On a recent Saturday afternoon in Prescott, U.S. Rep. Mike Ross was in a quiet cow pasture, setting up his skeet machines.
"I'm probably the only member of Congress who shoots a shotgun 150 times a weekend," Ross said of his favorite hobby as he was getting a box of shells from the back of his pickup truck.
This country boy image comes naturally to Ross, who grew up in Nevada and Hempstead counties and has family roots in the area that stretch back over generations. His background and ability to relate to his constituents have served him well through 10 years in the state Senate and four years in the U.S. House. Ross has never lost a political race, and this year he is unopposed for re-election to a seat that he barely wrested from four-term incumbent Jay Dickey in 2000.
With secure electoral standing, almost $500,000 in the bank, and a rising profile within the Democratic congressional leadership, Ross has emerged as a power in Arkansas politics. His ascendancy may surprise some political observers who view him as a young, overeager lightweight. However, associates who have followed his career over the years describe Ross as a tough campaigner who chooses smart policy positions, raises prodigious amounts of money, and out-hustles his opponents.
"He has a passion for politics that borders on an obsession," said Bill Paschall, a Little Rock political consultant who has known Ross for 20 years. "He is one of the most intense and hard-working politicians I have ever met."
Recently this has led to widespread mention of his name among potential candidates for governor in 2006. Ross, who's never publicly discussed his interest in running for the state's top executive position, confirmed it with the Times.
"I have received a lot of encouragement to run for governor in 2006 and I am seriously considering it," Ross said. "It is a job I want to do, the question is whether I run in 2006 or some time in the future, and it is a question I cannot answer today. That's a decision my family and I will make over the next several months."
The Congressional Directory identifies Ross as a small business owner, and he and his wife Holly own a pharmacy and medical supply outfit in Prescott. In reality, Ross has been involved with politics his entire adult life, and Holly actually manages the enterprises.
Ross cut his political teeth as a UALR undergraduate, when he served the Young Democrats of Arkansas as vice president for colleges. It was during this time that he was a driver for Bill Clinton in the 1982 gubernatorial campaign, Clinton's comeback against Frank White. Not long after that, Ross left UALR, married Holly, moved to Emmet, and got a job with a radio station in Hope. He also won election to the Nevada County Quorum Court, where he held office from 1983-85.
Politics brought Ross back to Little Rock in 1985, when Lt. Gov. Winston Bryant made him the chief of staff. Ross stayed there for the next five years, and completed his degree at UALR during that time.
In 1989, Ross read about the state Senate seat being vacated by Mike Kinard of Magnolia, who represented a district that included Ross' home county. He wasted no time moving back to Prescott, where he opened an insurance business and started campaigning for Kinard's job.
"I knocked on every door in four counties," remembers Ross, who was 28 at the time. He won the Democratic primary in May 1990, which in effect gave him the Senate post.
Movin' on up
He drew a two-year term for his first trip to the Senate, but he was re-elected for four-year terms in 1992 and 1996. By 1999, Ross understood that term limits would prevent him from further time in the Senate, so he turned his attention to the U.S. House race in 2000.
"I didn't think I could beat Dickey," Ross said during an interview in his Prescott office. "I literally woke up on election night convinced I was going to lose. If I ran close, at least I would demonstrate that I could raise money and campaign, and that would give me the opportunity to run whenever he retired."
State Rep. Jay Bradford, who as the Democratic nominee lost to Dickey in 1994, encouraged Ross to run in 2000. Like Paschall, he attributes Ross' victory to a relentless work ethic.
"I ran in that district, and it's a man-killer," Bradford said. "He was young enough and energetic enough to win there. I mean, can you imagine how many Farm Bureau meetings he attends?"
Ross was the unexpected winner of a crowded Democratic primary before he even had the chance to face Dickey in the general election. And he stood out among incoming House freshmen as the only Democrat outside of California to defeat an incumbent.
Since that time, Ross has acquired a seat on the House Financial Services committee, which is a difficult appointment to secure without seniority. Also, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi asked him to serve on her policy and steering committee, which gives him a nominal role within the Democratic leadership.
Always a self-described centrist Democrat, Ross has protected his right flank from Republican attacks by maintaining a conservative voting record on cultural issues. For instance, he earned the endorsement of the National Rifle Association for his 2002 re-election campaign, and recently he announced his intention to vote for the federal and state constitutional amendments defining marriage as a union only between a man and a woman.
