It's the day before the primary election, and Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., soon to be just plain Mike Ross, has spent the day doing what he wouldn't have had time to do were he remaining in politics: hauling a load of his son's stuff from Prescott to Fayetteville.
It’s the day before the primary election, and Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., soon to be just plain Mike Ross, has spent the day doing what he wouldn’t have had time to do were he remaining in politics: hauling a load of his son’s stuff from Prescott to Fayetteville.
After 12 years in Congress and 10 in the Legislature, Ross, who represents south Arkansas’ 4th District, is almost done. He announced last year that he wasn’t running for a seventh term in Congress because he thought he might like to run for governor in 2014.
But then he spent the past few months living somewhat of a normal life and decided he might like to do that instead. He announced May 14 that, after this term ends, he is leaving politics and taking a job as a public relations executive with the Southwest Power Pool.
Were he to stay in Congress, Ross would have had to raise $3 million every two years to run for re-election. Where he to run for governor, he says he would have had to raise $20,000 a day seven days a week for two years.
I ask him if he ever felt uncomfortable raising money, the premise of my question being that campaign donors often want something in return.
He says no, and we get into a polite disagreement. He says not a single donor ever asked him to promise anything, and he wouldn’t agree to it if they did. I respond that it’s never that overt, but big donors are hoping for access. He says he always meets with anyone from Arkansas without checking if they have donated and that many people really do just give money to candidates who share their values. Besides, campaign finance laws that limit donations to $2,500 per individual keep any donor from gaining too much influence.
“Twenty-five hundred dollars doesn’t even buy a 30-second ad on ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ out of Little Rock,” he says.
He says something else I have trouble accepting — that there is not that much personal animosity between Republicans and Democrats in Congress. Oh, it’s very divisive, but he insists that the differences are over politics. He says he is close to Rep. Steve Womack, who represents Northwest Arkansas’ 3rd District, and commutes back and forth to Washington with Rep. Tim Griffin from Central Arkansas’ 2nd District.
So if it’s not personal, why is Congress stuck in such a stalemate?
One of the biggest problems is the congressional redistricting process, he says. After every U.S. census, the size and shape of each district is redrawn to account for population shifts. In state after state, whichever party is in power draws the lines so it can stuff the other party’s voters into one district while spreading its voters around to several.
He’d like to see the politics taken out of redistricting because now all but about 100 of the districts are drawn in such a way that one or the other party is almost guaranteed to win election after election. The only way an incumbent can lose is by facing opposition within his own party – usually from someone more ideologically pure (a more conservative Republican, a more liberal Democrat). To prevent that, incumbents must slide toward their party’s wings. Congressmen like Ross who are somewhere in the middle are a dying breed.
I had expected that Ross would express more personal frustration about Congress, but – and maybe he was just enjoying the drive – he didn’t sound that frustrated. He’s been up there a while. He’s ready to come home.
“I never thought this should be a permanent career, and for me 12 years felt about right,” he says. “My gut and my heart told me it was time to move on and it was someone else’s turn.”
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Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at Arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org