DISTRICT: North Carolina's 11th (Asheville)
INCUMBENT: Rep. Charles Taylor (R, eight terms)
CHALLENGER: Former NFL QB Heath Shuler (D)
TOP ISSUES: Ethics, jobs
Shuler, a former first-round draft pick for the Washington Redskins, is no stranger to the recruiting process. But he was unprepared for the ferocity with which he was courted to run for office by Rep. Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the DCCC.
Shuler was eager to serve the district where he led his high school team to the state championship in 1990, but he had concerns about the strains public office would place on his family. So Emanuel kept calling — from his backyard barbecue on Sunday, while dropping his kids at school on Monday morning, then again while picking them up on Monday afternoon. "He not only did this one day, he did it for, like, two straight weeks," Shuler says in his West Carolina twang. "He is probably the most persistent person I've ever met."
That's how the Democrats bagged one of the brightest stars of its 2006 class, a plain-spoken, plainly conservative Southern Democrat with the kind of Jack Kemp cred that comes only with an NFL tenure. The son of a mail carrier, Shuler is seeking to oust Taylor, a member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee and one of the wealthiest men in the state.
Taylor has been dogged by ethics questions concerning his Blue Ridge Savings and Loan, where two of his associates have pleaded guilty to bank fraud and money laundering. The criminals both implicated Taylor in their schemes, under oath, but the congressman has yet to be called before a grand jury or questioned by the FBI. Taylor built much of his fortune while serving in Congress, partnering with a former KGB general to form the first American bank in post-Soviet Russia.
And he has used his political clout to benefit his cronies: In a recent appropriations bill, Taylor inserted an earmark to pay for a program, managed by one of his foreign partners, that sends Russian students to study at North Carolina universities — even while he was voting for record cuts to college aid for students in his own district.
Shuler is campaigning on jobs in a region whose manufacturing economy has been devastated by free trade. But it is his character and local roots that make this race worth watching.
"This district is always on our watch list," says Rothenberg. "And it always follows the same pattern: Taylor's opponents attack him as beholden to the Russian mob — and then Taylor writes himself a check, spends a million bucks or two, and blows his opponent out of the water by painting them as liberals. But Shuler is going to be hard to portray as a left-wing yahoo who is going to vote with the Nancy Pelosi Democrats."