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By James Gao '24

On Jan. 19, PBS NewsHour host Judy Woodruff (Duke ’68) joined Rep. David Price (NC-04) to reflect on his career in public service after serving the district representing Durham for more than 30 years through an event organized by Polis: the Center for Politics.

Price has served North Carolina’s 4th district, which includes Duke and all of Durham County, since 1987. Before his election to Congress, he was a Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Duke, where he played an instrumental role in shaping the newly founded Sanford School of Public Policy. In Congress, Price serves on the House Appropriations Committee and chairs the Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development.

James Gao
James Gao '24

Woodruff and Price both had the difficult task of summarizing a career that spanned decades into an hour-long conversation, but they both addressed some of the most substantive aspects of his term in Congress. Going into the event, I expected a pleasant, feel-good conversation in the way that most retirement celebrations are – so I was surprised by the solemn tone that Price adopted early in the conversation. His demeanor matched the moment: he was leaving Congress at a pivotal time in history, with political polarization at an all-time high and the future of democratic elections at risk. As a Congressman, he had seen these anti-democratic forces firsthand, so his seriousness carried additional gravity.

Nonetheless, ever-present in Price’s reflections was a sense of reverence for the institution where he had served for so long. Although he acknowledged that evolving political dynamics had taken power away from Congress, he argued that a more influential legislature was necessary for a healthy democracy. He talked about external threats, like a polarized media ecosystem and conspiracy theories, but he also contended that even legislators need to have more regard for Congress. Even those who wanted to reform government need a level of respect for Congressional norms to succeed – what he labeled “institutional patriotism.” Price did not express blindness toward potential failures of Congressional procedure (for example, he endorsed filibuster reform), but maintained his steadfast belief in the power of the legislature to create change.

That optimistic undercurrent in Price’s musings reinforced my confidence in the future of the American government. Even though he acknowledged that it is “harder to [create political change]” in Congress today than it used to be, it is still “a place where an ambitious, entrepreneurial person can carve out a mark [on the world].” No matter how insurmountable the challenges American government faces today, a group of ambitious leaders can leverage legislative power to better the world. Price referenced the transformative political events of the 1960s and the lasting impact they left on his vision of politics. The generation of the late 2010s and early 2020s has experienced something similar, and I know that the upheaval created by the COVID-19 pandemic and increased political polarization will propel us to pursue leadership through public service as well.

Hearing Price talk about the importance of bipartisan cooperation and lively political discourse made me more appreciative of the experiences I’ve had within Sanford. My classmates, professors, and guest speakers have all opened my eyes to thoughts and viewpoints I would have never otherwise been able to hear. And much like Price, who said that Sanford was “where [my passion for politics] truly began,” I am grateful to be surrounded by a community that believes in the ability of politics and public policy to change lives.

James Gao is a sophomore majoring in Public Policy and Statistics. He is passionate about environmental economics, infrastructure and political media. He is currently researching the 2008 financial crisis as part of the American Predatory Lending Bass Connections team and serves as a Director’s Fellow at Polis.