Deborah Ross, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, met with the editorial board last week. Here are my notes. They are NOT verbatim.
This race is close. I’m in it to win it. I think it’s a combination of a couple of things. I don’t think the pundits know the state of North Carolina. We have been all around the state so by the end of the weekend we’ll have been in more than 90 counties. The state is on fire, y’all, everywhere. People want a change. They certainly want a change from what’s going on in Raleigh, but they’re sick of what’s going on in Washington where they aren’t doing anything. They’re sick of politicians and special interests. Everywhere I go, I’m hearing the same kind of things.
We went to nine counties Labor Day weekend. We’ve been in the big cities. I’m in Charlotte so much people think I have an apartment there. We’ve been in Wilmington a lot. We said over Labor Day we’d go to the Seafood Festival in Hyde County, stop in Plymouth, Columbia. What happened? We had Hurricane Hermine. We thought we’d end up canceling. They said we don’t have any power, but we have 50 people who want to see you. So we drove to Plymouth, and 50 people showed up at a Bojangles.
The Highway Patrol and EMS couldn’t believe someone showed up in Plymouth to talk, with the hurricane. We thought, should we go to Columbia? Nobody had any power. We had a meet and greet at the visitor center, but people were coming. The fact that happened? I didn’t expect that to happen. The next day we went west, went to church in Stokes County. It’s a red county, but there were signs everywhere, no fracking, no coal ash, everywhere you go. Then they opened up a Democratic headquarters in Stokes County. They were very excited right in the Food Lion parking lot. I gave my speech, people were so excited. We didn’t expect that kind of reception in Stokes County, We went from Stokes to Yadkin, where there’s no Democratic Party headquarters. They met at a winery on a Sunday afternoon. Everyone was in a good mood. There were about 40 people there. This one guy, 85 years old, he said I need to talk to you. I’m one of the first people who got the Order of the Long Leaf Pine. I have not been excited about an election since 1960. This is the battle for the heart and soul of North Carolina. It’s the same battle we saw in 1960. Is North Carolina going forward or going to go backward? He could have done anything that afternoon. The fact that people from different parts of the state, not just the urban areas, really want to see a change. Everywhere I go they say they haven’t seen Richard Burr in years. In years.
Q: This is an unusual election with Trump, the crazy governor’s race. You’re kind of in between there. Any oxygen there?
ROSS: There is. I feel like people are coming out for me, too. I went to Burr’s backyard and had a fundraiser, and 175 people showed up. People want a change in Washington. Medicare and Social Security are huge issues. A lot of people are upset about trade, they are upset about the courts, and that’s crossing party lines. Trade is crossing party lines, Social Security, Medicaid, student loan debt.
Kitchen table issues are really resonating. People feel like no one cares about them. Because of gerrymandering, 13 members of Congress on the House side, only three are Democratic. I’ve talked to old-timey people who say that’s out of balance. People feel like North Carolina is out of balance. It doesn’t bother them if they have a Democratic and a Republican senator. They don’t think having two Republican senators is getting the job done.
Q: Richard Burr doesn’t seem to be running on his record.
ROSS: If I were him, I would do that, too, to cover up what he’s been doing in Washington DC. He wrote a plan to turn Medicare into a private voucher program. It would still let people stay with the current Medicare if they want to, but the benefits would be diminished. It’d give vouchers for people to go into the private market, but the benefits could go down and the prices could go up. The insurance companies have been for this.
Burr did this. Said he was proud of this. But when he found out I was campaigning on it, his office said no, no, he would never introduce legislation on that. It hit a nerve, something he did taking a million dollars from insurance companies that doesn’t provide protection for our seniors. Burr’s plan raises the age and then creates a voucher system.
Q: There are new ads from PACs that attack your record at the ACLU and with the sex offender registry. Who’s doing this?
ROSS: I have no idea where dark money is coming from. The fact is, I’ve always been for the sex-offender registry, I worked to make it better and protect victims. If you identify who the perpetrator is, it tells you who the victim is because so much is inside families and neighborhoods. I voted to strengthen it 18 times. Richard Burr voted against the sex offender registry. This is a classic bogeyman move.
Q: They stress that you’re the former head of the ACLU as if standing up for civil liberties is not popular with people.
