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An Interview with North Carolina Representative David Price

David Price is the U.S. Representative from North Carolina’s Fourth District. After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he achieved a Bachelor of Divinity and a Ph.D. in Political Science from Yale in 1964 and 1969, respectively. Price then taught at Yale until 1973, at which point he moved back south to work in state-level politics and teach at Duke University. He has represented the Fourth District both from 1987 to 1995 and since 1997. Price currently serves as a member of the House Budget Committee, as Co-Chairman of the House Democracy Partnership, and as Chairman of the Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development within the House Committee on Appropriations. 

The Politic: First off, I was wondering what it was like to be getting involved in politics at UNC and at Yale during the Civil Rights Era, and starting your political career then. 

Representative Price: I came from a small town in East Tennessee, which was a very nurturing place, a good place to grow up, but it certainly wasn’t at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement or other national currents. It was kind of an insulated, isolated community, in retrospect. Good place to grow up, but I had a lot to be exposed to and to learn as I went off to college. I went to a junior college at first, Mars Hill up in the mountains of Western North Carolina, and then transferred to UNC—got a nice scholarship—and transferred to UNC-Chapel Hill as a junior. 

And it was, this was in the fall of ’59, and the Civil Rights Movement of course was underway and [so were] the effects in Chapel Hill, which was—despite its liberal reputation—was a segregated, Southern small town in many respects. Those currents [of the Civil Rights Movement] certainly had affected Chapel Hill, so what went on off the campus was just as important as the intellectual excitement of what I encountered in the classroom, which was also considerable, I mean it was a period of great growth and development for me personally. I began to form my own political identity; my religious ideas, social ideas were shaped. I feel like I owe a great deal to that period of exposure. 

As I said yesterday in the Budget Committee, one of the things in terms of my religious viewpoints was to come—with the help of some mentors—to come to understand the social dimensions of our religious traditions, prophetic dimensions. But then more generally, to understand that we needed to transcend just a focus on individual morality and self-reliance and come to a more communal understanding of what kind of community we wanted to be, what kind of country we wanted to be, and what that required. And it certainly required politics and government. A kind of negative attitude about government, which of course is kind of in the drinking water in this country, we have these periods especially of—I call it a kind of anti-federalist sentiment—popping up, it’s a constant kind of distrust of political power. But there are times when you need political power, there are times when you need politics and need government, and certainly the Civil Rights Movement and doing away with all the edifice of discrimination was one of those times. 

So when I’m asked how and when I got into politics, it’s not so much when I first ran for Congress or the first campaigns I got involved in (which is of course part of the answer), but the sensitizing of me to politics and to government, and the realization that if I cared about the kind of community I was going to live in, probably the rest of my life I would need to be involved in these things. That realization I date from that period in Chapel Hill, and then the years immediately following, when I went off to Yale to go to divinity school. 

You mentioned that Chapel Hill was just a very small, segregated Southern town. Being kind of based there now, do you feel that you’ve watched a transformation? 

Oh goodness, yes. Chapel Hill still has some issues with housing and with the achievement gap in the schools, you know there are lots of issues that still haven’t been resolved. But in terms of the kind of legal segregation that occurred and discrimination that occurred. 

Chapel Hill was one of the communities in the South where protests first arose. The election of Howard Lee as the first African American mayor in the South was a landmark which occurred very soon after I went off to graduate school. But the kind of picketing and the efforts led by the religious groups when I was there—and I was President of one of those religious groups—those efforts in the early ’60s…with the theaters and the restaurants…Chapel Hill was one of the earlier communities to respond in a positive way to those pressures. 

My kids of course grew up there. When I came back to the region to teach at Duke in ’73, we lived in Chapel Hill, have ever since. So my kids are interested in this. We say there was one restaurant in the whole town that served all people, it was an underground pub called the Rathskeller, and that’s hard to feature in retrospect, but it was absolutely the truth.  

I was also curious about what it was like to be teaching at Yale and at Duke and studying Congress from the outside, and then transitioning to actually running for Congress. 

That’s the way to describe, I guess, the journey I took. 

I didn’t take a single political science course as an undergraduate. I had started out to be an engineer, [then] figured out that wasn’t probably going to be my career. I actually kept with enough mathematics to have a math double major, but I got into history at Chapel Hill and at Yale Divinity School, then felt like I was finally getting a liberal arts education in a more complete way. I began to take a little political science and related subjects, mixed them in with my divinity school curriculum, and then transferred into the Ph.D. program in political science in 1964. 

