RALEIGH — State Rep. Deborah Ross, an outspoken Democratic voice, announced Wednesday she is resigning to take a new job, saying she would be “more effective in serving the public outside of the legislative arena.”
The 10-year veteran is leaving just months into her sixth term to become general counsel at Triangle Transit on June 17. It offers her a chance to focus on one of her top legislative priorities.
“I see transit as something that will make our region stronger, it will promote economic development,” said the 49-year-old Raleigh lawmaker.
Even as she announced her departure, Ross endorsed a replacement: former Rep. Grier Martin, a Raleigh Democrat and friend who had decided not to run in 2012 when Republicans redrew the maps to put the two lawmakers in the same district.
Martin, a lawyer and Army reservist, said he will seek the seat, though he had tried to persuade Ross to stay. “Deborah will be impossible to replace,” he said.
The Wake County Democratic Party is expected to name a replacement by the end of the month, and other candidates are like to emerge, said Dan Blue III, the county party chairman. The governor will then make the appointment.
Ross is the latest big-name Democrat to leave the legislature, joining a handful who decided not to seek re-election last year.
With the legislature under Democratic control, Ross served as chairwoman of the powerful Judiciary Committee and held leadership positions within the party caucus. By her second term, she consistently ranked as one of the most effective lawmakers.
Ross, former executive director of the N.C. ACLU, is known as an advocate for the working class and women. Her legislative record includes efforts to toughen state ethics rules, increase the state’s minimum wage, fix domestic violence laws and fund the new addition to the Museum of Natural Sciences.
“When we were recruiting candidates, we would try to find candidates who approached her passion and intellect,” said Carol Teal, executive director of Lillian’s List, an organization that advocates for women’s rights.
The transition to Republican control taxed top Democrats, but Ross found her niche. “My role here is an important role, which is to be the loyal opposition,” she said. “And I think I’m good at that.”
Rep. Darren Jackson, a Raleigh Democrat, said he considered Ross a mentor. “She is one of the few people that you meet in this body that doesn’t have her eye on the next step or statewide office,” he said. “Where some people are careful to speak on an issue because they are worried about what it might do to them in five years, she speaks from the heart.”
Ross’ willingness to speak out often made her a target for Republicans. House Speaker Thom Tillis took a jab at her specifically in a 2011 speech, saying she is “one of those people who says things and you can’t believe she believes the things she says.”
But Republican Rep. Skip Stam of Apex said he worked well with Ross on numerous “good government” measures, despite their opposing viewpoints on most other issues. “She is very smart and very liberal,” he said.
In her new job, Ross will help guide Triangle Transit at a key juncture as it expands bus services and adds light rail. Chairman Fred N. Day IV said the board was unanimous in selecting Ross, saying she “brings a wealth of knowledge that will be of great assistance.”
Ross, who didn’t own a car until age 25, said she is excited by the timing of her move.
“I’m always happy to play both offense and defense,” she said, referring to her legislative tenure. “But I get a lot more satisfaction about working on a big project and bringing it to fruition.”