From the Mountains to the Coast: An Interview with Deborah Ross

Deborah Ross recently led a seminar series as an IOP Fellow at UNC Chapel Hill.

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Deborah Ross mounted a challenge to incumbent Republican Senator Richard Burr last year, but it wasn’t her first foray into politics.

Ross has been involved with politics, in one way or another, from a young age. She recalls how her mother and other college educated women began to delve into the world of politics, working on campaigns and starting a newspaper for the town.

“There were all these stay-at-home moms and they were like, ‘Why aren’t we on the school board? Why aren’t we on city council?’ So I was working on campaigns when I was ten.”

A lawyer by trade, Ross moved from Connecticut to North Carolina, acquiring her JD from Chapel Hill. In the following years, she continued to work on campaigns and, when a seat in the General Assembly opened, jumped into the race herself.

She took a break to work in the private sector, for GoTriangle, but decided to return to the campaign trail when no formidable candidates challenged the incumbent Burr.

“Most of the heavyweights, like Erskine Bowles, when they were not willing to run against Richard Burr, the women’s organizations encouraged me to do it. And there were former and current legislators encouraging me to do it. It was a great opportunity and it was a fantastic experience.”

Though she did come up short in 2016, Ross gleaned a lot from the experience.

“I really liked running statewide. A lot of people complain about it, the travel, all the money you have to raise. I raised more than $15 million and traveled to more than 90 counties. I learned so much about the state.”

Ross mentioned that she learned about North Carolina through interacting with her colleagues in the General Assembly, but that it is different when you’re meeting people in their communities.

She also learned a lot about herself.

“I didn’t realize how happy people make me. I like people. I already knew I liked working with people and solving problems, but when you run statewide, you’re with people sixteen hours a day. I always had energy for the next group of people. I was always interested.”

Ross recently completed a fellowship at Chapel Hill, through the Institute of Politics. That affinity for people served her there, as well.

“I tried to approach the program with some academic rigor because I wanted the students to have things to read, even if they didn’t read them, and I brought in true experts in the field who had practical experience who also cared about the next generation.”

That younger generation is important to Ross: “Being with these young people doing wonderful things, that gives me faith in this next generation.

During her time campaigning in 2016, Ross traveled to ninety of North Carolina’s one-hundred counties.

“There are things about North Carolina and the spirit of the people that carry you from the mountains to the coast. The pride of the history, the families who have been here for years and years.”

Those people, she added, are what makes North Carolina such a great state.

“We have wonderful people here, but we welcome other ideas, other people. That’s why our universities and the Research Triangle are so special.”

North Carolina’s diversity compelled her, too. “You go to places like Asheville, which could be in Europe. It really could. And you go to Wilmington, and people don’t realize the great things going on there. It’s one of the biggest cities in the state. I think all of these things are wonderful.”

By traveling all over the state, Ross saw first-hand the effects of the rural-urban divide, especially with infrastructure and broadband access. The campaign operated like a mobile office, and they relied heavily on internet access wherever they were to stay connected.

“Everybody needed to be on their phone and connected to everything going on. We had to be communicating with people, raising money, setting things up, and we realized that in rural areas you can’t do that.”

Ross wanted to run a traditional campaign as opposed to focusing solely in certain areas of the state.

“We went out of our way to go to the barbecue place or the coffee shop, to walk in and talk to people. We didn’t only go to places that were prosperous,” she added. “We went out of our way to go to a farm, or a lumber mill, or a church, because we wanted it to be an authentic campaign.”

She also offered some insight into what she thought were salient changes in the Democratic Party after losses in 2016.

“The way I see the party changing the most is that young people are engaged. The biggest disappointment of the 2016 campaign, and I think because both the candidates were older than 65, is that young people didn’t vote, because they just didn’t really see anything for them.”

This dynamic is changing in a big way, she says.

“But now, they’re all running for election. In Charlotte, more than half of the City Council are Millennials. In Raleigh, they didn’t think this young woman with kids stood a chance, and she blew them away in the at-large election.”

She compared this surge of candidates to the years following Watergate.

“Something bad happened, and young people started to run because they want to make it better,” she said. “I’m excited about that.”

In contrast, Ross also offered a few thoughts on the state of the GOP since the last election cycle.

“I think they’re terrified. They know the demographics,” Ross said. “They only have one playbook, and it’s a playbook with a short shelf-life. So the idea right now is, do as much as you possibly can, while you can.”

She also added that, with regard to Alabama Republican candidate Roy Moore, “The Republicans do not want to be the party of Roy Moore, but that’s all they had. If you create a monster, it’s hard to put it back in the closet.”

After those forecasts for the two major parties, Ross said that a future run for herself would not be out of the question.

“It’s nice to be in the private sector right now and to have that freedom. I have a puppy, and you have to have a flexible schedule to have a puppy. But if there were an opportunity, at the right time, I would take it,” Ross said. “We’ll just see where things are in three years.”

InterviewsKirk KovachComment