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They met in Washington in 1969. Shuster had been recruited to run a troubled computer terminal company named Datel; Eppard applied for a job as his executive assistant. They both had Pennsylvania roots. Both were smart and energetic. And both were eager to get ahead. When Shuster asked if she'd be willing to take an intelligence test before he decided whether to hire her, Eppard replied, "Sure I'll take one right after you." He offered her the job on the spot.
"There was a vibrancy about him," she recalls. He seemed destined for bigger things. And because her background and work experience as a secretary were relatively modest, she was that much more grateful for the opportunity he was giving her.
Eppard was born in Pittston, a small bedroom community north of Wilkes-Barre in hardscrabble northeastern Pennsylvania, but her mother and stepfather settled in Alexandria, where they worked for the Navy. Eppard says she "made all the mistakes you can make" in early life, including getting married when she was 19 and barely out of high school. A year later, in 1963, she gave birth to her son.
Shuster, 11 years older, had grown up during the Depression in Glassport, a coal-mining town just south of Pittsburgh. His father was a railroad engineer, and his mother was active in the local GOP. One of Shuster's most vivid memories of his youth a memory he recalled years later in a campaign-style monograph titled "Believing in America" was of his mother weeping because she couldn't spare a nickel for him to splurge at Nippsy's Candy Store.
Another memory was of an encounter with his congressman in 1943, when 11-year-old Bud was sent to return a shaving mug that had been kept at his grandfather's barbershop. As he waited for an audience with the congressman, he watched as people flocked to the door in search of help. Marveling at the man's seeming benevolence and power, young Bud vowed that he would be a congressman one day.
First he put himself through school (he holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Pittsburgh, a master's degree in business from Duquesne and a doctorate in business and economics from American University), served in Army counterintelligence in the mid-1950s, and launched his career in the computer business. He was a crackerjack salesman, and eventually rose to a vice presidency in RCA's federal government electronics division in Washington. He traveled widely for his work, but in 1964 he and his wife bought a farm in Everett, about 40 miles south of Altoona.
Datel recruited him in August 1968, and Shuster turned the company around and sold it to a Texas computer concern in March 1969. The sale, which was effected through a complex stock transaction, became the subject of two lawsuits one filed by Shuster and 11 colleagues against the buyer, the other filed against Shuster and his 11 colleagues by one of Datel's major shareholders. A dispute over the value of the stock was at the heart of the allegations, and both suits were settled out of court.
After the sale, he pursued other business ventures and cast about for new worlds to conquer. He also kept a close watch on the political scene in Pennsylvania's 9th Congressional District, which included his farm. In 1972, redistricting led to an open seat. Shuster decided to run for it.
Eppard had no experience in politics, but she was by then a trusted member of his inner circle. Within a week or two of Shuster's decision to run, she left her husband of 10 years, put her 9-year-old son in her mother's temporary care, and headed to Pennsylvania to join the candidate, his family and several other of his longtime Washington business associates. "Shuster Boosters," they called themselves.
The new 9th was a GOP stronghold carved from a rugged and mountainous swath of central Pennsylvania. Local pundits had anointed a veteran Republican state senator as the likely new representative; although Shuster had been a property owner in the district for almost a decade, people viewed him as a Washington outsider. "Nobody thought we could win," he says. "We hit the district like a ton of bricks."
Using his own money to get started, he launched a state-of-the-art campaign, complete with computer models, mass mailings and a well-financed media assault. From sunrise to past dark, Shuster, Eppard and other volunteers traversed the 9th's hills in a red-white-and-blue bus with a bullhorn on the front. Eppard huddled near a space heater at the back of the bus and typed thank-you notes to new Shuster Boosters. A campaign brochure with a photograph of Bud and Pat Shuster and their five well-scrubbed children declared, "Bud Shuster . . . hard-working family man . . . can help bring jobs and a new prosperity to the 9th District."
On primary day, Shuster won with 52 percent of the GOP vote. That fall, he emerged as one of 46 new Republicans elected to the House amid President Nixon's landslide reelection. When Shuster returned to Washington with Eppard, he was elected president of that GOP freshman class. He became a player almost overnight.
