Monday, January 15, 2007

Heath Shuler is back in Washington, but like the last time he was in the nation’s capital, he’s out of place on his own team.

Mr. Shuler, a freshman congressman from North Carolina, was one of 16 Democrats who voted against expanding federal funds for embryonic stem-cell research.

The former Washington Redskins quarterback, who failed to live up to high expectations in the mid-1990s, is now a pro-life, anti-gun-control, conservative Southern Baptist.

“It’s just because of some of the social issues,” said Mr. Shuler, 35, when asked whether he is an outsider in his own party.

“Too many people want to separate my party … based upon a couple of issues. It’s far more than a couple of issues,” Mr. Shuler said. “If we look at our party, the great thing is, we got a lot of bipartisan support on increasing the minimum wage. To me that’s a moral issue. That’s where I’m with my party.”

Mr. Shuler represents his hometown of Swain County, N.C., in the state’s 11th Congressional District, which borders on Tennessee.

Republicans tried to recruit Mr. Shuler as a candidate in 2001 without success. Last year, running as a conservative Democrat, Mr. Shuler defeated eight-term Republican incumbent Charles H. Taylor, helping Democrats capture a majority in the House.

If Mr. Shuler’s office location is any indication, however, he is junior even among junior members.

A visitor to the Cannon House Office Building must take the elevator to the fourth floor and then find a hidden hallway with an elevator that goes up one more floor to the nearly deserted fifth floor.

“No one goes up there, and no one ever comes down,” said one House staffer who works in a fourth-floor office.

But on a Friday afternoon, Mr. Shuler’s office was abuzz with noise from his two young children. His son, Navy, 5, and daughter, Island, 2, ran from room to room, as the Shuler family prepared to make the eight-hour drive home for a three-day weekend.

“Home is where my wife is and my kids are,” said Mr. Shuler, who will bring his wife, Nikol, and children to Washington during regular workweeks.

Since he last left Washington in 1996, Mr. Shuler went into real estate, a side business he began during his career as a Redskin.

Mr. Shuler was a first-round draft pick in 1994 after starring at the University of Tennessee, but he suffered through three miserable seasons as an on-again, off-again starter for the team. He played for two more teams before a foot injury forced him to retire in 1998.

Some Redskins fans still hold a grudge. One fan, Jason Woodmansee, started a Web site called, to oppose Mr. Shuler’s election to Congress so that he wouldn’t again bring a curse on the Redskins.

A columnist for the Virginian-Pilot newspaper asked, “If Shuler tried to pass a bill, would it be intercepted?”

Mr. Shuler is self-deprecating about his years with the Redskins. “I would not be the person I am today if it wasn’t for some of the struggles I had here,” he said.

According to Mr. Shuler, however, Redskins fans have welcomed him back to their city.

“I would have never guessed that there would be this much, really, excitement that I’m back,” he said. “And I hope that just goes to that I handled myself with a lot of dignity and respect and character and integrity when I was here, even when things weren’t going well.”

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