You may remember Heath Shuler from his glory days as the University of Tennessee’s quarterback and Heisman trophy runner-up in the early 1990s. Or, if you are a pro football fan, you may recall his not-so-glorious three-year career with the Washington Redskins, and then later with New Orleans and the Oakland Raiders.
Perhaps you know him from his recent six years (2007–2013) of service in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Blue Dog Democrat from North Carolina’s 11th district. Regardless of where you may have heard his name, one thing is certain: Heath Shuler has been on a number of teams, some functional, others not so much.
FMI Quarterly had the pleasure of speaking with Heath Shuler about his new role with Duke Energy as well as his earlier years with Congress and the NFL.
Chisholm: Tell us about your current role at Duke Energy.
Shuler: I am the senior vice president of federal affairs. Much of my job and duties are to coordinate with our different business units within the company, to identify areas as a company to promote our business and our policies and then relay that information to a group of consultants and directors of federal affairs in Washington, D.C. They, in return, communicate that to lawmakers.
Chisholm: What are some of the things you communicate? What are some of the policies you are working on?
Shuler: For example, tax issues could come up, so we would look at areas within possible tax reform for our federal team in D.C. to educate members of Congress. The group would look at issues related to Duke Energy, certainly as they relate to the costs of the assets we have. It is very capital intense. I do not go lobby on the Hill. I help identify the areas, but I am not a lobbyist.
Chisholm: How did you come to work at Duke Energy?
Shuler: I met one of the senior management team members —I was looking at another job and wanted to educate myself on some energy policies before I went on the job interview. So, I met with Dhiaa Jamil and we had a conversation that led to a job opportunity at Duke. I had not looked at Duke as being a possibility —I was looking at another job in the energy industry, but I think the questions I was asking Dhiaa led to the opportunity to move forward with Duke.
Chisholm: How long have you been there?
Shuler: Since January 2013.
Chisholm: Let’s go back to your days as a U.S. representative for North Carolina’s 11th congressional district from 2007 to 2013. What made you decide to run for Congress?
Shuler: I wanted to give something back to the community and do some foundation work to improve the community. Every person I turned to said, “You need to run for office, you need to run for office.” So, I felt a calling to do that and to serve my country. I didn’t want to do it for a long time, but I certainly wanted to try to make a difference. I’m what they call a “Blue Dog Democrat,” which is a moderate, conservative Democrat who looks at the issues and the policies based on what’s good for America and not what’s good for the political party. Unfortunately, we’re seeing fewer and fewer moderates in the U.S. House and Senate, and therefore, we are getting extremes. I had a bellyful of extremes on one side of the political spectrum and I decided, after serving for six years, it was time for me to do something else.
Chisholm: Let’s talk about the transportation bill you spoke about at FMI’s corporate meeting in August. Give us some background on that —why is it so important and what needs to happen to make it a reality?
Shuler: I think the greatest takeaway is to understand why we need the highway trust fund to be reinstated for a long period of time and to have a long-term vision of the infrastructure in America. Obviously, when we are competing globally, we need that infrastructure. The greatest thing is that we get a return on our investment. So for every dollar we put into transportation, we get $6 in return. Those investments that we are making in this country’s infrastructure not only make our highways safer and make us more efficient, but are certainly ways to grow our economy and the workforce in America. So, for the federal tax dollars we spend, we get a return on that investment. And those are the best investments that we can make for our future —not only for the economy, but for the infrastructure to move into what would be the next great era of transportation.
The highway trust fund was a very short-term fix. But I do have confidence in the House from the standpoint of Nick Rahall, the ranking member, and Bill Shuster, the chairman, that the two of them will be able to work together. If there have ever been two members of Congress that I think could work together on a highway trust fund bill and make something happen, it certainly would be the two of them. Before that, there was just too much partisanship, which never affected the highway trust fund bill before. It had always been voted on in the past in a bipartisan way, but now the funding is such that the Congress is trying to cut back, trying to make different deals and it’s become very political
Chisholm: Do you think that the state and local governments should have more control?
Shuler: That’s happened over time. If you look back 50 years ago, the federal government paid for almost all of the infrastructure —water, sewer, highways —and now it pays much less of a percentage, certainly less than 10%, I think, in the cost of total infrastructure. So that has taken place. What hasn’t been addressed is that we have better fuel efficiency, but the collectible fuel tax, based on the consumption of fuel, hasn’t changed since 1993, so we’re operating the budget based upon a revenue number from 1993. We’re more efficient with the use of our vehicles, but we’re still generating the same revenue and that is always the topic of conversations —how we actually pay for a really big infrastructure highway trust fund bill.
Chisholm: How does that happen? Teamwork in Congress sounds like an oxymoron these days.
Shuler: As an industry, I think it’s important to identify to the lawmakers the importance of infrastructure and what it means to our economy, growth and workforce — what that return on investment looks like, and how we move forward as a nation to ensure that our critical infrastructure, such as our bridges and other things, are paid for. We need that as a country. It really comes down to the industry as a whole to educate members of congress and get their feedback and allow the voice of the transportation industry to be heard. And, when they’re heard, together their voices speak extremely loud. I think that is the missing link right now within the transportation community. They are not speaking with one voice, and they are not speaking loudly enough. They’re spending a tremendous amount of money, but that voice is not a consistent voice — it does not have a consistent message — and I think that is an area that must be addressed within the community.
Chisholm:What do you think about public-private partnerships (P3s) as a source of funding?
Shuler: I think that’s a great avenue and an area that some states are obviously investing in, but it needs to be a stronger point of emphasis. That, in itself, is what I mean about educating members of Congress —there’s not a handful who even understand what public-private partnerships mean, what that investment looks like, how the funding process goes and how the maintenance and upkeep over a longer period of time would look. That’s an area of interest and stress that should be communicated to lawmakers to give them a better understanding of what it means and how their constituents’ needs can be met as well. That’s a huge area and something I completely support and we need to do more of.
