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Former Redskin Heath Shuler Is Hoping to Return to Washington, This Time as a Congressman

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 4, 2006

ASHEVILLE, N.C. Heath Shuler is scrambling again, looking to his left and to his right.

The former Redskins quarterback -- who hopes to represent western North Carolina in the 110th Congress next year -- is running against incumbent Charles H. Taylor, a Republican who has whipped every opponent in the past eight elections.

On a recent afternoon, Shuler is in Canton, just west of Asheville, to give the Pisgah High School Black Bears a pep talk. It's a sunny day in the Smoky Mountains, the autumn leaves are lovely. The first-time candidate spends nearly an hour joking with the football players, most of whom are too young to vote.

He is at home here in his football-shaped world. The game made him who he is.

When Shuler, 34, addresses the whole Pisgah team, he doesn't seem quite as comfortable as when he goes one-on-one. He's not a polished politician. He lurches toward the right words; his syntax is homespun. "Pride yourself on being the most aggressive team out there," he tells the kids. "Stay focused. Being 10 and 0 is something you can pride yourself with."

He tosses a ball with the quarterback. Nearly a decade out of pro football, Shuler -- 6 feet 2 with dark hair and green eyes -- still has a tight spiral. After a few tries, he lofts one 30 yards into a gray trash can. Then he strolls over to a shade tree where seven older men are watching the practice. Hands in pockets, he toes the ground and jaws with them awhile.

"What's that on your finger?" asks a man in an orange Tennessee T-shirt.

"It's an NFL alumni ring," Shuler says, handing it to him.

Another guy says to Shuler, "You'll get a vote if you let him keep that ring."

* * *

Football, politics, family, faith -- these are Shuler's cornerstones.

"You've got a perfect storm," says David Young, an Asheville travel agent and Buncombe County commissioner who ran against Taylor as the Democratic candidate in 1998. "You've got a good conservative candidate who is not liberal on issues important to the people of western North Carolina -- abortion, gay marriage. He's good-looking. He's got money."

With a population of more than 600,000, the 15 counties that make up the 11th district are primarily bucolic and conservative. Shuler's résumé and pedigree fall to the right of where most would put the national Democratic Party, says George Peery, a political scientist at Mars Hill College just north of Asheville. "But remember, this is mountainous, rural, retiree-influx western North Carolina." That makes Shuler an attractive Democrat, he says.

Against a backdrop of President Bush's low approval numbers and the Iraq war, Taylor may be vulnerable, Peery says. "If 5 to 8 percent of 11th district voters break with what they have done for the past three or four elections, Taylor will lose and the Democratic candidate can win." To boot, a recent Wall Street Journal story suggests that Taylor, a multimillionaire from Brevard, has profited from some of his legislative decisions. Taylor denies the correlation.

Taylor has stalwart supporters, even in Shuler's home county -- Swain. Charlene Blankenship, who sells insurance in Shuler's home town of Bryson City, is voting for Taylor. She says the congressman's office provides excellent service when someone has trouble with veterans benefits or senior citizens issues. And Taylor, 65, sits on powerful committees. He is chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the interior, environment and related agencies and a member of the Appropriations subcommittee on science, the departments of State, Justice and Commerce. He tells voters that he has delivered more than $26 billion in federal funds to district projects such as the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Carl Sandburg Home.

Shuler "talks the talk," says Blankenship, 40, "but he doesn't walk the walk." He lacks experience "and he accepts contributions from San Francisco liberals and New York liberals."

People on both sides decry the tear-'em-down tenor of the campaign. In half the ads, the candidates accuse each other; in the other half, they excuse themselves.

"Charlie Taylor stirs up fierce emotions," says Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life at the University of North Carolina. "Like a lot of these races, it's gotten lowdown and personal."

Right on Issues

Asheville, the largest city in the district with 70,000 people, is one funky place. It's a mellow melange of hill people and hippies, mountain geezers and young gay folks. You might pass a vegan cafe on the way to the NASCAR track. Or a head shop en route to the decades-old Christian Bookshop -- owned by Robert and Sheila Doom -- in west Asheville. "We've backed Charles Taylor for years," says Sheila Doom, 67. "He's more in line with the foundations of our country. We like his stand on abortion."

A few blocks away from the Dooms' shop is Shuler's unassuming headquarters. A drab place with paneled walls, the nerve center is on the second floor of a ragtag office building, above a barber shop. Brochures at the front desk tout Shuler as an antiabortion Democrat and a member of the National Rifle Association. There are photos of him in a Redskins uniform. A wood and brass barometer hangs on a wall; the needle points to "change."

On this late-October afternoon, Shuler is receiving the endorsement of the Alliance for Retired Americans. In the union hall, he looks big. Though he's gained 20 pounds since his NFL days, he's still in good shape. His foot hurts sometimes, so does his hip.

When he takes the lectern, he tells the crowd of two dozen that he wants to create high-paying jobs so smart young people will have good reason to stay in North Carolina. And he wants to protect Medicare and Social Security payments for the elderly.

Afterward, he says he is proud to be a "Blue Dog" Democrat, conservative on issues such as abortion and gay marriage. On her way out the door, Shuler supporter Delena Hoover, 66, says, "We're going to have to clean out Washington and start anew."

Whenever anybody asks him, "What makes you a Democrat?" he invariably replies, "I believe in helping those who can't help themselves." He supports alternative energy options and a higher minimum wage.

Since retiring from football, he's been a successful real estate wheeler-dealer. For a while he was in business with his younger brother, Benjie.

