Price, 64, is reserved, quiet and polite in his demeanor. There is nothing whimsical about him; sturdy, solid, concrete come to mind. “I guess I can have one beer,” he reasons to no one in particular when the waiter arrives to take our drink order. He asks for a Dos Equis.
The congressman, who has recently been assigned to co-chair the 2008 Nominating Calendar Commission, a panel that will consider changes to the Democratic Party primary calendar, has a disheveled look: silky snow-white hair strewn about in an I-read-too-much sort of way. Large oval tortoise-shell glasses drop to his cheekbones. His skin is dead-of-winter pale.
But again, the Mexican setting seems all wrong. As we’re crunching away on tortilla chips and salsa, I can’t help but think how much more apropos it would be to be in a diner in a college town, drinking coffee and eating sandwiches and yellow cake with frosting.
Many of the written descriptions of Price ring true. “Professorial” is a word that often comes to mind; he taught at Yale and Duke universities from the late ‘60s to the mid-‘80s. “Oh, I suppose it’s accurate,” he says of the label. “I don’t know what that means exactly.”
Price came to Congress in 1986, but lost his seat in 1994, regaining it in 1996.
With a deep, scratchy voice, the lawmaker speaks with a faint Southern accent, saying things like “Mah district.” If anyone epitomizes the 4th Congressional District of North Carolina, it’s Price. Urban legend has it that there are more people with doctorates in his district than in any other. The cities he represents include three large universities — Duke, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and North Carolina Central University — and many intellectuals. Another bit of folklore is that Price’s is among the top five offices that receives the most constituent mail.
With his shoulders hunched slightly forward, he dunks a chip into the salsa with abandon, albeit not recklessly. “What’s new is the updating in light of the Bush administration budget chapter,” Price is saying, trying to engage his dinner companions in a discussion about the third edition of his 1992 book The Congressional Experience. “We’ve had a huge reversal in budget, much of it avoidable.” He says there is a new section in his book on Republican tactics.
Suddenly the lights in the restaurant dim — ambience adjustment as opposed to faulty wiring. Price doesn’t seem to notice. “This isn’t what the two parties have historically done to each other,” he says. “Republicans seem to want to govern from the R side alone, and we’re about to see how far they can take that.”
With that, Price dips another chip into the salsa, and it’s time to order the main course. With a swift look at the menu, he chooses the shredded beef enchilada platter with beans and rice. Price is familiar with the restaurant — two years ago his daughter was just out of college and interning for Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.). Once a week they’d meet here for dinner.
Getting back to the subject of his book, he says, “It’s not a plain-vanilla book. It’s a book with a point of view, but I hope it’s written from a standpoint that reflects my political-science background. It’s not just for people who share my viewpoint.”
He sifts through many layers of thought. At the same time, he moves the yellow rice around on his plate, mixing things around, completely at ease with the complicated platter. At one point he takes the salsa from the center of the table and dumps more onto his place, and moves that around as well.
Asked if he’s enjoying his meal, he says, “Standard Mexican fare.”
Price doesn’t seem overly picky about his food — lunch is either a tuna salad sandwich in the cloak room or a trip to the members’ buffet. But as it turns out he does care a little bit: “I’m not a huge fan of the House Dining Room. It’s very crowded. They do the best they can.
“I like good food. I love seafood, oysters, clams, scallops, especially oysters. Fried chicken, I like barbecue, but I’m a little saturated with it from the campaign trail.”
Price is no braggart. Asked if he likes to cook, he says, “Very modestly. I’m very good at warming up soup.” He shovels in a forkful of beans.
Born in the small mountain town of Erwin, Tenn., Price grew up in a family that voted Republican. He explains that he was one of those “young people” who went off to college in the ‘50s and ‘60s when the civil rights movement was sweeping across the South. It was in that time period that Price did some soul searching. “As I was exposed to the wider world, I gradually discovered by conviction that I was a Democratic,” he says. “The Democratic Party seemed to be the party that was taking on the issues of the day.”
During his senior year at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Price became president of the Baptist Student Union. The group, along with other campus religious organizations on campus, picketed theaters and restaurants to integrate them. “It had a profound influence on me,” he says. “I would say that my religious, political and social views were broadened by that experience. The importance of political involvement was underscored.”
In 2005, Price says that the political and religious landscape is more skewed than it should be to the religious right. “There’s a legitimate discussion to be had as to what direction our traditions and values point us,” he says. “Nobody has a monopoly on our religious traditions.”
At this point, Price is asked specifically if he thinks President Bush has gone too far with mixing religion and politics. “I’m not going to say that,” says Price. “I wouldn’t presume to say that.” But then he adds: “The faith-based initiative? George Bush didn’t invent that.”
Price’s plate of messy, runny food is now perfectly clean. He wipes his mouth with a white napkin. He’s reflecting on the three years he spent at Yale Divinity School in the early ‘60s, when he thought he wanted to be a minister: “That experience convinced me that religion wasn’t just personal, that it had a social dimension.”
Instead of going on to be ordained, he entered a Ph.D. program at Yale University in political science. Asked what his GPA was in college, Price can’t recall. “I had a good record,” he says, pursing his lips into a small smile, but “not straight A’s by any means.”
How hard a professor was he at Duke?
“I was a reasonably tough grader,” he says. “I think they would say my courses had a reputation for being demanding — more the workload, not the grading. I wanted them to read a lot and come to class prepared.”
The same appears to be true for the aides he employs. “Staff members need to be on the lookout for initiative,” he says, explaining that office meetings often give off a college seminar vibe. “I value lively discussion among staff. None of us need staff that simply tell us what we want to hear.”