Facing no re-election challenge, Ross is further bolstering his congressional position by distributing money to national House candidates and political committees. In addition to writing a $150,000 check to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, he has spread $58,000 among Democratic incumbents, challengers, and open seat prospects around the country.
Ross is doing everything right if he wants to keep his congressional job and move up within the Democratic leadership. However, he admits no goal within that institution besides landing a seat on the Energy and Commerce committee, where legislation concerning energy and health care issues is considered.
Some political observers have speculated that Ross' flirtation with the governor's race may help him secure the committee assignment or other favors. For example, U.S. Rep. Marion Berry's current seat on the House Appropriations committee is due in some part to his public consideration of a U.S. Senate candidacy in 2002. The House Democratic Leadership wanted to encourage Berry to hold his seat instead of giving a Republican a chance to capture an open seat, and Ross may be able to capitalize on a similar dynamic.
However, Ross dismisses this idea.
"I don't think it influences what the Democratic leadership does or doesn't do for me," Ross said. "Dickey was an anomaly, and I'm confident I would be succeeded by a Democrat if I didn't run for re-election."
About that governor's race . . . .
Ross tries to say that he hasn't had time to deeply ponder the pros and cons of gubernatorial candidacy in 2006, but many of his remarks belie that contention. "A day doesn't go by that someone - in DC or Little Rock - doesn't come up and encourage me to run in 2006," Ross said at one point.
In his mind, the question is less one of whether he wants the job; he says he does. The real issue is whether he runs in 2006 or (assuming whoever wins in 2006 serves two terms) 2014. He likes to point out that he will only be 53 that year.
"I'm sick and tired of us being 48th and 49th in every category," Ross cites as a main reason for why he wants to lead the state.
He also mentioned education as a top priority, but he added, "If we are educating our young people to leave the state, what are we accomplishing?" With that in mind, he says he wants to keep the jobs we already have in the state, in addition to bringing more.
In a clear sign that Ross has been discussing his potential candidacy with current Democratic state legislators who are infuriated with Gov. Mike Huckabee's disdain for them, he promises that he would bring a different style to governing. Huckabee is prevented by the state Constitution from seeking the office again in 2006. "Having served in Congress, I know that teamwork is important, helping others get elected," Ross notes. "As governor, I would support legislators who share my values." Later, driving in his pickup truck on the way to shoot skeet, Ross offered an opinion on the rumors of his run for governor.
"The fact that I had two tough races, that I'm campaign tested . . . . That's what has people talking," he said.
This could be interpreted as a subtle jab at his likely opponent in a Democratic primary: Attorney General Mike Beebe, who hasn't said anything about his plans for 2006 but who is known to be lining up support for a race. In his 22-year political career, Beebe has never faced an electoral opponent.
"We served together in the state Senate, and I consider him a personal friend," Ross said when asked about the prospect of running against Beebe. "Of course, Fulbright thought Bumpers was a friend." (Incumbent J. William Fulbright was defeated by then-Gov. Dale Bumpers in the 1974 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate.)
Ross thinks a primary would be healthy, and he mentioned his own primary battle in 2000.
"I'm convinced that if I hadn't had a primary, I wouldn't have beat Dickey," he said. "It gave me a chance to let people know who I was and what I stood for before the Republicans had a chance to define me through attack ads."
These days, Ross believes most Arkansans are familiar with him, despite the fact that he has not held statewide office. His congressional district is the largest in Arkansas, comprising 29 counties, offering him television exposure in every market except Jonesboro.
Ross also touts his impressive fund-raising record, arguing that his skills would be useful if paired against Lt. Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller, who has been talked about as a possible gubernatorial candidate on the Republican side. Even further, he says he could donate his current cash reserves to the state Democratic Party.
Nevertheless, even some of his closest friends and supporters believe he should sit out the 2006 race.
"There is plenty of time for him to run for governor," said Bradford, who thinks Beebe has earned the right to be the Democratic nominee for the state's top office. "I would like to see him stay in Congress for another 10 or 12 years and produce for the Fourth District."
While Ross maintains that he enjoys his current job, he told the Times that if he decides he can better serve the state as governor, he will throw his hat in the ring. "In every race I've ever run, I've always been the underdog," Ross said as he was putting away his guns. "I kinda like that."