Rob Christensen

Christensen: Deborah Ross begins Senate bid

For Deborah Ross, these are the early, hopeful days – before the onslaught of political fundraisers, and negative ads, and the high-intensity heat that comes from a big-time U.S. Senate race.

So last week Ross had time to relish the small moments, like a little girl attending a Democratic women’s luncheon with her grandmother to hear her speak. At the end, the girl approached Ross and asked her to autograph one of Ross’s cards.

“Things like that still touch me,” Ross told me over coffee. “I enjoy being on the campaign trail.”

“You just started,” I said.

“I understand that,” Ross replied. “I know it’s going to get nasty and it’s going to be horrible. But I am inspired by people and I enjoy the process of getting to know new people and new places and thinking about how I can make things better. If I didn’t feel like that now, there would be something wrong.”

Two months ago, Ross, 52, said she was happy working as legal counsel for GoTriangle, the regional transit agency, and had no thought of challenging Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr.

But that was before former Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan decided to forgo the race, leaving a gaping hole in the Democratic ticket. Other Democrats such as U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx also passed on the race. Ross was approached by a number of Democrats, and spent some time thinking about it. After Labor Day, she decided to quit her job and make the race.

That Democrats would turn to Ross is not surprising. She had the reputation as a tough, smart operator during her 10 years in the state House, and before that as state director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

When the Democrats were in power, she chaired major committees, such as Judiciary and Ethics. In the minority, she had a particular talent for getting under the skin of Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis, now a U.S. senator.

Ross has always liked making laws, so the idea of serving in the U.S. Senate has long been in the back of her mind. She particularly admires former Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson for his understanding of the institution and his ability to make it work for the people he represented.

“I love the process, and the Senate is the hallmark of our democracy and having a process that can do good and protect people,” Ross said. “I wasn’t feeling like the current Senate was functioning as well as it could.”

The specifics of her campaign will come later. But in general Ross said she hopes to look for ways to improve secondary and elementary education, make college more affordable, provide more job training, encourage entrepreneurship, improve wage equality for women, making sure Social Security and Medicare will be there for seniors.

“I want to be back in politics to help people,” Ross said. “That is basically what I have done my entire life….I’ve been much more of a work horse than a show horse. I love the process of working bills, of getting things done, of working across the aisle, of solving complex problems.”

While Ross sees herself as a moderate, she knows she will be attacked because of her ACLU connections. But if she is going to be attacked on something, Ross said, it might as well be on defending constitutional protections that apply to everyone regardless of their politics.

Ross has had to move quickly because the Democratic primary has been moved by the legislature from its normal date in May to March 15 in an effort to make North Carolina more relevant in the presidential primaries.

She has hired three staffers, including campaign manager Dave Hoffman, who previously was Hagan’s campaign press secretary when she defeated Republican Elizabeth Dole in 2008. Hoffman later worked in Hagan’s Senate office as press secretary and then for several campaigns, including for Kendrick Meek, who lost to Marco Rubio in the 2010 Florida Senate race.

Ross has hired Diane Feldman, a Democratic pollster of The Feldman Group who worked for Sen. Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign and President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. In North Carolina, Feldman has worked for Congressman G.K. Butterfield of Wilson.

Handling her media is Ann Liston, another veteran of the Clinton and Obama campaigns. In North Carolina, Liston has done work for Rep. Alma Adams of Greensboro.

Among the TV commercials her firm, AL Media of Chicago, has produced was an ad using veterans to attack former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney as unprepared on foreign policy issues, and another ad on behalf of then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, portraying his 2010 opponent, Sharron Angle, as being extreme on the issue of abortion.

In a Democratic primary, Ross faces Spring Lake Mayor Chris Rey and Durham businessman Kevin Griffin. A survey released last week by Public Policy Polling found that 45 percent of Democratic voters have not made up their mind. Of those who have, 33 percent preferred Ross, 16 percent Griffin and 6 percent Rey.

Besides being better known, Ross said she is well-connected among the major groups and figures involved in Democratic politics. She noted that she has in the past been endorsed by nearly all the key Democratic groups in her House races, although she adds she is taking nothing for granted in her U.S. Senate race.

Whoever captures the Democratic nomination likely faces a difficult campaign against Burr, a two-term senator who is the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Burr easily won re-election in 2010 against Secretary of State Elaine Marshall by a 55-43 percent margin.

But a recent Public Policy Polling poll shows him holding a four-point lead over Ross. The Senate race will likely be heavily influenced by the presidential race and the national political climate.