ROSS: People are smarter than some of these ads. That’s what I think. And they’re much more interested in kitchen table issues. The Constitution has kind of had a resurgence during this campaign, with the Gold Star family getting up at the Democratic convention and whipping out a copy of the Constitution. There’s a lot of people who like someone who’s going to stand up for the Constitution. We’ve had a history in this state of being proud of U.S. senators who cared about the Constitution. People like somebody who’s going to stick up for what’s right. Who’s been fighting HB2? Who’s been fighting voter suppression? Fighting a lot of things coming out of this legislature and winning.
Q: Burr doesn’t seem to be that well-known. Is that a vulnerability?
ROSS: I think a lot of it goes to energy and being out there and engaging with people, also taking up issues that matter to people every day. People know a lot about my legislative record because of the things I did that made a difference in their lives, but he doesn’t necessarily champion those kind of things. Clearly the people haven’t been all that impressed.
I feed off of Sen. Burr’s record and the fact that the people of North Carolina want a change. I’m campaigning on those same issues from when I launched my campaign in October. I talk about HB2 because it comes up and people come talk to me about it. The film industry is completely gone in Wilmington. We were there for the Azalea Festival, and they were like, this is the worst thing that has ever happened. In High Point, people won’t come to the market because of HB2. All the sports, the entertainment. In Lexington, there was an older man sitting in a chair with a cane, observing. He beckoned me over and said, “I want you to know I’ve been a part of the Lexington Chamber of Commerce, and HB2 is the worst thing that has happened to Lexington. Before HB2, we were getting calls every week. After HB2, nothing.” This is going on all over the state of North Carolina. People have seen the effects and are upset about it.
The minute it happened to Cary, you saw what the legislators did.
My campaign is about protecting Social Security and Medicare, raising the minimum wage, equal pay for equal work, and for kids to have what they need. The federal government has a role in every one of those things. The minimum wage hasn’t been voted on in nine years. Burr voted against equal pay six times, he voted to restructure student loan debt and to cut Pell grants. Most people unless you’re in certain kinds of more issue oriented places, they’re not going to bring up hot button issues. They’re going to talk about Grandma.
Q: If Democrats stay in the minority, how would you get anything done?
ROSS: When I first got elected, we had co-speakers, then the Democrats were in charge, and then the Republicans were in charge. I got bills passed under every single one of those situations because I worked across party lines to get them done. When I was with the ACLU, we got insurance to cover contraception. I can work with people. How many articles have you all written about how Skip Stam and I get along? I can work with people I disagree with to get something done. Not many people can do that, not many people are interested in finding common ground and figuring out ways to move something.
I could be a lawyer, have a nice time, go see my husband at night. But I want to get something done and give a voice to people who haven’t had that voice.
Q: How would you assess Burr’s record on the intelligence committee?
ROSS: If we flip the Senate from Republican to Democrat, we’ll have a different person as head of the intelligence committee. There’s a difference between having a position and having good judgment. He talks a lot about having the position, but where has his judgment been?
He knows about people who are on the terrorist watch list and votes against a measure that would keep them from getting a gun. If anyone should not get a gun, it should be someone who’s on the watch list, right?
If you’re the head of the intelligence committee, and so many in that community don’t think Trump is qualified to become commander in chief, how can you still support him as commander in chief?
Q: How did the people in power get elected?
ROSS: With the House, we’ve got the gerrymandering situation and tea party movement that moved Republicans to the right. When I was serving in the North Carolina legislature, we had moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans who worked together to get things done. When I was working with the ACLU, a lot of Republicans didn’t want some of the unconstitutional things to get passed and could sometimes stop them. That’s not happening as much. On the Senate, it’s always a statewide wave. If you asked me last October, whether this election would be this election this year, you could have bowled me over with a feather. What I did know then was that Richard Burr wasn’t popular, that he was working more for special interests than our interests, and people are struggling financially. I knew that last October. That hasn’t changed. All of this other … you all come up with a word for what’s going on … came in and created a year like no other year, but I operate well in chaos.
Q: This seems like a low-key race. In the Tillis-Hagan race, they spent $100 million. This one it seems like we waited until Labor Day to get started.