By then I had figured out I had some very practical interests in politics, and the way I acted on that was not only to campaign for Lyndon Johnson (that was my first election when I could vote and also when I did some poll work in the precincts). But I also decided I wanted to go to Washington for a summer. It turned out I did that for five summers in a row. It wasn’t then called an internship, but that’s the way it started out and then it became a recurring staff position in Senator Bob Bartlett’s office. He was the first senator from Alaska, he’d been the delegate, the father of statehood. His statue is over here—I’m the only member of Congress [who sees his] boss’s statue […] every day. 

I had no particular connection with Alaska. In fact, I had no political connections with Tennessee or North Carolina, my two home states, so I just walked the halls. He had hired a Yale student at some point, and they hired me. I hit it off with that office, I actually ended up writing my dissertation on the Senate out of that office, interviewed a third of the Senate. 

But I just really liked what I was doing, and was intrigued by it. And I guess at that point the thought did dawn that maybe I would run for office someday myself, but I certainly didn’t see [myself] serving in Congress, that would not have struck me as a realistic aspiration. And I thought, I should have a satisfying career, whatever it worked out in politics, so I finished my Ph.D., taught at Yale for a few additional years, got my wife elected to the city council. We did kind of set a pattern of political involvement then. And then we got this offer at Duke to help start the Sanford School of Public Policy and take a political science appointment. So in ’73 we moved to North Carolina. 

Then I worked in the Jimmy Carter campaign in the state, and the pattern was pretty well established, to be politically active. The real culmination of that came in 1984 when I took a leave from Duke at [North Carolina Governor] Jim Hunt’s request and was full-time Chairman of the state Democratic Party during the landmark Hunt-Helms race of ’84. And it was at that point that I got some degree of prominence in terms of my role in the state, and began to think I might run. And we of course got wiped out politically that year. Hunt lost to Helms, we lost the governor’s race, we lost three congressional seats. It was then that I made a fairly quick decision to try to recapture one of those seats. So that’s when I ran and those were the circumstances, but the background was a kind of gradual involvement, in especially party politics in the state over several years. 

What was it like to be moving from having some window into local politics in Connecticut versus then North Carolina politics? 

I always felt more familiar with the politics of the mid-South. My wife ran as a reform Democrat in an interesting race in Connecticut, she had to beat a “machine Democrat,” as we called them, and a Republican to get on the city council. But that was the time when the Black Panther Trial was going on, and the more familiar politics of the Civil Rights Era [were] getting really complicated. So when Albert Gore was about to make what turned out to be his last stand as a Tennessee senator, it struck me, why don’t I go back to my home state and try to help with that? So we made some contacts and were welcomed onboard, so we went to Nashville with our six-month-old baby in 1970 and launched into the Gore campaign. 

That was more familiar, that kind of had the feel, because I’m convinced to this day that the real issue in Gore’s campaign was civil rights. That was not always the spoken issue, it was the Vietnam War, lots of things. But he had taken a stand against two Nixon Supreme Court nominees, and they were very questionable on questions of racial equality and racial justice. That was the underlying issue in that race. So in that sense it was all too familiar. 

So the real transition wasn’t so much from Connecticut to North Carolina, North Carolina felt like home. The transition was from academic life to political life. And there too it wasn’t as jarring as you might think: I had that service in the Senate, I had written a dissertation about the Senate and about policymaking in the Senate, I taught about Congress and taught about Congress, I think, in a pretty accessible way that had a lot to do with policymaking. So I actually knew a good bit about Congress when I got elected to Congress. 

That didn’t mean I wore my academic connections on my sleeve, necessarily. We did a poll though, and I talk about this in my book, we did a poll in the middle of that campaign. We said, let’s just test what people think of electing an academic to Congress. We asked a question, do you think teaching about Congress, researching about Congress, is good preparation for serving in Congress? And it turns out people thought yes, that was pretty good preparation, we didn’t necessarily assume that. Then they asked what they thought about Duke University—it turns out they thought a lot of Duke University, there too we weren’t sure. So anyway, we went from soft-pedaling the academic connection to actually cutting an ad with me writing at the blackboard. So that’s a good example of how polling can give you a good reality check. 

It was obviously a very different way of life, a very different pace. But, Congress was not unfamiliar territory to me, it wasn’t like I had a huge learning curve here. I had some ideas about how I wanted to operate my office, I had some ideas about how I wanted to operate as a legislator and what kind of initiatives I might want to take, how I would approach the committee selection process, the kind of expectations I would have of staff. [On] all of those things I was a little ahead of the curve. 

Are there a lot of differences serving in this Congress versus past sessions that you’ve served in? Any shifts that are really evident? 

