The 'Blue Dog' Factor
Washington is buzzing with speculation about how incoming moderate freshman Democrats like Heath Shuler of North Carolina will change congressional dynamics. The ex-NFL quarterback will be a member of the "blue dogs," a group of budget-cutting Democrats, mostly from southern states, whose ranks will swell from about 37 to 44 in the new Congress. Shuler defeated eight-term Republican incumbent Rep. Charles Taylor in part because Shuler vowed to fight against special interests. He is also a proud Christian who opposes abortion and loves to hunt. But the 35-year-old strongly favors increasing the minimum wage and protecting the environment, and he opposes privatizing Social Security. Shuler spoke with U.S. News about his role in the 110th Congress.
Why did you join the blue dogs?
We are $9 trillion in debt. It is really unacceptable the way this administration and this past Congress have run our government. We have to find a much better way to balance our budget and use tax dollars much more wisely.
Why is the number of moderate Democrats, like the blue dogs, increasing?
In my conservative district, the people in the middle started to speak out. We've had extremes to the right and extremes to the left doing a lot of talking for the rest of the country, and I think most of the people are in the middle. With this election, you started to see working Americans and working families, the middle class, speak out. A lot more people voted on the issues, and fewer people really voted a straight ticket.
Do you think House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will work well with the blue dogs and other moderates?
I think she will. She realizes the importance of having that voice in the middle, that moderate Democrat. She has been very easy to work with so far, and I think she certainly realizes and understands how it works politically and realizes what happened this election cycle.
In your campaign, you criticized your opponent's use of earmarks. Will you push for limits on so-called pork-barrel spending?
We certainly need to have checks and balances on our spending. There has to be oversight on earmarks to make sure that it is beneficial for a great number of people in the district. And if we don't have the money, then we don't need to spend the money.
Blue dogs aside, what will you prioritize?
We are striving to bring better jobs to the district, keep our families together here in western North Carolina, and stop outsourcing our jobs. We've lost 78 percent of the textile industries in North Carolina. It's certainly going to be a priority of mine to bring high-quality jobs to the United States and make sure trade agreements are fair to families.
Jobs leaving North Carolina was one thing that led you to politics, right?
There was a factory in Haywood County that had closed down, and I watched a single mom, who had just lost her job because of the effect of the North American Free Trade Agreement, ask how she would raise her two children. I wanted to do what I could to help through my foundation. But as I spoke more about it and asked what I could do to help, people said, 'Heath, you must run for office.'
What will be your biggest challenge?
There are  new members of Congress, and the most difficult thing is to try to get people to understand what you are about ... and to be able to get your message [to] Congress about what's important to you and your constituents.
There has been a lot of talk by President Bush and members of Congress about bipartisanship. Will Democrats and Republicans be able to work together?
Having bipartisan support is not only better for our country; it's better for our constituents. It is absolutely vital to be able to accomplish things. If you look at balancing the budget, I certainly feel that the blue dogs have been able to make sure that we don't overspend and that there is accountability and checks and balances. I think we will get a tremendous amount of bipartisan support.
You were recruited for a congressional run by Republicans when you were living in Tennessee in 2001. Have you ever thought of switching parties?
I had supported a Republican candidate in Tennessee, and I guess they assumed I was a Republican. I was flattered and very excited, and thanked them for the opportunity, but I told them that I was a Democrat. What makes me a Democrat is the words of my grandmother, my father, my whole family, and my church: to help those who cannot help themselves.
Did football prepare you at all for politics?
It has prepared me to work together ... work in a bipartisan fashion, and work with the blue dogs. And being a quarterback is a leadership role on a team in which you have to be able to communicate to other people. Sometimes those communications are not done verbally but are done through actions and through your work ethic.
This story appears in the January 8, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.