RALEIGH — Over the weekend, both Reps. Brad Miller and David Price attended Martin Luther King Jr. Day observances in Fayetteville, an area that neither Democratic congressman now represents.
But Miller and Price, two of the political war horses of progressive politics in the Triangle, may soon be on a collision course in Fayetteville, which is part of the newly aligned 4th District drawn up by the Republican legislature.
The potential for a Democratic primary in May between two old political allies is already fraying a friendship that reaches back decades. Miller has begun questioning whether Price is too cozy with corporations, and the Price camp has leaked a poll raising doubts about Miller's support.
Price, 71, a former Duke University political science professor who has represented the 4th District for all but one term since 1986, said he plans to seek re-election.
But Miller, 58, a Raleigh attorney who has represented the 13th district since 2002, has said he is seriously considering challenging Price.
Both Democrats say they hope a primary battle will prove unnecessary. They argue there is a strong case for the courts to overturn the redistricting plan passed last year, saying it unconstitutionally divides precincts, neighborhoods and areas of common interest while packing blacks into few districts.
But both have been preparing for the possibility that the courts will uphold the plan.
The legislature radically redrew the lines of the Triangle districts, changing the 13th into a strongly Republican district and making the 4th even more Democratic.
Miller, whose inside-the-Beltline apartment is now part of the 4th District, said 31 percent of the new 4th consists of people he already represents while 33 percent of the district's voters are currently in Price's district.
After the Republicans won control of the legislature in November 2010, Miller said it became apparent to him that he and Price would be thrown into the same district, and he sought a meeting with Price.
"Frankly, I thought, since he had dropped broad hints to me and to others that he only intended to serve one more term, that if we were in the same district, that he would retire a term earlier than he had intended," Miller said. "Obviously he does not intend to do that."
'A difficult situation'
Miller said he sought to have discussions with Price on the subject. He said they talked briefly on the House floor and had one telephone conversation.
Miller said he has been puzzled at Price's reluctance to engage on the subject.
"I've been surprised by that and disappointed," Miller said.
He said Price's attitude has made him less reluctant on a personal level to challenge an old political friend.
Price said he did not want to comment on his conversations with Miller, and hopes all this will become moot if the court overturns the redistricting plan. A three-judge panel is scheduled to meet on the case Friday.
"It's clearly a difficult situation in lots of respects," Price said.
The 4th District, which is already heavily Democratic, would become even more so under the Republican plan. (It voted 62 percent for Barack Obama in 2008, and under the new alignment would have voted 72 percent for Obama.) The politics of a Democratic primary would be particularly liberal-leaning.
Miller has begun making the case that his style of politics is more in tune with today's Democrats - particular his heavy involvement in issues such as financial industry reforms and consumer protection.
If he runs, it seems likely that Miller will portray Price as a '90s-style Clinton Democrat tied to the deregulation of business, while portraying himself as a reformer willing to clean up the economic mess brought about by the recession.
Miller readily ticks off differences on votes between himself and Price. Miller says he supports reducing the size of banks, while Price voted to deregulate banks; Miller voted against legislation making it harder for consumers to declare bankruptcy, while Price voted for it; Miller voted to allow Americans to bring in prescription drugs from Canada, while Price voted against it; Miller voted against extending the Bush tax cuts, while Price voted for it.
"There are differences between us on the issues," Miller said. "On economic issues, I think I am much more of a populist or a progressive. I have not been a 'New Democrat' who has sided with industry on some of these issues. For most of David's career in Congress, he has identified himself as a 'New Democrat.' He has been a 'New Democrat' and was a founding member of the Democratic Leadership Council." (The DLC was formed in 1985 by Democrats who thought the party had moved too far to the left. Bill Clinton was its most famous member. The group was dissolved last year.)
Miller, who has avidly courted the left-leaning blogosphere, has already won the backing of the blog, the Daily Kos, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and Blue America, a consortium of blogs.
A recent story in the blog Huffington Post also portrayed a Price-Miller primary as a similar test between old and new Democratic politics. The headline read: "Brad Miller's North Carolina Race Tests Progressives' Fundraising Mettle."
But Price says there is "a heavy, heavy overlap" in their records. And he seemed puzzled by the "New Democrat" label.
"I have a history as a financial services reformer," Price said. "I am not as heavily involved as he is because of his (financial services) committee.
"My progressive rating is quite high."
Attacking Price from the left will not be an easy task because Price actually has a more liberal voting record than Miller, according to the nonpartisan National Journal.
Price had a liberal rating of 90.2 in 2010, compared to Miller's liberal rating of 74.8, according to the National Journal. Price's rating was also more liberal in previous years as well, according to the National Journal.
Foreign policy-related issues account in large part for Price's higher progressive rating.
Price voted against reauthorization of the Patriot Act, while Miller supported it. Price opposed the National Defense Authorization Act, which extended the war on terror, including the use of military tribunals on terror suspects, while Miller supported a tough House version before switching to a less problematic version. Price has voted to normalize U.S. relations with Cuba, while Miller has not.
Price was also the first member of the North Carolina delegation to co-sponsor the Respect for Marriage act, which repeals the Defense of Marriage Act, which bars federal benefits to same sex couples.
Price leads in poll
A poll taken by Price's pollster Garin-Hart-Yang, leaked in October, showed Price leading Miller by 46 to 25 percent with 29 percent undecided.
Miller does not disagree with the poll, noting that Price is better known and has represented some parts of Wake County that are part of the new 4th district.
"I would certainly be the underdog," Miller said.
Both candidates cite certain advantages in a district that would extend from the Triangle down into Fayetteville. Miller grew up in Fayetteville, where he still has family. Price, who was an appropriations chairman until the Republicans took control a year ago, was instrumental in obtaining funding for Fort Bragg.
Many of Price's and Miller's supporters have backed both of them and would just as soon not have to make a choice. But if the courts uphold the redistricting plan, a Price-Miller primary seems increasingly likely.
"I would like to continue to serve in Congress," Miller said. "The only district I would realistically run is in the 4th. The district called the 13th does not include my political base and does not include my home."