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Aboard Carolina Cruiser, Rep. Edwards reinvents constituent service

CHEOAH RANGER DISTRICT — An avid hiker, Cal Wiederholt loves the majestic trees in the virgin forest named for Joyce Kilmer, the “Trees” poet.

But something about the towering and century-old tulip poplars nags at him. As much as Wiederholt loves them, he fears that other forest users are loving them to death.

Their roots have become more and more exposed over the years, he says, and the public’s ability to literally hug the poplars’ enormous trunks may be damaging them.

The outdoors lover — his email address is “mountainrapture@” — appealed to the rangers at Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest and Nantahala National Forest, then to the U.S. Forest Service headquarters in Asheville headquarters and even a federal office in Atlanta. No success, scarcely an ear. So when Wiederholt heard the news that his newly elected congressman was bringing his mobile office to his county, he showed up.

“He came to our Robbinsville stop and sat down with the congressman and brought an issue to his attention, and Chuck takes all of those meetings very seriously,” says Chris Burns, Edwards’s district director. “We’ve got two mantras that we live with every day. One is we want to be first in constituent services, so you see those signs all over the RV and all over our office. And the second thing is that we constantly talk about we want our team to have a culture of action.”

To serve Cal Wiederholt and his tulip poplar grievance, the “culture of action” meant a two-hour grind up switchbacks and along washboard dirt roads to the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest deep in the heart of Nantahala National Forest. Upon arrival, Edwards’s Carolina Cruiser and Burns’s Ford Explorer disgorge the congressman plus two field reps, senior caseworker (and RV driver) Lisa Wiggins and a reporter. They meet U.S. forest ranger Brian Browning, and Gary Kauffman, who serves as the botanist for all national forests in North Carolina. A half-mile hike up a narrow trail through the old-growth hardwood forest is rewarded by visits to two of the enormous hardwoods, reaching high into the forest.

“You have to remember, this root structure was created when it was a seedling and that was 100 to 200 or more years ago,” Kauffman says. “I can’t say that there isn’t some impact here (from foot traffic) but how it’s actually affecting these trees that are really old to begin with, I don’t think anybody knows.”

In the end, although nothing is really settled, it’s not lost on Wiederholt that his congressman invested a four-hour round trip plus an hour on the ground to learn more about the poplar trees and listen to his concerns.

“This is the best response I’ve gotten so far,” he says.

* * *

As he drove from Hendersonville to Franklin to meet the Carolina Cruiser for the first stop of the day, Burns described Edwards’s approach to the job, which he won last November after he upset the controversial incumbent, Madison Cawthorn, in the Republican primary.

Although Edwards knew nothing about Wiederholt or even the Joyce Kilmer forest, he does know that the 15-county 11th Congressional District contains almost a half million acres of public land, including Pisgah and Nantahala national forests, Smoky Mountain National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site and more.

“The National Park Service and the National Forest Service,” Burns says, “due to just the sheer amount of land that is incorporated in our district, the number of jobs that the national forest and national park systems employ and the amount of ancillary businesses and tourists that they bring in to support those businesses — you better believe it would be important to him because it is incredibly important his constituents.”

* * *

In downtown Franklin, the congressman’s constituent services team swings into action the minute the RV pulls up on Main Street at Franklin’s town hall.

Field rep Lake Silver pulls out a portable table and sets it up outside the RV doors. Wiggins, the office’s top military affairs caseworker, field rep Tommy Laughter and Burns mix with the 20 or so people who are already gathered. They take their names and the subject they want to talk about and create a lineup for Edwards. The process at every mobile-office visit is the same, down to how long each constituent gets to security to handing out six-ounce bottles of water. (The day the cruiser visited Franklin, town police Chief Devin Holland stood watch the entire time. There were no threats.)

In Franklin, 20 constituents met with Edwards personally, including five women advocating for a new Macon senior center, a 33-year-old Army veteran trying to get disability benefits, a young woman who favors abortion rights, and local Republican Party leaders who just wanted to meet him.

Edwards’s office christened the office-on-wheels the Carolina Cruiser after asking voters to suggest a nickname. Although Chuckwagon got more votes, Edwards thought cruiser sounded more dignified.

As far as Edwards knows, his is the only RV office among all 435 members of Congress. Part of the reason was the difficulty in getting the apparatus that polices Congress members’ spending to understand and approve the request.

“There was a great deal of ethics involvement,” Edwards told me on the two-hour ride from Franklin to the Cheoah Ranger District. “The biggest challenge was that I can’t buy the vehicle, I can only lease it. It’s considered an office. We had a very difficult time finding people — dealerships or banks — that would lease an RV because the residual value is largely unknown.”

Once aides did finally make an agreement, Congress’s ethics office combed the lease “from soup to nuts to make sure we were doing everything ethically, that we weren’t receiving any political favors and that we weren’t offering any political favors. It was quite a high set of hurdles to get through.”

* * *

As soon as he won office, Edwards says, he knew he wanted to first fix the constituent service piece of the job, which Cawthorn had left in shambles.

“The general opinion in the district that I was receiving while campaigning in all 15 counties is that the people just didn’t feel heard or represented,” he says. “And when I coupled that with the decision process and where to put offices, it occurred to me that this process that I’ve seen in the past — where I’ve seen congressmen lease office spaces around the district and pay to staff them — just wasn’t working. They weren’t capable of keeping them staffed and they were expecting people to find the congressional office usually in the dark backroom of a courthouse.

“I came up with the idea — let’s take our staff to the people — and quickly came up with the idea we need a mobile office to do that. It’s just been an out-of-the-park homerun.”

Edwards seems to be more press savvy and comfortable with reporters in his new job than he was during his three terms in the state Senate. He’s won the respect of the media, particularly in small towns where reporters and editors grew weary of the whack-a-mole nature of Cawthorn’s gaffes, public relations stunts and firearms misdemeanors.

“The media has treated us well,” Edwards says. “They recognize the value of it. People very much appreciate it. We got to see people today that I never would have seen otherwise. If I had put an office in the Macon County Courthouse, they would not have taken the time to find me.”

On two of the more controversial topics any Republican gets asked about, Edwards responds as if a quick sidestep has become second nature.

On Trump: “My focus is on being the best congressman that I can be for District 11. I’ll let people of the mountains decide who they want to endorse when they go to the ballot box.”

Abortion: “It’s not federal government’s business to write those laws. I’ve advocated all along that it should be left up to the states. I’ve supported that. I fought for that for years.”

Although he devotes time and energy to legislation, too, he’d rather talk about constituent service and the team that’s carrying it out.

“It is, in my opinion, unmatched by any office in Washington,” he says. “They are confident, competent, passionate and committed to serve and I couldn’t be more proud of each and every one of them.”

As one of many freshman, he’s no household name, nor is he a regular on Fox News, like his two most recent predecessors. He’s known for something far more prosaic but — when it comes to old growth poplars or a new senior center — arguably more important. He has rehabbed the 11th Congressional District’s functions and won respect for his accessibility.

“I hear that from the district, and from people around the country,” he says. “I mean, a lot of folks in D.C. have been watching what’s taken place.”