick off the first of several hometown events on a day-long tour through the 11th Congressional District. Celebrating low-interest loans delivered by the USDA in oversized checks, the group visited nearly a dozen sites in two days. In Bryson City, a $183,800 loan helped the volunteer fire department purchase a new fire truck, replacing an old, damaged 1981 model and improving the town’s response time to emergency calls.
The photo-op serves as a timely reminder to local leaders that Congressman Taylor sits on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, which controls the purse strings for the nation’s federal dollars. It’s become one of Taylor’s strongest selling points in a tight race for re-election against first-time Democratic challenger Heath Shuler.
Just up the road from the Bryson City event, Shuler earned legendary status at Swain County High School as the hometown quarterback who passed his way into football fame as a three-time state champ, star of the Tennessee Volunteers and a first-round NFL draft pick.
But when it comes to securing dollars for the 11th District, there are plenty willing to tout Taylor’s star status. When senators like Richard Burr pour out polished phrases claiming Taylor as “the most pivotal cog in the North Carolina delegation,” you get the feeling Taylor is viewed by his Capitol Hill colleagues more like a senior senator or a Don Corleone willing to do the kind favor for those he knows. He’s the man everybody counts on to show them the money when times are hard or a project is stalled.
Burr readily admits that while he enjoys working with fellow Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole, “Neither one of us is on the Appropriations Committee.”
Even Swain County Commissioner David Monteith, a Democrat, can’t hold back respect for that kind of clout: “Charles Taylor carries a lot of weight on his shoulders in terms of North Carolina’s needs.”
Monteith rattles off million-dollar projects like boat ramps, parking lots and fishing trails that Swain County has set up for tourists and local residents thanks to Taylor’s influence as chairman on the Appropriation’s Subcommittee for the Department of the Interior.
“Can’t do nothing but support a man for doing that,” Monteith says.
To hear him tell it, it’s almost as though Taylor single-handedly carries money from Washington to Bryson City and hand-delivers it to the door like Ed McMahon did with those multi-million-dollar winners from Publisher’s Clearinghouse.
And the people are grateful, no doubt. Even when news reports and Democratic attack ads paint Taylor as a pork-barrel master ready to dole out the sausage for those who are willing to feed at the trough with campaign contributions and political favors. But one party’s idea of pork is a town’s fire truck or help center or business loan to jumpstart the local economy.
News is not all bad
At the second stop of the day, the Pathways for the Future center, a non-profit organization that helps train and support people with disabilities, a caravan of SUVs and staff cars pulls into a newly paved parking lot — another project paid for with dollars from a $400,000 USDA Rural Development low-interest loan. The loan also helped expand the Pathways building so staff could have their own private offices to meet with clients. A state-of-the-art kitchen allows people in wheelchairs to use stoves, cabinets and appliances at lower positions. There’s also a new computer lab.
Barbara Davis, director of Pathways, and Brian McMahan, chairman of the Jackson County commissioners, give kind thanks for agencies and governments working together to help out a worthy cause. It’s the voice of compassion and collaboration that seems far from the bitter battlefield of bipartisan politics. Again comes the multi-layered cake — rich words of praise from Fields and Burr. Cooper adds some extra frosting with folksy humor.
When Taylor gets a chance to speak, he expounds on other projects he’s been helping to get funded. Representing a region that was traditionally last to get the railroads, airports, and interstates, Taylor says he’s been working to make sure Western North Carolina leads the way in the 21st century with more broadband access and digitized computer records that will link the region’s 16 hospitals with the best hospitals in the country. Taylor also cites his work in getting funding for the veterans’ hospital and Western Carolina University’s engineering program.
Again comes the reference of influence, this time from Cooper: “I’m so glad you’re on the Appropriations Committee,” he tells Taylor, “so you can find some extra money for us.”
