Dennis Ross: “It's always been contentious, and that's OK ... But it's become more polarized, which is not healthy. And I think if we were to focus on some of our common ground we would accomplish more.”
An earlier version of this story said that Democratic Rep. Darren Soto lives in Celebration. His residence is now Kissimmee. This story has been updated.
LAKELAND — At a time when he admits to being discouraged about the state of American politics, U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross said he drew succor from the atmosphere at Wednesday’s memorial service for former President George H.W. Bush.
Ross, a Republican from Lakeland, joined other members of the political class for the ceremony in the National Cathedral.
“The Bush funeral, I think, really opened a lot of people’s eyes to what civil discourse was like by some of our great leaders, and George H.W. Bush was a great man,” Ross said the following day. “Say what you want about his politics, but he was a person of character, of integrity, of tolerance — and we need that. We’re not seeing that in our leaders any more, and that’s what concerns me.”
Ross was packing up his Washington apartment Thursday in preparation for his departure after four terms in Congress. If Congress reaches a budget deal and avoids a government shutdown, Ross will be home in Lakeland for Christmas.
When the next Congress convenes Jan. 3, Ross will assume a new role as a political science professor at Southeastern University and inaugural director of the school’s American Center for Political Leadership. He said he hopes the program will promote political engagement and civility.
Reflecting on his years in Washington, Ross said he leaves with disappointment that Republicans didn’t accomplish more during eight years with a majority in the House and the past four with control of the Senate.
“We were able to get a tax cut done (in 2017), which I think has been a tremendous benefit to our economy, but we were never able to get 218 Republican votes to get packages out of the House that we campaigned on in 2010, whether it was immigration reform, whether it was health reform, whether it was the Dodd-Frank (consumer protection) repeal,” Ross said by phone from Washington. “These were big issues that we all campaigned on in 2010.”
Ross, a Lakeland native, spent eight years in the Florida Legislature before capturing a congressional seat in 2010, succeeding Adam Putnam of Bartow. Ross arrived as part of the conservative Tea Party wave that saw Republicans gain 63 House seats and regain the majority.
He easily won re-election three times before announcing in April that he would not seek another term. Democrats retook control of the House in November’s election, though Ross’ seat remained red with the election of Ross Spano of Dover.
Failing to deliver
Ross said voters gave Republicans a mandate in 2010 to address the budget deficits and national debt that had been swelling for decades.
“The way I look at it is we came in and we gave the speaker (John Boehner) the majority and a message,” Ross said. “I feel that the speaker took the majority and never listened to the message, and the message was that we had to get things done that we campaigned on. ... We never took steps to address the debt and deficit, and I think that has been one of our unfortunate issues that led to us losing the majority (in 2018).”
During the tenure of President Barack Obama, Democrats muscled through the Affordable Care Act (commonly called Obamacare) without any Republican support. Likewise, Republicans last year passed a $1.5 trillion tax cut package without a single Democratic “yes” vote.
Ross said the best legislation always has bipartisan support.
“It’s always been contentious, and that’s OK,” he said of inter-party relations. “That’s a byproduct of the process. But it’s become more polarized, which is not healthy. And I think if we were to focus on some of our common ground we would accomplish more.”
He said the parties could have reached agreement on some aspects of immigration reform, including changes to visas and a guest worker program that would benefit Florida’s main industries.
“If we’d just focused on those two issues in immigration, we could have done significant reforms,” he said. “But because of the polarization, no one wants to give in because then it looks like they were the weak ones in the negotiations. And that’s not healthy. This is process of give and take.”
Ross said long-time representatives have told him how different relations once were between members of opposite parties. Democrats and Republicans used to socialize together, and that created a sense of camaraderie and yielded bipartisan efforts.
Though he said he has made good friends among the House Democrats — he mentioned Darren Soto of Kissimmee, Kathy Castor of Tampa and John Delaney of Maryland — Ross said members of Congress don’t often develop close relationships across party lines. He said he worries that new House members will accept the current divisive atmosphere as the norm.
