Rep. Heath Shuler (D)
North Carolina 11th District
Western North Carolina, the protrusion of the Tar Heel State deep into the eastern United States’ highest and oldest mountains, is a land of long and ornery traditions. First settled not long after the Revolutionary War, it still has Indian communities and hollows where people are descended from the first white settlers. Its biggest city, Asheville, memorialized in Thomas Wolfe’s novels, was a retreat for lung patients. Asheville was also the home of the brilliant eccentric George Vanderbilt, who built the 255-room Biltmore mansion amid a vast forest where he pioneered scientific forestry. A dozen miles east is Black Mountain College, frequented by such innovators as Buckminster Fuller and minimalist composer John Cage. Asheville’s historic structures, from Gothic Revival to Art Deco, remain well preserved and are a magnet for gay couples and tourists, who in turn support a handful of coffeehouses, microbreweries, and artsy cinemas. The city’s minor league baseball team is called the Tourists. Not far to the west is the Eastern Band of Cherokee’s casino, which has given the tribe a yearly budget of $130 million and considerable political influence. Over a ridge is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the nation’s most heavily visited. Its forested, fog-wisped mountains are 20 degrees cooler in the summer than the lowland towns an hour or so away. The Fraser fir trees grown on farms in the mountains are America’s favorite Christmas tree.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
The 11th District of North Carolina includes the western end of the state, including Asheville’s Buncombe County, which accounts for one-third of the votes. The orneriness of the mountain country has been manifest in its politics. This part of the state was reluctant to secede in the Civil War. There were few slaves and many small farmers loyal to the Union, and those who took up the Confederate cause did so out of loyalty to Gov. Zebulon Vance, an Asheville native and reluctant secessionist. In modern times, the 11th has been one of the nation’s most closely contested districts, throwing out incumbents in five of six elections between 1980 and 1990. Coinciding with an influx of retirees in the mountains south of Asheville, it has tilted Republican in the past few presidential elections, including 2008, when John McCain won it by 52%-46.5%. However, Barack Obama won Buncombe County, where liberal-leaning Asheville is located, 56%-42%.
Rep. Heath Shuler (D)
Elected: 2006, 2nd term.
Born: Dec. 31, 1971, Bryson City .
Education: U of TN, B.A. 2001.
Family: Married (Nikol); 2 children.
Professional Career: Pro football player, 1994-98; Owner, Heath Shuler Real Estate, 1998-2003; Property development investor.
The congressman from the 11th District is Heath Shuler, a Democrat elected in 2006. The son of a mailman, Shuler grew up on Toot Hollow Road in tiny Bryson City, closer to the Tennessee line than to Asheville. He led Swain County High School to three state football championships and starred as quarterback at the University of Tennessee, where he was the 1993 runner-up for the Heisman Trophy. The Washington Redskins picked Shuler, then a college junior, third in the 1994 draft and first among quarterbacks. He played three disappointing seasons before being traded to the New Orleans Saints, where he injured his left foot when a 334-pound defensive tackle fell on him. He attempted a comeback, but was reinjured while playing for the Oakland Raiders. Despite the disappointments in his pro football career, Shuler remained a hero in Swain County and western North Carolina. He founded a successful real estate business in Knoxville, Tenn., with his brother and returned to North Carolina with his family in 2003. Shuler still cuts the figure of a professional athlete, wears his NFL alumni ring, and as in his playing days, does not smoke or drink alcohol or soda. Republicans in 2002 tried to get Shuler to run for public office, but he declined. Democrats aggressively recruited him in 2006 to run for Congress. Then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., who led the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, allayed Shuler’s fears about missing time with his children by calling Shuler on his cellphone each time he dropped his own children off at school or attended their events.
|Heath Shuler (D)||211,112||(62%)||($769,941)|
|Carl Mumpower (R)||122,087||(36%)||($134,199)|
|Keith Smith (Lib)||7,517||(2%)|
|Heath Shuler (D)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (54%)
Shuler challenged eight-term incumbent Charles Taylor, a Republican who had faced competitive races the past three elections. Taylor was weakened by his business dealings after two associates at a bank Taylor controlled pleaded guilty to bank-fraud charges. He was vulnerable on other fronts. Though he later blamed a glitch in the House electronic voting machine, Taylor did not show a recorded vote for the 2005 Central American Free Trade Agreement, which passed only narrowly. This was no small matter in the district, where trade pacts are blamed for the loss of textile jobs. Taylor sought to tie Shuler to national Democrats. “Rookie Heath Shuler is following the playbook of San Francisco liberal Nancy Pelosi,” claimed one radio ad. Shuler was not an easy target. He had no legislative record to mine for controversial votes, and his politics were in line with the socially conservative district. He campaigned on “mountain values,” opposing abortion rights, gay marriage, and gun control. Taylor, who was an Appropriations subcommittee “cardinal,” campaigned on his ability to bring home federal money. Then, in October, with polls showing Taylor trailing, The Wall Street Journal ran a story about spending earmarks sought by Taylor that had the effect of benefiting many of his own business interests. The incumbent poured $2.5 million of his own money into his race, and spent $4.4 million overall, compared with Shuler’s $1.8 million. But Shuler won 54%-46%, an impressive showing for a novice candidate against an incumbent.
In the House, Shuler joined the “Blue Dog” coalition of conservative Democrats, where he was outspoken for “pay-as-you-go” budgeting. He voted for the Democrats’ initial “100-hour” legislative agenda, except for lifting the ban on federal funding for embryonic-stem cell research. He dove into the immigration debate with a bill that emphasized toughening controls at the borders and requiring employers to use an Internet-based verification system to weed out illegal workers. Republicans supported Shuler’s bill, but it was extremely unpopular in his own party. The Hispanic Caucus condemned it, and Democratic leaders ignored his pleas to bring it to a vote. He had more success with small-business legislation. Although he was just a freshman, Shuler got the chairmanship of the Small Business Subcommittee on Rural and Urban Entrepreneurship, where he was able to pass a bill increasing the number of federal contracts awarded to small businesses. Congress also enacted his bill to increase investment in small producers of biofuels and other new, clean energy sources. But Shuler also attracted some negative publicity in his first term when The Knoxville News-Sentinel published a story in August 2008 saying that the Tennessee Valley Authority had approved lake access for a development group whose investors included Shuler, who also sits on the committee that oversees the TVA.
Expectations that he would face strong Republican opposition in 2008 evaporated. Taylor waited a long time before eventually deciding not to seek a rematch, and other potentially strong candidates took a pass as well. The Republican nominee, Asheville City Councilor Carl Mumpower, was poorly funded, got little national party support, and temporarily suspended his campaign. Shuler won easily, 62%-36%, taking all 15 counties.