The USDA’s business loan program will triple this year thanks to Taylor’s work, according to Cooper. In six years since Cooper was appointed by President George W. Bush to head the USDA program in North Carolina, the state has been able to dole out $125 million in grants and loans in Taylor’s district alone.
“When he speaks, they listen, believe me,” Cooper says during a reception at Pathways.
So how does he do it? It’s that personal touch, Cooper explains. The congressman visits places in the district firsthand and then wins over colleagues with personal stories about ordinary people in need of money.
But with polls showing Republicans in serious jeopardy of losing the House — and Taylor himself threatened with losing his seat — Cooper doesn’t like to imagine what would happen if he no longer had Taylor on that Appropriations Committee.
“It would be devastating,” Cooper declares ominously.
The caravan drives to Coffee Grounds, a new coffee shop in Dillsboro that received micro-enterprise business funding thanks in part again to you-know-who.
Taylor doesn’t care for coffee (an aids says he prefers plain water instead). He steps aside as staffers wait in line and flips through discarded sections of a Sylva Herald and an Asheville Citizen-Times. Newspapers have dogged him for not paying back taxes, having connections with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and using influence to land lucrative deals for Russian businesses.
Surely, the congressman must think to himself, the news is not all bad.
If only more people came along for the day’s tour, they could see the fire departments and agencies that benefit from Taylor’s work in Congress. If only more people could see the way Taylor shakes everyone’s hand like he means it. If only more people saw folks like 79-year-old Cora Beasley, a retired Western Carolina University cafeteria clerk, standing on her front porch in tears, thanking volunteers and government officials for rebuilding her dilapidated home — thanks again to a USDA loan.
With an election cycle every two years, House candidates are constantly out campaigning, attending fundraisers, running ads, doing interviews and wading through polls and pundits. It’s no wonder that after putting in 14- to 16-hour days, Taylor’s trying to get rid of a cold, tissue in hand, heaving an occasional cough. Outside the coffee stop, he talks with an Associated Press reporter and cameraman from Charlotte.
By mid-afternoon, Taylor, Burr and the entourage head east to Brevard. Taylor drives himself home for a pitstop before a 4:30 p.m. check presentation ceremony at Connestee Fire Department outside Brevard. Another check. Another loan. Another opportunity to praise Taylor’s record of helping bring dollars to the district.
“You’re doing a great job — regardless of what that Asheville paper says,” one admiring fan tells Taylor.
“I’ve seen how hard he works in Washington,” Burr tells the audience about Taylor. The congressman makes sure “we’re at the front of the line” when it comes to getting funding, Burr adds.
And when the man of the hour takes the podium as the final speaker, there’s a standing ovation. Taylor delivers the kind of soft-spoken, I’m-one-of-you speech that endears him to so many in Western North Carolina.
“I used to love being in the middle of nowhere,” he admits. “But people have found us.”
Taylor tells the fire station crowd that he’s fighting to make sure Western North Carolina gets its far share of the pie. Again, he pitches the news about digitizing records for regional hospitals. New broadband installations will be in place by the end of the first quarter of 2007, he says.
“Knowledge will be the 21st century’s wealth,” he says, supplying his best sound byte of the day.
He launches into a litany of programs — health care, education, veterans’ benefits, job creation, and building infrastructure in Western North Carolina. The future means inventing, changing and modernizing the widget, he says.
“That’s how we’re going to get more and more jobs.”
For the record, Taylor did not officially vote for or against the hotly contested Central American Free Trade Agreement — a move many opponents say will contribute to the loss of more manufacturing jobs in North Carolina. Taylor’s ballot was lost in what he claims was a computer glitch. Nevertheless, he pushes his record on helping create more jobs in the 11th District.
But in his pronouncements of success, he stumbles over the occasional phrase or misspeaks a word now and again — observations one might chalk up to a draining schedule, a tired voice. Unlike the mangled English of President Bush, Taylor’s gaffs don’t bend into awkward tangents. He talks calmly and gets tongue-tied just enough to come across as being humble. Opponents are quick to poke fun of Taylor’s speaking ability, discrediting seniority as senility, a lack of eloquence as a lack of intelligence.
