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In the 19 games Heath Shuler spent taking snaps for the Washington Redskins in the mid-1990s, the team went 4--15. His quarterback rating during that time was a subterranean 58.3. Routinely, the fans at RFK Stadium booed Shuler, the third pick in the 1994 NFL draft, more lustily than they did any opposing player. With a track record like that, you'd think the guy would never want to work in D.C. again. Yet Shuler has designs on returning to town when the 110th U.S. Congress convenes in January.
In a race that has drawn national attention for its nastiness, Shuler, a conservative Democrat, is running against eight-term Republican incumbent Charles Taylor for the right to represent North Carolina's 11th district. "I'm hearing and reading in the newspaper about the national surplus turning into a debt, the war in Iraq, people losing jobs," says Shuler. "I just figured it was time for me to step in and be a leader."
So while former colleagues race around NFL stadiums, Shuler, 34, is caroming around his district's 15 counties on the fringes of the Smoky Mountains, kissing babies and raising funds. "It's like two-a-days during training camp," he says in a pronounced Carolina drawl. "The first game is November 7 [Election Day], and right now I'm trying to share my playbook with everyone."
The playbook--the Heath ledger, as it were--is typical Democratic orthodoxy mixed with Southern traditionalism. Shuler is an unapologetic environmentalist, favors raising the minimum wage and believes the status quo in Iraq is "unacceptable." He is also staunchly prolife, opposes gun control and talks tough on immigration and outsourcing (the latter a particularly sensitive topic in a region that has lost tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs in recent years). "These are the values I've had all my life," he says.
The son of a mail carrier and a housewife, Shuler was a star quarterback at Swain County High in Bryson City, N.C., on the Tennessee border. He attended college in nearby Knoxville, finishing second in the Heisman voting his junior year, 1993, for the Tennessee Volunteers, before turning pro. He signed an eight-year, $19.25 million contract with the Redskins, but by 1997 a combination of chronic foot injuries and chronic underperformance had ended his NFL career.
Shuler settled in Knoxville and launched a successful commercial and residential real estate brokerage, as well as a company that raised and trained Labrador retrievers for hunt and field competitions. While he was never politically active--the Taylor campaign points out that Shuler has not voted in at least six congressional elections--he was prominent in the business community, a "real people person," as Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer puts it. In December 2003 Shuler, his wife, Nikol, and their two children, son Navy, now 5, and daughter Island, 2, moved to Waynesville, a town of 9,400 in the folds of western North Carolina. Soon thereafter, he launched his congressional bid.
After winning the Democratic primary in May with relative ease, Shuler is, according to local polls, running in a virtual dead heat with Taylor. A series of ads run by the Taylor campaign paints Shuler as a venal carpetbagger. One proclaims, " Heath Shuler is taking money by the truckload. From Washington liberals.... From trial lawyers.... From party extremists and big labor leaders." Another ad points out that the eponymous Knoxville real estate company in which Shuler owns a 20% stake was late in paying $69,000 in local taxes in the previous two years. Shuler has returned fire, calling attention to ethics controversies that have dogged Taylor, as well as to the loss of local jobs overseas that has occurred on his opponent's watch. Shuler has spent more than $300,000 on ads, one of which says, " Taylor skipped a critical vote to save thousands of American jobs but got an award for creating jobs in Russia. Mr. Taylor, American families should come first."
It's all part of the rough play of politics for which a football career seems fine preparation. "My friends say, 'You've had your 15 minutes of fame, why put yourself through this?'" says Shuler. "When you've been sacked by the Cowboys or the 49ers, that Monday it can be tough to get out of bed. This I can handle."