His leverage rose as Nixon's fortunes fell. In early 1973, with the Watergate scandal beginning to threaten the administration, Shuster was seen as a bellwether for how the Republican freshmen might vote if the House had to decide whether to impeach the president. The White House courted him vigorously, to the point of inviting him on a moonlit cruise with Nixon aboard the presidential yacht. (When the time came, it would fall to Shuster to inform H.R. Haldeman and other White House officials that Nixon could not count on the freshmen's support.)
Shuster also harbored ambitions to climb the GOP leadership ladder, and quickly emerged as a spokesman for a new, hard-edged fiscal conservatism that was gaining currency among Capitol Hill Republicans. He also had clout by virtue of his committee assignment: Given his choice, he eagerly claimed a seat on the Public Works Committee, the forerunner to Transportation and Infrastructure.
His decision was dictated by geography: His district was isolated by the Appalachians and economically depressed. Railroad-car plants in Altoona and Hollidaysburg had employed thousands of people just after World War II, but that heyday was long gone. The region was largely defined by small towns and communities that suffered from high unemployment and bad roads and bridges and chronic flooding. The year Shuster was elected, flash floods spawned by Hurricane Agnes devastated the state. In the county surrounding Altoona, the waters did $3.2 million worth of damage and forced 300 people out of their homes.
On the Public Works Committee with its control over spending on federal highway and bridge construction Shuster could hope to make good on his campaign pledge to reverse his district's fortunes and literally put Altoona on the interstate highway map. "It was very clear to me that's what I needed to do," he says.
Public Works had a long history of bipartisan pork-barrel spending its operating assumption was, as Shuster says, "There's no such thing as a Democratic or Republican bridge" and he adeptly courted the committee's Democratic leaders. He won over Chairman John Blatnik, a Democrat from the Iron Range in northern Minnesota, by mentioning that he once spent time in Duluth installing a computer system for U.S. Steel and then discussing the finer points of Minnesota and Pennsylvania mining.
"Here was this eager-to-learn, energetic guy anxious to build a personal bridge between Pennsylvania and northeastern Minnesota to establish himself as someone who is practical, realistic and nonideological," says Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota, who was Blatnik's top aide at the time and now is the ranking Democrat on the Transportation Committee. Within two years, Shuster emerged as the ranking Republican on the surface transportation subcommittee, the panel that controlled all highway and bridge spending and the place where most of the deals were cut.
Around the same time in an era when few women held the top jobs in congressional offices he promoted Eppard to be his chief of staff. "I stuck out like a sore thumb," she says.
Shuster's wife rarely was seen in Washington; she remained on the farm in Everett. His partnership with Eppard was unusually visible. "On the Capitol campus, she was with him wherever he went," recalls former congressman Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.). "Senate members often need surgery to separate them from their staff, but House members and their aides usually aren't like that. Eppard was like a Senate staffer."
She did a considerable amount of work, running Shuster's congressional and district offices, handling his media relations, gathering political intelligence, protecting his interests in the Pennsylvania capital, managing his campaigns and raising his money. For years she walked Shuster back and forth between their office and the Capitol whenever he had to vote, and she accompanied him to virtually every political or social event he attended in Washington or in his district. In the latter days of her tenure, when the House had scheduled late-night votes, they passed the time dining by candlelight in his congressional office in the Rayburn Building. Junior staffers were instructed to put her favorite white wine, Glen Ellen, on ice, and they ate their meals of Lean Cuisine and angel-hair pasta on a neatly pressed tablecloth.
"Shuster didn't want to get involved in day-to-day stuff, and let her do the micromanaging," recalls a former aide. ". . . Her job was to make sure that we didn't have any opponents, to see that the seat was safe and to make sure all the ducks were in a row."
With Eppard as his chief of staff, Shuster was free to concentrate on mastering the minutiae of highway appropriations and the fine art of gaining influence. As his influence grew, so did federal funding for projects in his district. Gradually, the influence and the projects began to feed each other.
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