But Taylor is no dummy. He may be 65 years old, but the tree farmer with a law degree from Wake Forest University and a former state House and Senate Minority Leader can still call upon detailed statistics, figures, and key points on social issues and legislation without any help from scripts or prepared speech notes.
Later that evening, Taylor tests his expertise with a tele-town meeting, reaching out to thousands of mountain voters using a not-yet-patented system that links computer software with a conference call. Households are phoned by Taylor’s staffers. The numbers have been culled from voter registration lists, and residents can agree to join in the Q-and-A session by pressing the pound sign on their phones. It lasts about an hour. Since August, Taylor has held about 15 of these meetings. As many as 50,000 households can be reached in a matter of minutes. Tonight’s discussion pinpoints about 3,500 homes and focuses on the topic of veterans’ affairs — although many of the callers offer comments and questions on a variety of topics ranging from the War in Iraq to illegal immigration to abortion.
The virtual meeting takes place at Taylor’s home outside Brevard, a three-story sprawling palace of brick and wood-paneled rooms. Long, winding driveway. Horses. Three-car garage. Dozens of spacious rooms. A secret basement vault where he keeps fine wines.
Despite this lap of luxury, Taylor offers to order out for pizzas. Betty, his wife, will make a salad.
But first things first — the tele-town hall meeting downstairs in the basement. A trio of staffers prepares the online calls that will come in by speaker-phone. Betty brings in folding chairs.
Taylor sits at a desk next to staffer Michael Calvo, who prepares the meeting on a laptop and clicks on names with corresponding addresses so Taylor can refer to the callers by name and hometown. The callers are from Murphy, Weaverville, Canton, Candler, Waynesville, Arden, Marion, Lake Junaluska, towns all over the district.
Some call to ask about disability claims or cite troubles with paying medical bills. Taylor says that while he can’t get them the disability payment check personally, he can help move along a claim or make sure they get in touch with the right people. Calvo jots down phone numbers, so they’ll get a personalized call the next day.
Other callers pledge their long-time support for Taylor because he’s pro-NRA or anti-abortion or an advocate for the Veterans Administration medical center in Asheville. Taylor thanks them graciously and adds that he’s also working to help fund an outpatient center in Franklin and a nursing facility in Black Mountain. He talks about legislation aimed at curtailing illegal immigration. He voted in favor of the $1.25 billion bill to put up fencing along the U.S.-Mexican border and supply more guards along the border.
When one caller asks how Taylor deals with all those negative ads, he responds, “You have to have a lot of patience. If it isn’t true, it doesn’t bother you much.”
Fifty percent of his ads are positive, he tells another caller, and the other half are answering negative ads from his opponent. Not once in the whole day does he use the name “Heath Shuler.” He simply refers to his challenger as “my opponent.”
“The people running against me can’t find a fault with my service,” Taylor tells another caller, “so they have to make up something. They must think people in Western North Carolina are foolish.”
And what about those hefty pay raises Taylor keeps getting criticized for on TV ads?
Actually, Taylor sends the money from his pay raises to a Western North Carolina reading program called Earning by Learning. Adult volunteers help elementary school students read books in the summer at local libraries or community centers and then quiz the kids about what they read. For each book, the student earns $1 or so, and by the end of the summer, the students and volunteers celebrate with a graduation-type ceremony.
Pizza, Dvorak and Reform
After the calls, it’s only 7:30 p.m., but it feels like a late night after a long day. Taylor closes his eyes and rubs the bridge of his nose. He goes out to pick up a pair of Pizza Hut pizzas. Two of the staffers decline invitations to stay for dinner. They call him “Boss” the way players on a football team might say “Coach.”