ROSS: That might be the public perception of it, but we had to be doing something since before Labor Day to have hit 90 counties. While nobody was paying attention, we were doing our work. While no one was paying attention, we were outraising Richard Burr. We got money from all 100 counties, and that happened early in this campaign. This is the people want a change factor. I’ve talked to a lot of young women, I’m more approachable than the Liddy Dole type person. I was at Elizabeth City State University, and this young woman said, what would your advice be if I wanted to enter politics? And I said don’t be insulted if they underestimate you. It gives you the opportunity to sneak up on them.
Q: How will you fight against the amount of money he’s raised?
ROSS: The race is hot. There are a few races in the country that can flip the U.S. Senate. Burr had an ad about schools using B roll of kids in Africa. The folks in Southeast Raleigh are beside themselves with anger. The preacher who was in that ad went to a missionary convention, knew many of the preachers there. They came up and said that it was a ridiculous ad. When they heard it was really African kids? Angry. Angry. You can have more money, but the question is how you’re going to spend it, how are you going to connect with voters. We’re going to run a more people-oriented campaign.
My first endorsement was from End Citizens United. The Supreme Court did us a disservice with Citizens United, but the No. 1 way to deal with it is transparency. People who give large sums of money should not be able to do it in the dark. Period. Case closed.
If you want to give $50 and want to be anonymous, you’re afraid you’re going to get fired, fine, but once you can use that money to influence the system in a significant way, it has to be disclosed.
Q: They’ve labeled you Radical Ross. Are you radical?
ROSS: I think my values are consistent with the values of the people of North Carolina. I think people really respect our Constitution. This state wouldn’t join the union unless we had a Bill of Rights. There’s a strong sense of pride in what it means to be an American. I’ve worked across party lines and gotten so much more done than Richard Burr.
Q: The perception is that Republicans are better on military issues. Can a liberal Democrat appeal to our military?
ROSS: The first thing posted on my Facebook page when I launched my campaign? It was youtube video of Richard Burr arguing against veteran benefits. Veterans do not love Richard Burr. I get very good reception from veteran groups. My dad is a veteran. My dad was a doctor in the Air Force in Vietnam. He’s a psychiatrist. Can you imagine being a psychiatrist in the Air Force in the late ’60s? He’s talked to me a lot about how when you send people off to war you have to take care of the families and and take care of them when they come home. I completely understand we have a dangerous world. We have to have a smart strategic military that protects us. I get it. I’m not some namby pamby liberal on that. But when you send people to war, particularly on multiple deployments we’ve seen, we have a moral obligation to take care of their families. People around the state feel Richard Burr has failed our veterans.
He did the same thing for people on trade. He voted for every trade deal then voted against assistance for displaced workers. In a military state? A textile state? The first obligation is to protect people and care about the people you represent.
Q: What about Obamacare? With the gridlock, they can’t make adjustments. They won’t expand Medicaid, or help it out. Where are you on Obamacare?
ROSS: It is not perfect. Clearly. But we’re better of with it than we were without it. There are fewer uninsured people all over the country and in North Carolina because we have the Affordable Care Act.
There was a man in Tryon. He calls me over, and says, whatever you do, protect the Affordable Care Act. It saved my life. He had a small business and couldn’t get health insurance for less than $1,400 a month. Under the ACA, he could get it for significantly less. His wife said you have health insurance, go to the doctor. He went to the doctor. He found out he had advanced prostate cancer. Because he had insurance through the ACA, he got treated. He’s fine now, and he’s not in financial ruin. We can’t go back to a time when he couldn’t get health insurance, when women paid more than men, when people with pre-existing conditions couldn’t get insurance. We can’t go back there. We have to do the things to fix it. What has Richard Burr done? Just voted to repeal it over and over and over again.
I’ve always said I’m not an expert on everything. We need more consumer choice. Here in North Carolina, we only have the private option. Other states have co-ops. We need to figure out which model works. We have to consider a public option. Going back to where we were is going to lead to worse outcomes for people, and people are going to die. Want to talk about a Medicare problem? This guy I met, he said I’ll wait 10 years and I’ll be on Medicare and everything will be taken care of. Don’t we want people to get health care earlier? Be taken care of earlier? If they’re healthy for their lives, we won’t be spending that money on acute conditions later.
Q: What’s the federal role for education?