“So they’re coming in at a time and their standards are going to be it’s always going to be this polarized,” he said.
In November’s midterm elections, Democrats made their biggest House gains since the post-Watergate era. Ross said he knew history favored the opposition party to the president in midterms, yet the results suggested popular dissatisfaction with Republicans.
“I thought we could hang on to the majority,” he said. “But I think we will look back and do a post-mortem and say, ‘How did we lose when the economy was doing the best it’s ever been?’ I think it will come back to us as Republicans not being able to manage a message very well, and two, showing that the American public is tired of polarization.”
Even as he lamented Republicans’ failure to pass landmark legislation, Ross said politicians often create unrealistic expectations for voters during campaigns.
“Regardless of which party’s in charge, I think we need to do better at managing expectations of what can be done in Congress,” he said. “We’ve got a process that it takes years, if not decades, to get a major piece of legislation passed. The tax bill was evidence of that. ... Campaigning and governing are two different things.”
Many observers would attribute Republicans’ loss of their House majority to the unpopularity of President Donald Trump, whose approval rating has never reached 50 percent in most polls. Ross enthusiastically campaigned for Trump during a rally in Lakeland shortly before the 2016 election.
Ross said he still thinks Trump was preferable to his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, but acknowledged that he disagrees with Trump’s “methods and manners.”
“I saw at the last presidential election the remaking of the Republican Party,” he said. “We had so many candidates — which wasn’t a bad thing — and no one was the ideal candidate, and then you’ve got this bull in a china shop that says, ‘I’ll do it,’ and nobody believes him and the next thing you know he’s there. That shows you our party was already in a state of change.”
Ross frequently criticized Obama during his presidency, accusing him of exceeding his authority with executive orders. He filed a resolution in 2016 censuring Obama for what he considered a failure to honor a law preventing residents of countries suspected of terrorism from visiting the United States without visas.
Ross said there is a difference between his rebukes of Obama’s policies and the personal attacks that plague our electoral system. He noted that his wife, Cindy Hartley Ross, has often disagreed with him and expressed criticism during their 35 years of marriage.
“I’m not telling you that you can’t be critical of somebody, but the character assassination should be identified as the losing battle of those that want to use that as an argument,” Ross said. “I don’t believe in attacking the character. I believe in attacking the substance of the debate.”
When Ross announced he wouldn’t seek re-election, he cited his desire to leave Washington and return to his hometown. He now allows that the intense polarization in Congress also influenced his decision.
“I realized I have a responsibility of the public trust, and I mean this very sincerely,” he said. “As an elected official, you carry the public trust and you can’t betray that trust. And yet the public is not sure what they’re trusting because we have built up a system where we say one thing and then we do another and then hope they’ll forgive us.”
Ross said he worries about low rates of participation in elections and other elements of government. He cited the high number of Floridians registered with neither major party — nearly 27 percent — as a sign of disenchantment with the political system.
“People are getting away from wanting to get involved,” he said. “They’re apathetic because they don’t like the contentiousness, the polarization, the nastiness. They say, ‘What does it matter?’ ... Instead of demanding more out of us to be better civil servants, they’re just not engaged in the process, and that’s a cancer that can ruin our democracy.”
Ross said it could take a new generation to counter the cynicism and apathy that now surrounds American politics. He hopes he will help develop that generation through his work at Southeastern.
Though his job doesn’t start until January, Ross said he has already made inquiries with current and former elected officials from both parties. He said everyone he has approached has been enthusiastic about speaking to students.
In summing up his time in office, Ross said his fondest memories will be of small actions on behalf of constituents.
“Probably some of the biggest (accomplishments) are the ones that you never read about,” he said. “It’s the widow who gets her Social Security benefits. It’s the veteran who gets his appointments at the VA and gets his benefits or his Distinguished Service Award. It’s help with the IRS. There have been a lot of these that are just day-to-day accomplishments with the constituency that are never going to make the paper but they’re going to gratify the hearts of those we serve, because they’re going to know government can work if we have the right people acting as a conduit, and I’ve had a great staff and I’ve been able to see that happen.”
Gary White can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.