WASHINGTON — As his sixth and last term in Congress comes to an end, Mike Ross says he has not regretted his decision to leave office and is satisfied that he has done his best representing the 4th District of Arkansas.
"I thought maybe during the heat of the campaign or on election night or sometime during the lame duck session I’d start having some regrets, and I haven’t," said Ross, D-Prescott. "I just never viewed my service in Congress as becoming a permanent career."
Ross, now 51, got his first real taste of politics as a driver for Bill Clinton during the former president’s 1982 Arkansas gubernatorial campaign. Ross was later elected to the Arkansas Senate and served there for 10 years before his election to Congress in November 2000. He was sworn into the U.S. House on Jan. 3, 2001, two weeks before Clinton ended his second term in office.
In the dozen years that have followed, the nation suffered the September 11 terrorist attacks, went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, endured a near meltdown of its financial institutions and has seen a deepening partisan divide that has left its political system in gridlock.
"It was a challenging and historic time to be here. We made a lot of tough decisions and I tried to make those on the best information available to me at the time as well as the majority views of people in my district," Ross said. "I know I didn’t always get it right, but I tried to be faithful to the people who sent me here."
Like all outgoing members, Ross has had to shut down his Washington office to make way for a new occupant come Thursday, when the 113th Congress convenes.
He is left with a cubicle, where one of his remaining staff members answers the phone in the waning days of the lame duck session. U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., has generously allowed Ross temporary use of his office in the basement of the U.S. Capitol, a large and comfortable space.
Being a member of Congress is really three jobs in one: Policy maker, public servant and fundraiser. Ross enjoyed the first two tasks, not so much the third.
"The minute you raise your right hand and take the oath of office you are 15 months away from the filing deadline to do it all over again. Fundraising is a constant. I mean television, newspaper and radio ads are very expensive and I never learned to like that part of the job," Ross said.
What he did enjoy was traveling across southern Arkansas to listen to his constituents and help those in need traverse the federal bureaucracy. Ross drove his Ford Explorer into the ground after a couple hundred thousand miles and now has a 2010 Ford Expedition that’s got about 50,000 miles on it.
"It’s a very large rural district and there are a lot of town hall meetings," he said. "If you are going to get people you’ve got to get out among them and listen to them and take their issues and concerns back to the nation’s capital."
Among the most rewarding experiences for him has been helping World War II veterans receive medals they earned during their service.
"As they grew older, they thought about those medals and wanted to pass them on to their children and grandchildren but needed to go back and pull records and fill out the paperwork involved to secure them," Ross said. "We were able to do that, and in many instances, be part of a ceremony where we could pin a Bronze Star or a Purple Heart on an aging veteran surrounded by their family and friends."
Some tasks have been difficult, no more so than speaking to family of fallen soldiers. Ross remembers making such a call to Jewele Lyons just after the Sept. 11 attacks. Her son, 29-year-old Navy Petty Officer Nehamon Lyons, was killed at the Pentagon.
"I was a new Congressman and I really hadn’t experienced anything like that. It was one of the most difficult calls I ever made," Ross said. "Since then, I’ve made many other calls similar to that. I’ve tried to reach out to the family or spouse of any (4th District) soldier killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s something you never get use to or comfortable doing, but it is important to let them know they are appreciated and not forgotten."
Ross has served on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and is co-chairman of both the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus and the Democratic Blue Dog Coalition. He has been an outspoken advocate for reducing the federal debt.
As early as February 2001, Ross had gone to the House floor to raise concerns about the debt that had reached $5 trillion and had proposed a "lock box" to keep Social Security and Medicare surpluses from being eroded.
Among his proudest votes, Ross said, was the one cast in 2007 in favor of raising the minimum wage, which had not been increased in a decade. The hourly wage went from $5.15 to $7.25. He said he was also glad to see funding provided for construction of Interstates 69 and 49, highways that he said will help the Arkansas economy grow.
Ross said he has no remorse over voting in favor of the Troubled Asset Relief Program at the end of President Bush’s term or for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act at the beginning of President Obama’s term, despite strong opposition from many constituents.
"People perceived that we were bailing out the banks but it was never about the banks, it was about the people who had deposits in those banks or who had their home mortgages in those banks," he said. "I remember being told that two-thirds of all the home loans in America were in six banks and 90 percent of all banking deposits were in 20 banks. And, those banks were about to go under.
"I am convinced that the actions we took — no matter how unpopular — saved us from a much deeper recession or perhaps depression."
Ross announced in July 2011 that he would not seek a seventh term but was leaving open the possibility of running for governor. Last May, he announced he would not run for governor in 2014 and instead would take a job at Southwest Power Pool in Little Rock as a senior vice president for government affairs and public relations.
The new job will mean he can spend more time in Arkansas with his family. He’s also looking forward to more time duck and deer hunting and watching Razorback football.
Asked again about running for elected office in the future, Ross delivered the politicians equivalent of the standard "pawn to king four" chess opening.
"You never say never," Ross said. "I don’t have any plan or design in which I am going to be on the ballot in the future, but I’m only 51."
Ross wouldn’t even shut the door on running for governor in 2014, something he had done just seven months ago.
"That’s two years from now. Two years is a long time off," he said.