In the North Carolina General Assembly, there is an unwritten rule about first-term lawmakers: They should be seen and not heard– at least, not too often.
Rep. Paul Miller doesn’t buy it.
“I think the rule should be freshmen should speak intelligently about whatever topics they choose,” says the Democrat from Durham’s 23rd district. Miller, who began his first two-year term in January, already has pushed one of his own top legislative priorities into law–no small feat for a newcomer. He’s impressed statewide consumer advocates with his principled stand on one of their key issues. And he has been named secretary of the legislature’s influential Black Caucus.
Legislative colleagues say Miller’s successes are due to his forthright approach.
“Paul is not afraid to let people know what he thinks,” says Democratic Rep. Jennifer Weiss, who represents District 63, which covers parts of Wake and Durham counties. “He recognizes he was put here to do a job, and he’s going to do it and not wait a certain period of time.”
Yet, ask the senior members of Durham’s three-person House delegation about Miller’s conduct and they use terms like “appropriate” to describe his demeanor. They credit their freshman colleague with accomplishing some goals without upsetting the balance of legislative etiquette.
This knack for obeying tradition just enough, while still pursuing his own agenda, has defined Miller’s fledgling political career.
At 41, the youngest African-American member of the House, he won his seat by upsetting 30-year veteran George Miller in last spring’s Democratic primary. Paul Miller ran an unconventional race, loaning himself the bulk of his campaign funds and relying on TV spots and a Web site, eschewing more traditional yard signs. His candidacy divided a powerhouse political action committee in Durham–the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People–and the election that ushered him into office was so botched, it prompted a state-level investigation and a housecleaning in the county elections headquarters.
In a decade of public life, Miller’s ambitions have frequently knocked up against some of the customs that govern politics. His first run for the state House came just two years after he’d moved into his district. Miller has also declined to defer to the old hierarchies in his support base, the Durham Committee, although he’s courted them enough to win the group’s endorsement in his two most recent races.
Legislative colleagues and political observers say Miller is smart, thoughtful, well-spoken on carefully chosen issues and loyal to the progressive voters who put him in office.
“He’s having a good first term,” says Rep. Verla Insko (D-Orange). “He’s clearly very bright, and when he speaks in committee or on the floor, his ideas are well-developed and well-defended.”
But statehouse insiders also say Miller’s a bit of a loner in a world where connections equal power. That he’s sometimes hard to talk to, and slightly self-protective–“not a back-slapper, cocktail-party kind of politician,” as one observer puts it.
So far, the progressive voters who backed Miller over the district’s more moderate longtime incumbent, say the new lawmaker is off to a positive start. Leaders of the two liberal Durham PACs that supported him say he’s doing a good job, and he’s attracted praise from statewide groups as well.
“He has largely lived up to his promise to be more of a voice for working folks,” says Chris Fitzsimon, executive director of the liberal Common Sense Foundation. “He’s clearly not a member of the good old boys club.”
This isn’t an easy year for any new legislator, given the $167 million revenue shortfall facing the state. Lawmakers have been debating the best way to fill that hole, through tax increases or spending cuts–or both. Miller supports a tax package still being debated that was offered by House leaders on July 24 because he says it would preserve social services and keep the state’s bond rating safe. The package, whose sponsors include longtime Durham Rep. Paul Luebke, would raise $202 million in new revenue from a half-cent local option sales tax, and another $251 million by raising income taxes on the wealthiest North Carolinians. Republicans in both the House and Senate have vociferously opposed tax increases.
Beyond the budget debate, Durham leaders say Miller’s ability to deliver a progressive agenda will be a balancing act. He’ll need to maintain his independence, they say, without letting his solo ambitions alienate the established powers-that-be.
Those ambitions started early. Miller has wanted to serve in public office since he was 8 years old. The great-grandson of a man born into slavery who became a doctor, he grew up steeped in politics. Miller’s father, a former social worker who is now a mortgage broker, was active in Mississippi’s civil rights movement and was president of the NAACP in Evanston, Ill. Miller’s younger brother, David, a dentist, currently serves as a state representative from Chicago.