Chisholm: Let’s move from teamwork in Congress (or lack thereof) and go to teamwork in the NFL.
Shuler: I think the great thing about teamwork in the NFL is you are all working together — offensively, defensively, special teams — toward the common goal, and that’s to win the next game. You want to put together a stretch of several wins to make the playoffs and ultimately to go to the Super Bowl and win. So, the common goal and the common theme for all of the teams in the league is to win as many games as possible to put you in a situation where you’re playing in the Super Bowl.
That’s what’s so dysfunctional about Washington — that members of Congress and senators have never figured out that we’re all playing for the same team, and that’s the United States of America. Too often, they’re playing for their own political parties. Moving forward, we need to make sure we’re getting people elected to Congress and the Senate that are focusing on the country first, and not their party. That’s what I tried to stress to people when I was in office —it’s all about winning for America, not your political party. It may not be the right vision for your party, but if it’s the right vision for America, that’s the direction we need to go. That is the great thing about athletics —there is a common goal that everyone is working toward. Unfortunately, I don’t think we have the overall leadership to gain that type of commitment from the individual members of Congress — that the focus is America, not the political parties. The political parties and the gamesmanship that they’re playing far exceeds what the focus should be on —America and its people
Chisholm: Often there are individuals on football teams who are more concerned with their own egos and/or contracts instead of focusing on the real purpose of the team. And that is what is happening in Congress —people with ultra conservative or liberal views are not working together toward a common goal as a team.
Shuler: That’s exactly right. I have some close friends who are tea party members and others who are extreme liberals, and they are not willing to meet in the middle or have a conversation. Their views are such polar opposites that neither side is willing to compromise. That is a big problem.
Shortly after this interview with Heath, the U.S. government partially shut down on Oct. 1, 2013, and 800,000 federal workers were furloughed. From October 11 to 14, a bipartisan group of senators worked on a bill to reopen government and avoid default. On Oct. 16, the senate majority and minority leaders announced they had come to a deal to temporarily halt the government shutdown until Jan. 15, 2014, and extend the debt limit until Feb. 7, 2014. The proposal passed through both the House and Senate shortly before midnight, and President Obama signed the deal into law on Oct. 17, shortly after midnight.
I asked Heath if he thought this was a good sign that Congress could work more like a team, and this was his response:
Shuler: I wish I could tell you that it gave me confidence that they were going to work more like a team, but it seems more at this point that Congress is still only operating in crisis mode —when there is a difficult task at hand, something with very large impact, you’ll start seeing them work and come to short-term conclusions. The most difficult thing to do is to come up with long-term solutions and I don’t think this Congress and administration are willing to work together. That makes it difficult for planning and any long-term solutions for the government.
Chisholm: Do you know of any updates on the transportation bill?
Shuler: No, I don’t have any updates on that. We have a short transportation bill, but chairman Shuster will continue to work across party lines. If there’s someone in Congress who can work across the political spectrum, it is certainly chairman Shuster with the House. I expect big things from him. But in 2014, there is going to be little to no activity going forward for the simple reason that so many people are going to be in campaign mode. There is going to be less and less time spent in Washington and more time spent in their districts starting in July. Once August hits, they will be almost completely in their districts, running the campaigns for the midterm elections.
Chisholm: Do you see any of the midterm elections offering any hope of positive change in Congress?
Shuler: One of the biggest negatives is that many of the moderates or members who have been willing to work together are retiring. For example, in North Carolina you have Mike McIntyre from the Wilmington area (7th district) announcing his retirement. He was a Blue Dog and able to work across the political spectrum. Most likely he will be replaced by one extreme or the other, because the extremes are winning the primaries and you’re not going to have someone who is going to compromise easily with the opposing party. It’s difficult going forward. Jim Matheson of Utah is another example. He’s been one of the leaders of the Blue Dogs, but also is retiring.
The Republicans are in the same situation. There are fewer and fewer of them willing to cross the political spectrum, which leads to more extremes. It’s not a good situation to be in as a country because we relied so heavily on the moderates to make significant improvements, politically speaking, by bringing the different parties together. The moderate members are leaving, and that’s very, very frustrating.
Chisholm: Yes, it is. When do we see change?
Shuler: You know, I think it is going to be some time before we see any major changes, unfortunately. I wish I could say we would see changes quickly, but I don’t foresee it any time soon. It starts from the top down, so maybe the next administration will be able to help. But it’s not going to be any time soon.
Heath Shuler serves as senior vice president of federal affairs for Duke Energy. He oversees Duke Energy’s Washington, D.C., office and is responsible for structuring and steering a successful government relations program for the company’s diverse businesses. In addition, Shuler works with national trade associations representing the electric, natural gas and nuclear energy industries.
Shuler previously served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District. He served as chair of the House Small Business Subcommittee on Rural and Urban Entrepreneurship during the 110th and 111th Congresses. Before being elected to Congress in 2007, he founded a real estate company in eastern Tennessee that grew into one of the largest in the region. Prior to that, he played quarterback in the NFL.
Born and raised in North Carolina, Shuler earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology and played football at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
He currently serves on the boards of directors of Big Brothers Big Sisters and Friends of the Smokies, a nonprofit organization to help protect and maintain the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He has served as a board member of the Boys and Girls Club of America and as a national spokesperson for CHARACTER COUNTS!, a character education program reaching youth through affiliated schools, agencies and organizations. Shuler has also served as member of the University of Tennessee Athletic Board.
Kelley Chisholm is an FMI alumna.