When Deborah Ross won election to Congress in 2020, she thought she would go to Washington, D.C., well prepared to deal with partisanship.
The Wake County Democrat had plenty of experience with it. She led the ACLU of North Carolina, taking up causes often opposed by conservatives. She was a member of the state House in 2011 when Republicans assumed full control of the General Assembly for the first time in over a century and launched a conservative revolution. She lost a Senate race against Sen. Richard Burr in 2016 in which Republican ads attacked her as too radical because of her ACLU work.
But none of that quite prepared her for what she met in Washington, D.C. Three days after being sworn in as the new representative for North Carolina’s 2nd District, she was in her office in the Longworth Building when a mob stormed the Capitol trying to overturn the presidential election. At 4:55 p.m on Jan. 6, she tweeted: “Today’s dangerous events, incited by hate and misinformation from the highest levels, are heartbreaking and wrong. They have no place in our political discourse.”
After that day, no one who entered Congress in 2021 was a freshman anymore. They and all members of Congress had seen Democracy unravel in its citadel. Not only had the mob attacked, but the majority of House Republicans still voted hours later to challenge the results of the presidential election.
This was a different level of division than Ross had encountered during contentious legal disputes over civil rights and wrangling with Republicans in the North Carolina House. I met with her when she returned to her district last week and asked her about the risks to Democracy.
“It’s much worse than we think,” she said. “I’m terrified. I’m terrified because there’s no bipartisan belief in the common good, there’s no agreement on facts, there’s no agreement on truth when it gets into this partisan cauldron.”
Ross, 57, said she agrees with President Biden that “We’re in a fight for the soul of the nation.” But she added that it can’t be won by one side defeating the other. “It has to be a bipartisan fight,” she said, in which leaders on both sides stand up for what defines the United States and stand against those who would reject equality and undermine democracy.
“We have to speak to what people really care about and what’s going to help our county move forward, help everyone in our country move forward,” she said.
On paper, Ross – a liberal lawyer representing a deep blue district – seems an unlikely political bridge builder, but she prides herself on being a pragmatic politician who can work within her party and across the aisle. She reports having friendly words with two pro-Trump firebrands in the House, North Carolina’s Madison Cawthorn and Ohio’s Jim Jordan, though she hasn’t yet crossed paths – or swords – with Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene.
“I think I have the right temperament for this,” she said. “I don’t take it personally. I just go in and do my job and figure out how to do it. Can I get this little amendment in? Can I get the committee chairman to hear my bill? How many committee members do I need to talk to? That’s how you get it done.”
But Ross worries that polarization is making that approach a rarity when it’s needed the most. “People just like to fight, and then they like to tweet about it and then they like to send out a fundraising email about it,” she said. “I just don’t have the energy to get into those back-and-forths because there is too much work to do.”
While tensions are high between the parties on Capitol Hill, Ross said the trauma of the Capitol attack has eased infighting within her party. “I think January 6 kind of focused everybody. We better be working together. We only have a few vote margin. We can’t mess this up,” she said.
One way to not mess up, she said, is to not give up on democracy, no matter how dangerous, bitter or surreal things get on Capitol Hill.
“It’s scary, but you can’t give up. You can’t give up,” she said. “I’m with Jim Valvano there – don’t give up, don’t ever give up.”
Barnett: 919-829-4512, firstname.lastname@example.org