In the 19 gamesHeath 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 subterranean58.3. Routinely, the fans at RFK Stadium booed Shuler, the third pick in the1994 NFL draft, more lustily than they did any opposing player. With a trackrecord 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. Congressconvenes in January.
In a race thathas drawn national attention for its nastiness, Shuler, a conservativeDemocrat, is running against eight-term Republican incumbent Charles Taylor forthe right to represent North Carolina's 11th district. "I'm hearing andreading in the newspaper about the national surplus turning into a debt, thewar in Iraq, people losing jobs," says Shuler. "I just figured it wastime for me to step in and be a leader."
So while formercolleagues race around NFL stadiums, Shuler, 34, is caroming around hisdistrict's 15 counties on the fringes of the Smoky Mountains, kissing babiesand raising funds. "It's like two-a-days during training camp," he saysin a pronounced Carolina drawl. "The first game is November 7 [ElectionDay], and right now I'm trying to share my playbook with everyone."
The playbook--theHeath ledger, as it were--is typical Democratic orthodoxy mixed with Southerntraditionalism. Shuler is an unapologetic environmentalist, favors raising theminimum wage and believes the status quo in Iraq is "unacceptable." Heis also staunchly prolife, opposes gun control and talks tough on immigrationand outsourcing (the latter a particularly sensitive topic in a region that haslost tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs in recent years). "These arethe values I've had all my life," he says.
The son of a mailcarrier and a housewife, Shuler was a star quarterback at Swain County High inBryson City, N.C., on the Tennessee border. He attended college in nearbyKnoxville, finishing second in the Heisman voting his junior year, 1993, forthe Tennessee Volunteers, before turning pro. He signed an eight-year, $19.25million contract with the Redskins, but by 1997 a combination of chronic footinjuries and chronic underperformance had ended his NFL career.
Shuler settled inKnoxville and launched a successful commercial and residential real estatebrokerage, as well as a company that raised and trained Labrador retrievers forhunt and field competitions. While he was never politically active--the Taylorcampaign points out that Shuler has not voted in at least six congressionalelections--he was prominent in the business community, a "real peopleperson," as Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer puts it. In December 2003Shuler, his wife, Nikol, and their two children, son Navy, now 5, and daughterIsland, 2, moved to Waynesville, a town of 9,400 in the folds of western NorthCarolina. Soon thereafter, he launched his congressional bid.
After winning theDemocratic primary in May with relative ease, Shuler is, according to localpolls, running in a virtual dead heat with Taylor. A series of ads run by theTaylor campaign paints Shuler as a venal carpetbagger. One proclaims,"Heath Shuler is taking money by the truckload. From Washingtonliberals.... From trial lawyers.... From party extremists and big laborleaders." Another ad points out that the eponymous Knoxville real estatecompany in which Shuler owns a 20% stake was late in paying $69,000 in localtaxes in the previous two years. Shuler has returned fire, calling attention toethics controversies that have dogged Taylor, as well as to the loss of localjobs overseas that has occurred on his opponent's watch. Shuler has spent morethan $300,000 on ads, one of which says, "Taylor skipped a critical vote tosave thousands of American jobs but got an award for creating jobs in Russia.Mr. Taylor, American families should come first."
It's all part ofthe 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 yourselfthrough this?'" says Shuler. "When you've been sacked by the Cowboys orthe 49ers, that Monday it can be tough to get out of bed. This I canhandle."
Roughing the Passer
HEATH SHULER'S run for Congress has drawn somegood-natured ribbing from as far away as California. Jason Woodmansee, 35, adie-hard Redskins fan who works for an interactive ad agency in San Diego,launched StopShuler.com last January to try to keep the failed NFL quarterback"out of Congress, and therefore out of Washington, D.C." The siteincludes updates on Shuler's race and two "attack ad" parodies thatWoodmansee made because he felt opponent Charles Taylor's campaign wasn'tfocusing on the biggest issue: Shuler's less than stellar NFL career.Woodmansee has not heard from the object of his ridicule, but Shuler spokesmanAndrew Whalen has said that "Heath had a good laugh" after seeing theads. Woodmansee, a father of two, wants Shuler to know that his digs are all ingood fun. "The site is one hundred percent a joke," he says. "Youreally hope people make their decisions based on something more important thanthe stuff that I'm doing."