After weeks of cajoling from high-ranking Democrats — including former President Bill Clinton — former football star Heath Shuler announced Monday that he would challenge Rep. Charles Taylor (R-N.C.) next year.
In a statement, Shuler, who now operates a prosperous real estate business in Tennessee and North Carolina, said he is seeking the 11th district seat because he wants his constituents to have the same opportunities for advancement that he had.
“Far too many families in western North Carolina are struggling to earn a decent living, educate their children and pay for health care,” he said. “Congress is spending too much time playing partisan politics instead of working to find solutions to the real problems facing our families.”
Shuler’s decision heartened Democrats, who have targeted Taylor for the past few cycles and are happy that a celebrity challenger with an ability to self-fund has emerged. Shuler was in Washington, D.C., last week meeting with members of the Tar Heel State’s Congressional delegation and Democratic strategists.
“We think he’s an incredibly strong candidate,” said Sarah Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
But Shuler may also find himself vulnerable to charges of political opportunism. In the past few cycles, Republicans have urged him to run for Congress in Tennessee — and he was receptive enough to their entreaties to consider the matter seriously.
“Clearly he’s got some issues that he needs to work out,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Carl Forti.
Still, Shuler’s willingness to listen to the GOP suggests that his politics are conservative enough to play well in a district that gave President Bush 57 percent of the vote in the 2004 presidential election. Shuler has also been active with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and various civic groups.
And while he is a political novice, Shuler is a genuine local hero who could appeal to voters in the rural district. He was a star quarterback at Swain County High School, where he led his school to three state championships. He went on to the University of Tennessee and was runner-up for the Heisman Trophy.
Picked third overall in the 1994 NFL draft by the Washington Redskins, Shuler’s professional career never really took off, and he retired after four seasons.
Then he and his brother, Benjie, started Heath Shuler Real Estate, a firm that has grown exponentially and now has more than 250 employees in Tennessee and North Carolina.
Democrats hope to pin the 11th district’s loss of blue-collar jobs on Taylor this cycle. The eight-term Congressman has also been the subject of ethics controversies in the past, including charges that he owed back taxes on a tree farm that he owns.
Blue Ridge Savings, the Asheville-based bank for which Taylor serves as chairman of the board, has been accused of making fraudulent loans — though it has never been established that Taylor knew anything about them.
Those revelations did not hurt Taylor electorally last year; he took 55 percent of the vote against Buncombe County Commissioner Patsy Keever (D), outspending her by almost $800,000. Deborah Potter, a spokeswoman for Taylor, was nonchalant about Shuler’s decision to challenge her boss.
“It is still 16 months until the next election,” she said. “Congressman Taylor is busy in Washington, D.C., doing the work people elected him to do, which includes trying to get the appropriations bills finished for the coming fiscal year.”
Taylor has also been no slouch on the fundraising front, taking in $206,000 in the past three months. But the Congressman used much of that money to pay down various loans and reported just $57,000 in his campaign account at the end of June.
“I think that the voters know and continue to re-elect Mr. Taylor,” Forti said. “Ultimately this race is going to be about Mr. Shuler and his shortcomings.”