Yes. And that’s a long, complicated subject. There are very insightful observers, like Norm Ornstein, Tom Mann, E.J. Dionne…there are observers among journalists as well political scientists who have commented on this, I think in very helpful ways. 

But the shift toward a very competitive party situation. When I first came here, there had been long decades of Democratic control. Of course, that ended: it ended in reality, the party shift occurred, but a shift in party styles and party behavior occurred. It’s often associated, quite rightly, I think, with the advent of Newt Gingrich as the Republican leader.

So, it became a more closely divided place, it became a more polarized place—and then, I think equally important, the Republican party in particular took a more extreme ideological course. And that occurred with Gingrich, but it also occurred later with the so-called Tea Party movement. 

So it’s both things, it’s close division, it’s polarization, the parties are more homogenous, and more divided, farther apart but more internally homogenous, and in particular the Republican party took a sharp right turn, or a libertarian turn. So all that has greatly affected not just the atmosphere in which we operate and the ease of doing cooperative ventures, but it really has had some lasting effects on how the institution functions. I think it’s promoted a kind of centralization of party operations, for example, especially under Gingrich, but also to some degree under Democrats. It’s a more regimented, more centralized operation now. 

That has been accompanied by some deterioration in the committees and the way they function, their relative role. You’ve had a challenge, and I wrote about this [in a column] called “The twilight of appropriations?”, the question being, under these polarized conditions, with these draconian budget resolutions that impose things like sequestration, how can a cooperative institutional process like appropriations continue to function? It’s a very good question, and we’ve patched it together, but it still is a good question. And whether some of the traditional strengths of the institution, constitutional strengths of the institution rooted in the power of the purse, how effectively those can be executed. 

So I’m giving you a rambling answer, but the answer is yes, the place has changed a great deal internally. Compared to most legislatures in the world, it’s still a place where an individual member can make a mark. It is still pretty fluid, in terms, sometimes, of the coalitions that form. But as Norm Ornstein says, we have come pretty close to developing a parliamentary style of politics without a parliamentary system. We still have a checks and balances system, we still have a system that at the end of the day requires cooperation between the parties, and sometimes that’s been hard to come by. 

So, that’s the basic change, I think, this change in a more sharply partisan, polarized direction, and that has had some lasting institutional effects. 

So the last question is, what advice do you have for college students, particularly who might be interested in politics? 

I’ve seen an interest among college students in my district, either in school in the district or living in the district. I’ve seen that interest wax and wane over the years. Right now, we had for the intern class […] over a hundred [applications]—that’s incredible, I mean the degree of interest, and of course the quality of the students that come here. 

It’s not just the level of interest, it’s also I think a real inclination toward some kind of public service, or an openness to that. So I’m hopeful about that, but I’m well aware that there are other trends that indicate a good deal of cynicism about government and public service. And so I think the institution has a job to do in terms of the kind of image we project, but also the work we do with our own staffs and with groups of students, the people who’ve brought their best our way, to give some positive sense of what we’re about. 

For a student, first of all I’d say be attentive to government and politics. But that’s a matter partly—hopefully—of the kind of education and exposure that people get in college, where they come to understand the importance of this, I know that doesn’t always happen. 

I would never say put all your eggs in the career basket of, especially, elective politics—figure out a satisfying and rewarding, worthwhile career that you want to pursue. But if politics is even in the back of your mind, you know you can put yourself in positions where you can be involved. You don’t have to be the top person. In fact, you probably need to be a team player, work in campaigns, work in activist movements in the local community. And then seize opportunities, when they come, to be a leader and to assume leadership. I think that’s the healthiest way that people come into elected office. Not just because they kind of airdropped in and decided this is something they want to do, or they’re solely just interested in their own power and their own career, but this arises organically out of involvement in the community and caring about issues and trying to have an impact. And then for some subset of people trying to have an impact, you know, elected office can be and should be an option. 

I do feel like that’s the way it worked for me… As I said, I date my real start of my significant political involvement to the kind of exposures I had as a young person in the Civil Rights years. I did have some success in thinking about where my political opportunities might lie and how I might put myself in the path of opportunities that might open up. And that’s been very rewarding, I never thought I would be in Congress for as long as I’ve been. In fact, when I was first elected—it was a close election, I had defeated an incumbent—the state Republican Chairman says, “Alright, the Fourth District’s just elected another one-term congressman.” I like to think about that [laughs], but it hasn’t turned out that way. 

I hope that new generations coming on will continue to see public service as honorable, interesting, challenging, and really uniquely so in a democracy. And so I don’t have any formula to give college students, but I surely do hope that the new generation of college students will not only have a lively interest in what’s going on here, but also see ways to be active participants. 

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