Congressman David Price’s retirement highlights the conundrum of public service in the modern era

Congressman David Price’s retirement highlights the conundrum of public service in the modern era

- in Top Story, Weekly Briefing

Veteran Triangle-area Congressman David Price called it a career yesterday and revealed that he will not seek re-election in 2022.

The announcement signals the impending conclusion of an outstanding political career for an honorable public official who has served various iterations of the Fourth Congressional District with distinction for more than three decades.

As he noted in a statement yesterday, Price has now weathered 18 consecutive campaigns – 17 of them successful. That’s a lot of campaigns and a long doggone time to be in office. When Price first joined the 100th Congress in 1987, Barack Obama had not yet enrolled in law school and the U.S. House and Senate both included several members born in the first decade of the 20th century.

Interestingly, despite his extraordinary longevity (it appears that there may only be one or two U.S. House members from North Carolina who ever served longer) Price has never fit the profile of the classic career politician – a term that tends to conjure images of wheeler-dealer big city bosses and curmudgeonly rural eccentrics.

Throughout his career, the sober and professorial Price has remained a progressive policy wonk who avoided even the whiff of scandal at all times and earnestly sought to improve the lives of all Americans – particularly the most vulnerable. Never a grandstander or media hog like so many of his colleagues, Price worked mostly behind the scenes as a voice for sound public investments and center-left policies on issues ranging from foreign policy and environmental protection to civil rights and combating gun violence.

If there’s been a knock on Price, it’s been that he lacked charisma and oratory skills – the kind of readily evident fire in the belly that might have propelled him to greater political heights and, perhaps, brought home more political bacon for his home state.

If that’s the worst that can be said about a politician – particularly one who’s served more than a third of a century in the same office – that person is clearly doing a lot of things right.

Indeed, as Price looks forward to his retirement 15 months hence, it’s probably worth noting just how rare politicians like him are and how difficult modern circumstances make it for them to rise and have an impact. Among the factors:

The money chase – Unless a person enjoys extraordinary personal wealth, holding onto a seat in Congress in the modern era is often a never-ending money chase. For most modern politicians – especially those who aim to make a real splash and/or work their way up the ladder on Capitol Hill – raising boatloads of cash is a constant necessity.

While someone like Price, who developed solid name recognition and broad support in his district over a period of decades, could be spared from some of the worst aspects of the fundraising rat race, for many others, sitting in a boiler room throughout the early years of one’s term while cold calling supporters to beg for money is a huge part of the job.

A long, long ladder – Getting elected to Congress is obviously a significant accomplishment that’s alluring for obvious reasons to most politicians, but it’s also true that the competition in Washington is fierce and the pool deep.

While Price did work his way up to a significant post in the House Appropriations Committee and garnered many important accomplishments, it was a long, long slog.

For a new lawmaker taking office in 2023, the need to soberly bide his or her time till mid-century in order to attain a leadership position (and then, only when and if his or her party is in the majority) is an obvious and daunting prospect.

There is a long list of ex-members of Congress who, craving a position in which they could get actually something accomplished, abandoned Washington for a state government or private sector job.

Our divided times – And then there is the fractious, angry, crisis-besieged, social media-driven political world we inhabit. Anyone who serves in Congress in the present era is virtually assured of being tracked, trolled, pilloried, harangued and subjected to hateful personal attacks on a daily basis. This is doubly so if they aren’t a white, heterosexual, Christian male.

Despite all this, and somewhat amazingly, the list of would-be/wannabe replacements for David Price figures to be a long one. State Senator Wiley Nickel of Wake County, for instance, had already expressed an interest in filling a Triangle-area congressional seat of some sort months prior to yesterday’s announcement. Other potential candidates are sure to emerge in the days ahead – even as the redistricting/gerrymandering charade at the General Assembly proceeds in all its absurd, corrupt and confusing glory.

The bottom line: running for and serving in Congress may have a raft of obvious downsides and challenges – many of which have grown significantly worse in modern times – but the need for smart, dedicated and thick-skinned leaders has never been greater. Even if the current environment seems extremely unlikely to produce another David Price, North Carolina would do well to find someone with as many of the same qualities as possible.