Heath's wife, Nikol, does not campaign with him much. "She does her thing," he says, "I do this." She stays at home with their son, Navy Heath, 5, and daughter, Island Nikol, 2. He named his son out of a road atlas and his daughter from the back of an Island Transportation truck.

He says he has never met Charles Taylor. He did see him once in a parade, though.

"I look at myself as an old-style, Southern-style Democrat," Shuler says. He is an avid hunter. He would have voted for the 700-mile anti-immigration fence. He's for stem cell research -- if the cells are taken from attempts at in vitro fertilization.

Religion is important to Shuler. He doesn't campaign on Sundays. He says, "If it weren't for my belief in Jesus Christ, I wouldn't be what I am today."

Roots in the Mountains

What he is is a homegrown boy who done good.

On a wind-chilled night beneath a half moon, the Asheville High School Cougars are hosting the No. 1 team in the state, the undefeated Panthers of Franklin High School. Hundreds and hundreds of people turn out. Shuler is standing on the Franklin side. He knows a lot of the fans; they know him. After all, he led the Swain County High School Maroon Devils to three state championships in 1988, 1989 and 1990. He was a standout quarterback at the University of Tennessee and runner-up for the Heisman Trophy in 1993. He played three seasons for the Redskins, then was traded to New Orleans, then Oakland.

He's wearing Levis and a crisp blue shirt. He shakes hands, gives out hugs. Kids wander up. He's a fine role model -- doesn't smoke or drink alcohol or caffeine. About the worst thing he does in public is use an awful lot of lip balm.

He loves talking football, even when talking about other things. Rep. Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who persuaded Shuler to run, is the "best recruiter" he's ever known. "Lou Holtz has got nothing on him," he says.

"The best coach I ever had," he says, "is standing right over there."

Boyce Deitz, in a light-colored windbreaker and purple cap, spits a little tobacco onto the grass. Deitz, 57, was the coach at Swain for 20 years. Tonight he watches Asheville beat Franklin, 14-7. Upsets do happen.

When Shuler was deciding whether to run, he went to his favorite meditation spot -- a scenic overlook on Fontana Road, high above Bryson City -- and prayed for guidance. He spoke to his family and he went to see Deitz. "I told him that I had a lot of respect for him, taking on such a task. It's daunting," Deitz says. "And a hard thing on him and his family."

Ask Shuler why so many football stars -- J.C. Watts, Steve Largent, Lynn Swann, Tom Osborne -- go into politics, and he says he's never really thought about it.

Deitz believes that a football player innately understands the art of politics. "When you get in a football huddle," he says, "10 other fellows look you eye to eye to tell them what to do. You call the play and 11 different people are doing 11 different things to accomplish one play, one goal. Politics is a whole lot the same."

When Deitz hears that Shuler called him the best coach he's ever had, Deitz jokingly says, "He's already started lying and he ain't even to Washington yet."

The Next Road

To understand where Heath Shuler comes from, go to Bryson City and meet his father, Joe Benny Shuler.

Bryson City is a touristy spot with a historic train that carries leaf voyeurs into the nearby mountains. At the Everett Street Diner, Joe Benny orders oatmeal and coffee. He's wearing a green jacket, a golf shirt, khakis. He dips a little Skoal now and then.

Joe Benny never went to college. He carried mail for 35 years, then retired. He and his first wife, Margie, ran the town's youth football program for years. Today he runs a pawn shop. If anything, Joe Benny is even more engaging than Heath. Same smile, same green eyes, same rustic speech pattern. "Heath and Benjie was raised on a ball field," he says.

He drives up Everett Street, which becomes Fontana Road. It's also known by another name: the Road to Nowhere. When the Tennessee Valley Authority dammed the Little Tennessee River and created Fontana Lake in the 1940s, several small communities were flooded. More than two dozen cemeteries ended up in a remote area that became the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Promises were made that when World War II ended, a road would be built from Bryson City to the graveyards. Along the way, the project ran out of steam or money or confidence that it was a sound ecological idea and the road was never completed. It has become a key election issue. Charles Taylor wants to finish the construction. Heath Shuler doesn't. He thinks the money could be put to better use. Ironically, Heath Shuler grew up looking out on the road from his house.

Joe Benny Shuler eases his truck past Heath's high school, past Boyce Deitz Football Field, where the state champion banners hang, past Heath's childhood home on Toot Hollow Road were Joe Benny still lives and where his second wife, Susie, has a hair salon, past Victory Baptist Church, "where I was saved," he says, and past the house he grew up in.

He talks about his son's ill-fated stint in pro football. "Heath didn't get a good shake in Washington," he says. He thought that Norv Turner would be a good coach for Heath. It didn't turn out that way. "One week Norv told him he was the best in the NFL. The next week he'd bench him." Shuler's record as a starter in Washington was 4-13. His confidence was shaken.

"I think this fills the void," Joe Benny says of the election. "He didn't get to finish what he set out to do in Washington."

Joe Benny passes a wooden sign: Welcome to the Road to Nowhere: A Broken Promise, 1943-?

People in Swain County are split over the issue. Building the road would create jobs and bring tens of millions of dollars to the community. But it would also change the nature of the place. Roads and bridges would have to be widened to accommodate heavy machinery. Population would grow and so would traffic.

There is no traffic today. Joe Benny stops at the Fontana Lake overlook where Heath contemplated running for Congress. It's easy to imagine Heath making his decision, then turning around. To the left, the Road to Nowhere. To the right, a road that might lead him to Washington and points beyond.

Heath Shuler turned right.

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