Ex-House lawmakers mount comeback bids

·5 min read


A poisonous partisan atmosphere on Capitol Hill has sent dozens of members of Congress to the exits in recent years, many of whom express the relief of a weight lifted off their shoulders when they announce their retirements.

But for two former members, the allure of a job unfinished is a siren song they cannot resist.

Ex-Reps. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) and Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) have both launched campaigns to return to Congress after several terms away. They are the rare members of Congress who leave of their own volition - Edwards mounted an unsuccessful bid for a U.S. Senate seat in 2016, Ross decided not to run for reelection in 2018 - and then decide they want to come back.

"When you know you've got something left to offer and you have the opportunity to do it, I would not be able to live with not doing something," Ross, 62, said in an interview Monday. "I miss relationships. I had some very good friends."

Edwards, 63, said she was moved to run again partly by the exodus she has seen within her own party, as senior members retire and as so many others face difficult reelection races in a tough environment for Democrats.

"I bring the kind of knowledge and experience and critical thinking to the job that is going to be really important at a moment when we're losing a lot of Democrats, a lot of institutional knowledge on our side of the aisle," Edwards said in an interview. "You don't run away from the fire, you run toward it."

They would join a small handful of former members who reclaim their old jobs, a list that includes people like Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.) and former Rep. Rick Nolan (D-Minn.), who both spent decades out of office before returning to Washington, as well as Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).

Edwards said the pandemic and the economic tumult that has come with it had laid bare the stress on her constituents, most of whom are minorities.

"People across the country are struggling, and in my congressional district, one of the things that the pandemic has exposed are the tremendous inequities that we already knew existed, inequities in health care and education and even in the creation of small businesses," she said. "I hear people talking about getting back to normal. Well, it turns out that normal wasn't great for a lot of people."

Ross said he left Congress frustrated that his party - in the majority at the time - had struggled to pass some of the policies he cared about.

"We weren't able to do health care, we weren't able to get financial services reform," he said. "The Republican Party of 2018, I think we had a 30-vote majority and we were having difficulty getting legislation passed. The Democratic Party of 2020 has a five-vote majority and they've gotten just about everything passed. ... There's something to be learned from that."

Ross said he wanted to see Republicans offer a national agenda, something House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has said he will lay out in the coming months.

Both Edwards and Ross are running for open seats. Edwards is seeking to replace her own successor, Rep. Anthony Brown (D), who is quitting Congress to run for Maryland attorney general. Ross is running to represent a newly drawn congressional district north of Tampa, after his successor, Rep. Scott Franklin (R), opted to run in a neighboring seat.

The final contours of both seats must still be worked out. Florida's district lines have yet to be finalized in the midst of a dispute between the Republican-led legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), but both maps approved by legislators include a version of the district Ross hopes to represent. A Maryland judge on Friday threw out Democratic-approved maps there, though any new set of maps is likely to consolidate Edwards's home base of Prince George's County into a single seat.

Both districts favor their parties. Several Democrats have lined up to run for Brown's seat, including former Prince George's County State's Attorney Glenn Ivey (D), Delegate Jazz Lewis (D) and former Del. Angela Angel (D). Ross is likely to face other Republicans, though the redistricting delay has made that field less clear.

Edwards and Ross acknowledged that the Congress in which they hope to serve will be dramatically different than the ones they left as partisan tensions rise. But they said they hope to bring back some form of bipartisan comity - they each pointed to work they had done together through the Former Members of Congress, a group that brings together those who have left Capitol Hill to debate policy and engage students.

"We're politically opposite, but we found common ground on certain issues," Ross said of Edwards.

Ross has spent his time away from Washington running the American Center for Political Leadership and teaching political science at Southeastern University in what would be his new district, and his interaction with students had spurred him to think about running again. Edwards served as a pundit on NBC and MSNBC; she ran for Prince George's County executive in 2018, losing out to Angela Alsobrooks in the Democratic primary.

During her five terms in office, Edwards experienced both the highs of serving in the majority and the lows of relegation to the minority. Though polls show Republicans poised to reclaim control of the House, Edwards said she had found a way to exert influence.

"In most of my time in Congress, I served in the minority. It was a tougher environment, but I was still able to get things done," she said. "I haven't ceded the majority at all, because I think that there are opportunities out there to preserve the majority given the types of candidates who are potentially being nominated by the Republican Party."

Ross said he hoped to bring some of his experience with the Former Members of Congress group to bear on the next Congress, riven as it is by ill will and gridlock.

"I haven't changed my conservative values, but I believe that in order to build a true solution, you've got to reach across the aisle to get it done," he said. "I understand that no one party has a monopoly on good ideas, but that building relationships is crucial to finding solutions to major issues."