In the kitchen, Taylor’s wife talks about her life since meeting Taylor. The two met in college where she majored in English. She grew up in Waynesville and taught at Brevard College, did a year stint as a seventh-grade teacher, and worked as a secretary for her husband. The couple raised three sons — Owen, the eldest, a Wake Forest grad who works for a Charlotte investment firm; Bryan, a West Point grad who served at year in Iraq and is now stationed in Honduras; and Charles Robert, the youngest, a Georgetown grad working for Sen. Burr.
Sitting down for dinner, Taylor listens to classical music from Czech Romantic composer Antonin Dvorak. In the retreat of his home, he savors art — Russian nesting dolls on a cabinet, Oriental paintings, antiques. He also recalls the days when he started out in public service, a 25-year-old law school graduate in the N.C. House of Representatives.
“You never were compensated then,” he says. Not much anyway. The legislature would be in session for 60 days. “It was never an occupation. It was a service.”
He’s tried to carry that mindset to Congress, going to Washington on Monday or Tuesday and coming home for the weekend on a Thursday or Friday. Back and forth. Back and forth. Earlier in the day, Burr joked about Taylor beating him out of Washington each week to get home to the district.
“I don’t think the Framers [of the U.S. Constitution] intended for us to be bureaucrats,” Taylor says.
Even after four public events and a tele-town hall meeting, Taylor is willing to discuss the issues. Perhaps the biggest this election cycle: the War in Iraq.
Having a son who’s served in Iraq and having visited the war-torn country twice as well as Afghanistan, Taylor can speak from experience when he says, “It is not a hopeless situation.”
Despite the recent escalation in violence, sectarian killings on the verge of civil war, and one of the worst months for U.S. military casualties since the war began, Taylor has high hopes that American forces will be able to train their Iraqi counterparts and allow the Iraqi government to handle its own affairs.
“We’re closer to that than you might imagine,” he says. “ And I think it’s going to be sooner than later.”
The worse action possible would be to pull troops out immediately or announce an exact deadline, he says.
“We can’t guarantee that they’re going to have a democracy.”
When it comes to education, Taylor did not vote for the No Child Left Behind Bill, which received bipartisan support when it passed but now comes under fire from educators who see the reforms as unfunded mandates that emphasize high-stakes testing over individualized learning. When the NCLB bill came through the Senate, Taylor explains, it was more like “No Bureaucrats Left Behind.”
“There should be testing but it doesn’t have to be overtesting,” Taylor says.
The congressman’s own educational reforms have been to support pilot programs for computer literacy — more computers in the classroom and more teacher training so students can access vast resources like the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institute and the Kennedy Arts Center.
Speaking of Washington institutions, what can be done to improve relations between parties on Capitol Hill? Taylor blames the atmosphere on intense spending that puts pressure on campaign races. Up until 2000, his campaign races might have had each candidate spending $400,000 to $500,000 apiece. Since then, races soared into the millions, and this year Taylor estimates Shuler’s backers could spend as much as $7 million.
“Eighty-five percent of your message goes through TV and/or radio,” Taylor explains, and TV ads can run about $400,000 a week.
If Taylor had his way, he’d like to see outside-the-district campaign money come to a halt and curb the campaign season to fewer months with a September primary and a November election.
And what if he loses his seat this time around?
“I have a life without it,” he says.
He would still return to Washington in mid-November to finish out his term and complete work on the 2007 budget.
Another possible scenario could see Taylor returning to a Democrat-controlled Congress. In that case, he would still be a ranking member on the Appropriations Committee, but he’d lose his chairmanship over his appropriations subcommittee.
Win or lose this fall, the 11th District will, in time, eventually lose that prestigious spot on Appropriations. Without it, there’s less political influence in Washington looking out for Western North Carolina.
“There’s very little love and justice in Congress,” he says. “It’s mostly power.”
From time to time, voters across the nation call for change. The big question next week will be whether the winds of change are strong enough to sweep through the 11th District.