Miller spent his early years in Cleveland, Ohio, and Jackson, Miss., then moved to Chicago for his teenage years. He graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a degree in mathematics in 1982.
Miller moved to Durham from Winston-Salem in 1990 because he wanted to run for office and also wanted to be near Research Triangle Park for his computer-consulting career. In 1992, with little experience and even less support, he ran for one of three seats in District 23, surprising politically savvy Durhamites who weren’t used to young, upstart candidates jumping into a state-level race. Miller lost dramatically in the Democratic primary, garnering only 5,490 votes in a race where the three winners–Luebke, Willie Lovett and George Miller–each drew 12,000.
What did he learn from that first crash-and-burn? Seated behind the desk in his legislative office, his demeanor nearly as stiff as his pressed dress shirt, Miller makes eye contact and cracks his first smile in nearly two hours.
“That I needed the support of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People to win,” he says, referring to the powerful local PAC without whose support black candidates–and often, white ones–do not win races in the Bull City.
Even so, it took a little while for the lesson to sink in. The following fall, again without the committee’s endorsement, Miller lost a bid for an at-large city council seat, placing seventh of eight candidates in the primary.
After those two losses, he retrenched to form relationships within the Durham Committee. From 1993 to 1995, Miller worked closely with the group’s then-chair, Ken Spaulding, heading a subcommittee on housing. In that position, he led efforts to beef up community policing and secure grants for a lead-based paint removal project. During that time, he also broadened his resume with service on various other Durham boards, such as the planning commission, the economic development commission and the youth services advisory board.
In 1995, with the endorsement of the committee, Miller slipped easily into an at-large seat on the 13-member Durham City Council, placing fourth among seven winners with 10,748 votes.
During his council tenure, Miller was “an independent voice,” says Carl Rist, co-president of the People’s Alliance, a progressive Durham PAC that has consistently supported him. “Even when we didn’t always agree with him, we could always depend on him to be thoughtful and make his own decisions.”
African-American leaders and slow-growth advocates in Durham cite Miller’s strong opposition to a proposal to build Eno Drive as evidence that his voice was often raised in defense of grassroots concerns.
But Miller’s council tenure was also marked by controversies that raised eyebrows even among his backers. He supported a plan to raise council salaries 37 percent, an idea some Durham leaders backed as a way to encourage more people to seek office, but which others deemed self-serving. Strong public protest eventually caused the raise to be cut to 9 percent and the ensuing fallout helped propel a move to reduce the size of city council–a plan many progressives worried would reduce African-American representation in city government.
When the referendum on the size of the council was being debated in 1998, Miller proposed moving it from Election Day to December. Many viewed his plan as a blatantly aggressive tactic aimed at blocking the reduction. Moving the vote would also cost taxpayers $50,000 more than a vote on Election Day. In the end, voters endorsed the reduction in a special election, and this fall the council will shrink to seven members. But Miller’s strategies–for which he is still unapologetic–raised questions about how far his lone-wolf approach would go.
Miller soon decided he wanted to go beyond city council. In 1999, he declined to seek a second council term, opting instead to spend that summer planning his second House run and enjoying his newlywed status. He married Vickie Booker, a state Department of Commerce programs chief, on July 3, 1999. The couple met at a fundraiser for U.S. Senate hopeful Harvey Gantt in 1996. They are expecting their first child at the end of January.
Miller’s second bid for a House seat was different. He had four years of city council accomplishments and a decade of experience navigating Durham’s political waters on his side. He also had built up support within the Durham Committee, and in the end, garnered its endorsement.
What he didn’t have was the blessing of longtime state Rep. H.M. “Mickey” Michaux (D-Durham), the senior African-American member of the Durham delegation, who would presumably be a key player in helping push through any bills that Miller might propose.