ROSS: The biggest federal role is to stop with the unfunded mandates. The federal government mandates some of these things that cost local governments the most money. They’re good things for our children, making sure English as Second Language kids can get access to language programs, make sure disabled kids have their individualized education plans, that rural kids get the Title 1 money, but the federal government doesn’t always take up its end of that bargain. If it does, it will relieve our counties to be able to spend money on teacher pay.
On the student loan issue, the federal government shouldn’t be making money on the backs of our students. Certainly in terms of refinancing, we should extend the amount of time people can pay off the debt if they want to do that. The only thing Burr’s voted for is something that has a floating interest rate. We all know why you don’t want to get a floating rate mortgage. It’s the same thing. We need to figure out how to basically cover costs.
Q: And where you stand on transit?
Q: I-95 is a mess. There’s no plan to fix it.
ROSS: Burr’s not doing anything. I don’t know that he’s a fan of mass transit. The federal government has a role to play in all of our transportation projects. It’s been the 25 25 50 role. The federal government has a huge role to play in infrastructure. I was a municipal bond lawyer. I had an 18-year legal career helping municipalities and counties figure out how to borrow money for sewer and water projects. I worked on financing renewable energy projects all over the state. I know how to do infrastructure. I’ve been talking about the infrastructure we need, roads, bridges. We also need water and sewer infrastructure. Flint doesn’t happen just in Flint. Go to Bladen County and talk to them about water. There are places still on well water that can’t get bond issues passed because they don’t want to pay for it.
Broadband is an enormous issue. I’ve been to Ramallah, and you can get better coverage in Ramallah than in Camden and Clay counties. How can you teach children in the 21st century? I’ve come to believe because of actions of the legislature that this is a federal issue. There are people all over the country having the same problem. And this is something that has to be dealt with on a federal level. It’s one of the most important situations facing us right now. It’s jobs and education. The other thing about infrastructure is an outsourcing issue. You can’t outsource an infrastructure job. Investing in infrastructure brings good jobs here. It promotes manufacturing here, and it makes us safer and more prosperous and able to attract business.
Q: What would you say to people who say she knows nothing about international affairs?
ROSS: I feel like I have a learning curve on everything, but no one has asked. I’ve been to the Middle East twice, in time of peace and when they were launching rockets. I went to China and India, talked to people on the ground. I went to Jordan, Egypt and Israel. That’s when I went to a refugee camp with the Aspen Institute.
I speak French. I study Russian. I’ve traveled to six continents. There’s a lot of people who get elected to the U.S. Congress who don’t have a passport. Am I an expert? No, but I majored in international relations. I come in with a broad appreciation of international affairs and experience dealing with people in other countries in situations that are diverse, education, culture. We met with the Egyptian army before the Arab Spring. I lived in Israel and worked on a kibbutz for a couple of weeks as a teenager. I came in with a pretty nice grounding in being open to ways to deal with foreign policy. No. 1, it must keep us safe, but the thing that makes foreign policy work is when we have good business deals with other countries, have educational exchanges with other countries.
People want to be safe, but they don’t bring terrorism up. They want to know that the government will keep them safe. My brother worked on Wall Street during 9/11. I want to keep people safe, too. I want to make sure we do it by taking care of ISIS where it is. Let’s take them out, cut off supplies, work with allies. We can’t do it on our own.
We also need to make sure we deal with terrorism here. That terrorism isn’t necessarily ISIS. We have domestic terrorists. We have young men who go and kill people in a black church. We had Timothy McVeigh. The question is, how do we deal with lone wolves? To prevent some of the tragedies we’ve had? If you’re worried about terrorism, you can’t alienate the Muslim community. If you tell a community you don’t like them, you think they’re going to help? Go to the authorities with a problem? We’ve seen that here with the Latino community.
Q: How do you explain Donald Trump?
ROSS: I don’t know. There are people who like me and Donald Trump. At a meet and greet, everybody in the neighborhood, in Stanley County, we went there. One of the guys at the end said, “I love everything you said. I’m voting for you and Donald Trump.” I said OK. He wanted someone who was going to tell it like it was. It was an authenticity thing for him. I have met people on the campaign trail who just want a change. They just want a change. You’re going to have to get in their heads.
One thing I think has been incredible about this election, people want their state back. They just want their state back. Even people who didn’t get involved, even people who are more conservative, people who have given to me who said they have never given money to a campaign before. They just want to make a difference in moving us forward in some way.