The Rebel Democrat Gunning for Pelosi

Rep. Heath Shuler is determined to unseat Nancy Pelosi as the top Democrat in the House. The former NFL quarterback tells Lloyd Grove why she must go.

11.16.10 11:14 PM ET

Just how quixotic is Rep. Heath Shuler’s bid to unseat Nancy Pelosi as the top Democrat in the House?

Even his own son thinks he can’t win.

“My son, Navy, is 9, so he doesn’t think I can win, because he’s heard me having these conversations,” the two-term conservative Democrat from North Carolina told me Tuesday afternoon, on the eve of Wednesday’s leadership contest in the party caucus. “But my little girl”—6-year-old Island—“she thinks Daddy can always win. That’s always good to know.”

The 38-year-old Shuler, a former NFL quarterback, added: “Look, I’m a competitor. I hate losing. But I told my kids that even when sometimes losing is inevitable, it’s more important to stand up for what you believe in and do the right thing.”

In Shuler’s mind, the right thing is to stand up for what’s left of his beloved Blue Dog Democrat Coalition—whose ranks were horrifically depleted in the 2010 midterm election, with 28 of its 54 members losing their races. Shuler, who serves as whip of the Blue Dogs, kept his seat with a robust 54 percent, largely because he voted against Pelosi and President Obama on every major piece of legislation that hit the floor, from stimulus to health care to cap and trade.

Along with Shuler’s defiant campaign for minority leader, various Blue Dogs have been arguing within the caucus that Pelosi has accumulated too much power; they’re attempting to relieve her of the privilege of appointing her own handpicked lieutenants to fill positions down the leadership ladder. Their message: Unless House Democrats take the Blue Dogs’ center-right positions into account, the party is doomed.

“We don’t need to give any one person as much as power as we obviously have,” Shuler said. “It’s been a very small group that’s made a lot of the decisions. I think it would be really important to open it up to the entire caucus.”

“‘When you’ve lost significantly, you’re replaced.’ I told [Pelosi] that. That was my analogy that I used.”

Two days after the disastrous tidal-wave election in which Republicans took the House majority, many assumed Speaker Pelosi would gracefully pass into oblivion. But Shuler was worried that she wouldn’t go quietly. He dialed her private number, got her on the phone, and advised her to step down.

“It was the worst loss by Democrats in the House in almost a century,” he said. “The Thursday right after the election, I started to realize pretty quickly she was going to run, and I called her directly on the phone—my staff didn’t know I called. I said, ‘look, I’ve been in the same situation when I played in the NFL. When you’ve lost significantly, you’re replaced.’ I told her that. That was my analogy that I used.”

Shuler knows whereof he speaks, having spent much of the 1990s playing badly below expectations for the Washington Redskins (on which he was ultimately benched), the New Orleans Saints, and the Oakland Raiders before retiring with a foot injury and entering the real-estate business. In 2004, ESPN awarded him the dubious distinction of 17th biggest “sports flop” of the previous quarter century.

Of course—to paraphrase the late, great Finley Peter Dunne—politics ain’t football. And Pelosi partisans have been viciously dismissive of Shuler, with Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy of Ohio telling The Huffington Post that he’s “incapable” of leading House Democrats, and is more knowledgeable about football than politics.

“That kind of reiterates my point,” Shuler argued. “Even though I didn’t play very well, I accepted other responsibilities of being the backup. And I was still a team player. But it’s not about me.”

House Republicans have been watching Shuler’s campaign against the despised Pelosi with varying degrees of satisfaction. “The reaction is ‘whatever,’” a GOP aide told me. “Sometimes it seems that, like they used to say about Gerald Ford, Heath Shuler played football too long without a helmet.”

But Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who is all but certain to be elected Majority Whip in Wednesday’s Republican balloting, cheered Shuler’s exertions. “I think he’s very passionate—this is from the heart,” McCarthy told me. “I think he feels that somebody’s got to speak up, and I bet a lot of the Democrats are wishing him well.”

In recent days, Shuler has been commiserating with defeated moderates who have applauded his race. Rep. Brad Ellsworth, the defeated Democrat from Indiana’s 8th Congressional District, said: “Heath is being gutsy. It’s the Blue Dog brand.”

“I wish I could be here to vote for him,” said Gene Taylor of Mississippi, another of the defeated Blue Dogs. “I think Pelosi definitely hurt us,” added Taylor, who showed up in the Speaker’s Lobby Tuesday afternoon wearing a loser’s-casual brown leather jacket. “There really is a cultural difference in leadership [between Republicans and Democrats]. On the Republican side, as much as I dislike Gingrich—and I do—when that guy realized that he was a drag on his party, he walked away. Tom DeLay, when he realized he was a drag on his party, he walked away. Dick Armey, when he realized he was a drag on his party, he walked away. Somehow the Democratic leadership didn’t get that memo.”

But Pelosi has her defenders. As the Democratic caucus met in private in the basement of the Capitol, in a session that ranged from bittersweet partings to primal screams, six-term congresswoman Jan Schakowsky of Illinois argued that Shuler’s campaign is counterproductive and unrealistic. “Nancy Pelosi has met with every possible grouping within the caucus for hours on end, from morning to night,” Schakowsky said. “It’s not as if she doesn’t listen or she doesn’t respond or that her proposals don’t reflect the views in the caucus. But I certainly think the message is sent. I don’t know that [the Blue Dogs] had to stage this. This was about the economy, stupid.” Schankowsky added: “We are going into an environment, for the next two years, where the face of the Democratic Party is Barack Obama. It’s not going to be  Nancy Pelosi. It’s not going to be  Harry Reid.”

And, unless the Earth is knocked off its axis, it’s not going to be Heath Shuler—who claims not even to have a clue how many votes he’ll get.

“I don’t count votes. I’m not whipping votes. I’m not calling for votes,” he said. “I can add and subtract pretty well. I realize it’s not a battle that can be won—unless the caucus realizes that we do have to go in a different direction.”

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for The Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.