Miller didn’t ask for Michaux’s input into his House run, despite conventional political wisdom that suggested it would be good strategy. “If you wait to get approval to run for office, you’re never going to run,” he says.
He also knew Michaux and Luebke both openly supported their long-term colleague George Miller during the campaign. As a result, Paul Miller landed on a team whose incumbent members had made it clear they didn’t want him there.
Miller also lacked unanimous support among members of the Durham Committee. His opponent, a respected, white, House veteran, had maintained support in Durham’s African-American community–and the committee’s endorsement–by becoming a trusted advocate for North Carolina Central University’s funding needs over three decades.
But in the end, the powerful PAC that counts all African-American Durham residents as members chose the black candidate over the white one, and delivered the necessary votes for Paul Miller to beat George Miller by 1,352 ballots.
“George Miller always had excellent support on the committee,” says state Sen. Jeanne Lucas (D-Durham). “But George Miller wasn’t in the room.”
Paul Miller placed third in the primary, with Luebke running first, Michaux second and George Miller fourth. Controversy immediately arose over election irregularities when Durham County election officials revealed that several thousand voters had been improperly moved in and out of precincts. George Miller contested the results with the state Elections Board, then declined to pursue the matter in court when the board ruled in favor of his opponent. After the primary results were finally certified, the three Durham Democrats easily beat two Libertarian challengers in the general election in November.
Michaux now calls Paul Miller “a team player” who is “earning his stripes.”
“Paul is doing a good job acclimating himself to a new environment, learning the job,” adds Michaux, who serves on two House committees with his junior delegation member. “Everything he’s done and said in those committees has been in line with his grassroots statements.”
But when pressed about Miller’s approach, Michaux is less enthusiastic.
“On a personal level, Paul is not the most communicative fellow in the world,” he says. “He has his own ideas about things.”
How much of a problem is that when it comes to working within the delegation? Miller insists that while he and Michaux don’t work closely together, they have a good relationship and Michaux doesn’t say anything different. But legislative colleagues admit privately that the two don’t like each other and hard feelings over George Miller’s defeat linger.
A year after the dust finally settled on his primary victory, Paul Miller’s first legislative session is trudging on into August, with lawmakers, lobbyists and advocacy groups struggling with painful decisions and partisan politics.
In the sixth-floor legislative office where Miller answers phone calls and e-mails, and crunches budget numbers, he defines his priorities this way: “I’m a conduit to what the people’s wishes are. That’s what I’m about.”
Miller campaigned on issues like state regulation of the sale of beer and wine in disadvantaged neighborhoods, more funding for public schools and universities, and preventing juvenile crime with more youth programs. In his first session, he has supported local efforts for the Million Mom March and the gun-control measures its leaders advocate, but ran up against a pro-gun wall in Raleigh. “You can’t get a gun law passed here,” Miller says.
He was more successful with his work on regulating “payday lenders”–an effort that won Miller praise from statewide consumer advocacy groups. A state law passed in 1997 allowed financial institutions that offer high-interest, short-term loans–most often to low-income borrowers–to open in North Carolina, and 10 percent of them nationwide are now based here. Payday lending is a $650-million-a-year business in the state, profiting from effective interest rates as high as 460 percent, says Peter Skillern of the Durham-based Community Reinvestment Association of North Carolina (CRANC).
The four-year-old law was due to “sunset” on July 31. If lawmakers did nothing, certain types of payday lenders would no longer be able to operate legally in North Carolina, but those with connections to federal banks could remain. Miller, who sits on the House financial institutions committee, introduced a bill that would regulate interest rates and impose waiting limits between loans, since the real danger for low-income consumers is in “revolving” from loan to loan.
Miller argues that dependence on high-interest loans is an addiction. “If we’re going to legalize this, we might as well go ahead and legalize crack cocaine, and have crack cocaine shops,” he says. In the House, he ended up withdrawing his bill–one of several proposed on the payday lending issue–because there were alternative proposals that he could agree with and consumer advocates supported.
Advocacy groups were pleased with his actions.
