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Brad Miller's North Carolina Race Tests Progressives' Fundraising Mettle

Brad Miller Democratic Fundraising

First Posted: 12/23/11 10:48 AM ET Updated: 01/04/12 02:26 PM ET

The first major test of the activist progressive fundraising machine for the 2012 elections is developing in North Carolina, where a Republican-engineered redistricting plan will likely pit Democratic Reps. Brad Miller and David Price against each other.

If it survives a civil rights challenge, the redistricting plan would radically change the entire North Carolina political map, with Miller's seat in the 13th District a prime target. Miller and Price have similar, fairly liberal voting records, rely on campaign money from the same interest groups -- unions and lawyers -- and live less than 20 miles from each other. But some believe there's a reason Miller was targeted: his work to reform Wall Street.

"It's a terrible redistricting map and it's certainly not fair to Brad," Price said. "They really went after him."

The Republican redistricting plan would dramatically change the North Carolina political map, likely shifting the House delegation from the current mix of 7 Democrats and 6 Republicans to one with just 3 Democrats and 10 Republicans. About half of the state's African American population -- 21.5 percent of the state -- would be situated in just three districts, making a successful civil rights challenge to the redistricting a very real possibility.

Neither Miller nor Price are eager to criticize each other before the 2012 map is finalized. But important differences do exist in their voting records. Miller's seven years of work on banking reform and consumer protection have endeared him to progressive activists. Price, meanwhile, was a founding member of the Democratic Leadership Council, the most prominent centrist faction of the Democratic Party, and he previously served as a member of the New Democrat coalition, a group closely attuned to the interests of business executives and prominent corporate shareholders.

Price made a hard political left-turn after the Democratic wave election of 2006, leaving the New Democrats behind and voting as a robust progressive ever since. Meanwhile, Miller's devotion to financial reform, and mortgage issues in particular, have had a tremendous legislative impact.

"He basically came to Congress with fair mortgage lending as one of his key issues," said Michael Calhoun, president of the Center for Responsible Lending, a leading consumer protection non-profit. "He stays on top of these issues and puts the time in to pursue them and know them in-depth."

In 2004, Miller introduced a bill to curb the issuance of abusive subprime mortgages -- legislation which eventually became the mortgage reform chapter of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, passed in 2010.

"He's a very effective legislator," said House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.). "He's very thoughtful, he's not flamboyant, but .. if Tom DeLay and the Republicans hadn't blocked him, he could have prevented the crisis."

In 2009, Miller introduced a bill to create a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency, an idea launched by consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren. The core of Miller's legislation would ultimately become law as yet another section of Dodd-Frank, establishing the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or CFPB.

"I have enormous admiration for Brad," Warren told HuffPost. "He is smart, he is thoughtful, he is effective, he works his tail off, and nobody owns him."

Warren aggressively questioned both Republicans and Democrats alike as chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel for the bank bailout, and she was the clear front-runner for the post CFPB Director once Dodd-Frank passed. But President Obama bypassed her for the position amid fears of an ugly Senate confirmation battle and complaints from Wall Street campaign contributors, and she is now running to unseat Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), with major support from grassroots progressive donor groups.

Warren is not the only one whose efforts to take on banks have led to trouble. While most Democrats in North Carolina would suffer some kind of setback from the Republican redistricting effort, Miller's work to defend consumers from predatory banks has made him a top target for the financial establishment. Anti-Miller sentiment has filtered through many of the state's business organizations (which include Wall Street bankers), lawyer groups (which have big bank clients), and political parties (which raise money from all three). North Carolina is a major banking state, with the city of Charlotte home to Bank of America and previously headquarters of Wachovia, which was acquired by Wells Fargo after failing in 2008.

That's a particularly big problem for Miller's fundraising efforts. In the 2006 cycle, Miller raised $1.8 million for his reelection bid. By 2008, when banks realized his mortgage reform positions weren't mere political posturing, that total plunged to $950,000. In 2010, he took in just $930,000. That trend is looking even worse heading into 2012, with the election map still not settled.

"The political action committees that at this point in the cycle would have given to me -- not out of true affection, but because I was an incumbent likely to win again -- that fundraising has not happened," Miller told HuffPost.

In contrast, Price claims his fundraising has been generally unaffected by the potential primary. "It's picked up," Price said. "I don't think the mix has changed much."

Price is no stranger to heavyweight political bouts in North Carolina. In 1984, he worked as an aide to then-Gov. Jim Hunt (D) when he challenged Republican Jesse Helms, a notorious opponent of civil rights, for his Senate seat. At the time, the contest was the single most expensive Senate race in history. Hunt narrowly lost the race.

"The way I felt on election night of '84 when i was watching Jim Hunt go down -- given my own history, given what we fought for -- all of that was very much part of my decision to run for office," Price told HuffPost.

Price went on to be a congressional warrior for education, a major perennial issue in the state. His two top career donors are Duke University, where he once taught American Politics, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But Price's generally progressive voting record has not always overlapped with Miller's chief strength in financial reform. Price did help shepherd through a bill to improve consumer disclosures on home equity loans in 1986, but by the 1990s, he had joined a bipartisan congressional consensus to deregulate much of the financial industry. Price backed a 1999 bill pushed by future bailout baron Citibank allowing big banks to acquire securities firms and insurance companies. The next year, he voted for legislation that entirely deregulated the market for derivatives -- the same market that would eventually bring down insurance giant AIG.

Miller wouldn't begin his congressional career until 2004. But in 2005, Price backed a Bush administration-approved bill making it far more difficult for financially embattled consumers to file for bankruptcy. Miller opposed the bill, which economists from the New York Fed would eventually blame for forcing 200,00 foreclosures.

Few progressive fundraisers are eager to publicly criticize Price. But the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, an influential liberal grassroots organization, has made Miller's reelection a top priority for 2012, raising over $10,000 for him thus far.

"Re-electing Reps. Brad Miller and Donna Edwards (D-Md.) will be a top progressive priority of 2012. Like Elizabeth Warren, Brad Miller is a bold fighter for holding Wall Street accountable, and in this era of Occupy Wall Street ascendency we absolutely cannot afford to lose his voice in Congress," said PCCC co-founder Adam Green.

Miller will need money early to overcome his current polling deficit against Price. While a full one-third of Miller's current 13th district would become part of Price's 4th district under the Republican plan, Price still enjoys a substantial lead, according to a poll commissioned by his campaign -- 46 percent to Miller's 25 percent, with 29 percent undecided.

That high proportion of undecided voters, coupled with Price's less-than-50-percent haul in his own poll, make him a vulnerable front-runner. But Miller will need more than the backing of the PCCC to get past the primary. And while other progressive groups are offering moral support, they have yet to offer cash.

"DFA is just beginning to look at our candidate endorsements for 2012, and Brad Miller is at the top of the list of candidates likely to receive DFA support next year," said Charles Chamberlain, political director of Democracy for America, a group founded by liberal luminary Howard Dean.

Others are simply waiting out the primary process altogether. MoveOn.org doesn't expect to put money into the race until the redistricting has been finalized, with a spokesperson telling Huffpost: "We are looking into the primary race in North Carolina but haven't made any final decisions yet." And if Democrats are fortunate and a civil rights challenge is successful, Miller and Price won't ultimately face off at all. In the meantime, however, wooing campaign donors and voter outreach are difficult.

"Other than not knowing where to run or when, it's very easy to plan the campaign," joked Miller.

CORRECTION: This article originally described Sen. Scott Brown as a Democrat. He is, in fact, a Republican.

This article has also been updated to clarify that MoveOn is watching the North Carolina primary race, but has not made any decisions as yet.

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