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Counting votes with Rep. Deborah K. Ross

As she joins the Democratic whip team, her strategy is ‘listen and observe’

“I’m an impatient person,” says Rep. Deborah K. Ross, but she’s learned not to rush through things.
“I’m an impatient person,” says Rep. Deborah K. Ross, but she’s learned not to rush through things. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Deborah K. Ross is an optimist, despite the chaotic early days of her first term in Congress.

Three days after the North Carolina Democrat was sworn in, a pro-Trump mob invaded the Capitol. “I don’t think I’ve ever in my life … been in that kind of danger,” Ross says.

Now she’s entering her second term and joining the Democratic whip team as one of 10 chief deputies — a job that seems like a natural fit for someone who counts votes for fun.

“If it’s a big vote, I’ll sit by myself and look at the board … sometimes I take a screenshot,” says the lawyer and former state lawmaker.

Ross sat down with CQ Roll Call to talk about how North Carolina politics have changed, the time she served under two speakers at once, and how she learned to “listen and observe,” even as an impatient person.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Q: You’ve said you came to Congress at one of the “darkest moments of our nation’s recent history.” Do you still feel that way?

A: I was sworn into Congress in the middle of COVID and three days before an insurrection, and so it was a time when everybody felt under siege. I had a sense of duty during danger.

I’m a big fan of funding pandemic preparedness. If you think this is the last time this is going to happen, you’re living in Alice in Wonderland. The other thing that has been heartening is that the American people have seen through the “big lie.” Not everyone, clearly, and not everyone in Congress. But the work of the Jan. 6 committee and the will of the voters defying expectations in the midterms — it shows the American people can be resilient and smart.

Q: You went to oral arguments this month for Moore v. Harper, the big Supreme Court case out of your home state. What were your takeaways?

A: Yes. And I stayed the whole time. Let’s start with the independent state legislature theory, which is a fringe theory. Even the Supreme Court seemed to think it was not consistent with our history. 

You probably read in many places it was kind of a 3-3-3 situation, with three justices inclined to support it, three in the middle who see the importance of judicial review but are looking for some guideposts, and then three who think it’s a crock. 

To me, Amy Coney Barrett’s questions were very heartening. I thought she was extremely engaged, extremely aware of both the law and the facts and ready to push back. 

So we’ll see. I don’t think it will get the traction that the North Carolina General Assembly wants it to get, and that will be good for the future of this country. 

In terms of being in the courthouse, it was wonderful. I’d been on a tour before, but I’d never been there for an argument. I sat next to Virginia Foxx, my colleague from North Carolina. 

As an attorney, it felt even more important for me to physically be there, to absorb the moment and see how the justices were interacting with each other. You can’t get that on an audio [livestream]. I think it’s great that they’re finally doing audio, but I’m seeing who deferred to whom, who was rolling their eyes, who was nodding off. 

Q: You served in the state legislature for a decade, starting in 2003. How has the political climate in North Carolina changed? 

A: My very first term in the statehouse, we were equally divided. There were multiple votes cast to get a speaker, and we finally had co-speakers, which was a unique situation. And it turned out to be an efficient situation, because they basically told their extremes, “We can’t do that,” and so we only did what the center of both parties wanted to do. 

Now the state legislature is solidly Republican, but I also served as minority whip back when we could sustain a veto. That was when Beverly Perdue was governor, and veto overrides were the thing to get.

The good thing for me was I learned how to operate under all circumstances, how to play offense and how to play defense. And of course, playing offense is always more fun. But I also understand the importance of being able to do bipartisan work, because really that is the only work that’s enduring. 

Q: What did you learn during your first term, and what will you change in your second?

A: It’s a lesson I’ve had to relearn throughout my life, because I’m an impatient person. Always take time to listen and observe. Because if you listen and observe, you will understand why things are happening. 

Some of the members of our caucus think that caucus meetings aren’t worth going to or they can multitask. But I try to go to as many caucus and whip meetings as possible, because even if I’m not going to get some nugget that’s not yet reported in the news, I learn about my colleagues. I get an opportunity to speak to the leadership while we’re waiting. If you don’t rush through things, sometimes that’s the greatest teacher. 

I try to do that on the floor, too. If it’s a big vote, I’ll sit by myself and look at the board, because I want to see who’s voted and who hasn’t voted. Sometimes I take a screenshot so I can pay attention to that before we get the whip report.

Q: You went to law school at the University of North Carolina, and then you taught at Duke. So who do you root for, the Tar Heels or the Blue Devils?

A: When those two teams play, I root for the Tar Heels. However, I represent the Wolfpack and NC State. 

My husband has two degrees from NC State, and they are usually the underdog. They’re called the cardiac pack. I don’t know if you remember Jim Valvano —  you might be too young for that. “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.” So I have a real allegiance because of my constituents and because of the underdog situation.

Quick hits 

Last book you read? “Crying in H Mart” by Michelle Zauner. It’s a fantastic book, and I love H Mart.

In politics, can the ends justify the means? Only in the short term, and it’s not the way to go. The most important thing is to do something that endures and doesn’t produce an immediate backlash. 

If you could change one thing about Congress, what would it be? A more certain schedule.

Closest friend across the aisle? I’ve worked with Darrell Issa, and we’re kind of an unlikely couple. But we’ve been very successful, particularly on judicial ethics. And then Mariannette Miller-Meeks, who is also a freshman, she and I have been doing a tremendous amount of work for the documented Dreamers.

If you could do any other job, what would it be? I would either be a diplomat or a lifeguard. I was a competitive swimmer and a synchronized swimmer.

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