“Paul Miller serves on one of the most pro-industry, conservative committees in the legislature,” says Skillern, CRANC’s executive director. “And on this issue, he was a friend to consumers.”
Rob Schofield, a staff attorney for the N.C. Justice and Community Development Center, agrees. “He’s been a stand-up person for consumers,” Schofield says. “There are plenty of newcomers who would have said ‘mm-hmm’ and then gone to the lobbyist for the industry and said ‘now what do I do?’”
And yet, asked about the key issues he’s working on, payday lending doesn’t top Miller’s list.
After perusing a file on his laptop screen, the first one he mentions is a proposal to teach consumer skills in North Carolina’s public school classrooms. The bill he authored to mandate that curriculum change has sat still, a victim of school board push-back and no support from other lawmakers.
Miller says he “keeps a narrow focus” when choosing issues to tackle. His first clear victory involved a program to raise penalties for selling drugs near public parks and playgrounds. Gov. Mike Easley signed the bill–on which Miller’s was the only signature–into law on July 26. The measure is similar to the “drug-free school zones” already in existence in North Carolina.
Miller is particularly proud of a special provision in this year’s budget that grew out of a bill he wrote to save money on the government’s information technology expenses. As an independent computer consultant who has made a living designing programs for large companies and universities, Miller says he understands the high-tech world in a way that many older legislators don’t. A bill he drafted allows department heads the flexibility to hire additional state staffers to fill high-tech jobs, rather than bringing in more expensive outside contractors. The budget isn’t finalized, but Miller’s provision so far seems to have the support it needs to stay in the spending plan.
“I’ve just kind of barreled it through,” he says.
Despite Miller’s positive start, there are those who mourn the loss of clout that George Miller’s defeat represents–including the two other members of Durham’s delegation, Michaux and Luebke.
“George Miller was a dominant figure in the North Carolina legislature,” says Luebke. “His loss is very much felt. But in a democracy, life goes on.”
There’s no question that Paul Miller’s style is very different from his predecessor. George Miller was a member of the legislature’s inner circle, a consummate politician with the governor’s ear and influence over the state’s purse strings.
It takes many years to build up that kind of power, says Sen. Lucas, who, in her eighth year, estimates she is just beginning to reap the benefits seniority brings. “George Miller was an experienced, analytical decision-maker,” she says. “Paul is new . . . there is no comparison.”
Others have clearly welcomed the change, noting that Paul Miller provides easier access to the legislative process.
Of all the Durham House members, he is the most reliable about answering e-mails and phone calls, says Deborah Giles, who chairs the Durham Committee’s political subcommittee. “I can always count on a response back from him.”
A thoughtful approach has begun to show in his state-level work, says Giles, who heard Miller speak recently about the state’s financial dilemma.
“It’s so clear to me that he has an excellent understanding of what’s going on over there, for a new person,” she says.
Rep. Weiss, who sits on a judiciary committee with Miller, was impressed recently when Miller took the time to read, in its entirety, a 13-page bill she was sponsoring concerning littering. He proposed a small change that she considered useful.
“He takes his job very seriously,” Weiss says. “Paul is definitely his own person.”
But being your own person in the legislature can be a drawback, says Eugene Brown of the Durham Voters Alliance, another of the Bull City’s influential PACS.
“Paul’s personality is such that he’s clamming up, not socializing, not meeting people and shaking hands,” says Brown, whose group endorsed George Miller last year. “And that’s how you get things done in the General Assembly, shaking hands and twisting arms at the same time.”
Although Miller’s only been in office eight months, there are already rumblings from those who want to bring George Miller–or at least George Miller’s style of politics–back, including Brown’s group.
“Many people view Paul’s victory in the primary as a fluke, and he will have opposition next year,” says Brown.
Not surprisingly, Miller insists that Durham’s delegation needs someone who will strike out in his own direction.
“There are things I’m working on now that would not be on the table in the legislature, would not be on the agenda if I wasn’t here,” he says. “I do bring something different to the table.”