Mudflats Chats: Clare Ross
Rep. Lindsey Holmes, a former Democrat who campaigned as such, gathered donations as such, recruited volunteers and votes as such, and then decided (before she even took her oath of office) that she was going to switch teams and become a Republican. At that moment, Democratic District 19 became a hotbed of political controversy.
Clare Ross stepped up several months ago to run for that seat. A newcomer to the political realm, I thought I’d try to get to know her, and her ideas for the district and the state a bit better. We had coffee, and talked about Lindsey Holmes, the anger of the district, education funding, Alaska’s post-oil future, and what she brings to the table. Pull up a comfy chair, and a mug of something warm, and join us.
Jeanne Devon: So, first of all, how is the campaign going?
Clare Ross: It’s been going really well. It’s really fun.
Devon: You’re a new face to politics, so there’s always the question everyone wants to know. Why are you running?
Ross: I always thought I’d run for office some day, and then my husband and I moved to Sand Lake five years ago, and I started going to Community Council meetings. And then a couple months ago a friend and I were talking, and she said, “You know, you’re in Lindsey’s district, and you should run.” I started thinking about it, and I thought I’m in a perfect place to do it. I’ve got this new energy, new ideas, and all my friends have kids all over the place, and they have no time even for volunteering. And we don’t have kids, and I thought, “Well, I should take advantage of this opportunity. I’m in this place where I can give back.” A lot of my friends can’t right now.
Devon: I think that’s great – to understand your abilities, and opportunities, and use them to serve.
And I haven’t read Cheryl Sandberg’s book yet. But I’ve watched her TED talk a couple years ago called “Lean In.” And I was kind of thinking about that too. And she’s saying too many women are taking risks in moving up, and it’s hurting society by not having more women in leadership roles.
Devon: I look at the way Republicans strategized starting decades ago, just starting at the bottom – stacking positions, and building from the bottom up – community councils, city assemblies, state legislatures. And now they have this deep bench in places that they never had it before. And they have this because people were willing to do what you are doing, so thank you.
Ross: You’re welcome.
Devon: And so you just decided this was the time?
Ross: Yeah, I just kept thinking about it, and I told my husband I was thinking about it, and he said, “That’s a great idea! You should do it!” And that was the final piece.
Devon: What does he do?
Ross: He’s a physical therapist. And he recognized that this had been a dream of mine for a long time.
Devon: That’s great. And that’s really important, because if your significant other is not behind you 100%, it can make it really hard.
Ross: I know, he’s going to have to do a lot of dishes, and dinners! (laughs) And then it got to a point where I knew I’d regret it more if I didn’t do it, and I declared pretty shortly after that. I knew it was going to be a pretty hot district, and that other people were going to be thinking about it, so I did it. And just because I don’t have the name recognition, I know I’m going to have to work really hard and I’m going to go door to door three times before the election, which I think is key.
Devon: I think that the fact that the recall is going on at the same time, it’s on people’s minds when it normally wouldn’t be.
Ross: Yes, if I was in another district people might be wondering what I was doing and who I was. But now people know.
Devon: I think the recall issue means it’s always percolating. The race is always on people’s minds.
Ross: Yes, and it’s been keeping me really busy. I’ve been meeting with lots of people, and getting my website up and running. And I’ve gone door to door for a lot of candidates over the years, and I really enjoy it. I like people.
My most vivid memory was when Tony Knowles was running against Lisa Murkowski for Senate. It was such a tight race, and every vote counted. And I was really impressed at how organized they were. We were going to every door, and just rounding up voters.
Devon: Your district went for Obama by 54% or something, right?
Ross: With the redistricting, they tried to make Lindsey Holmes’ and Ernie Hall’s districts more conservative, so they lumped our neighborhood into Turnagain, so now I’m in the middle of this really liberal district.
When they redistricted us, and after the election, we got Lindsey Holmes and Hollis French, and I thought Wow, we’re in a Democratic district, this is so exciting! And then a few days later, when Lindsey switched parties I thought, Oh, well maybe we’re not any more.
Devon: What did you think about her decision?
Ross: You know, I supported her and I voted for her. I’m not taking it really personally with her the way some people are. I think it was not a good thing to do, and I’ve been disappointed in her voting record. And she’s changed in things like education. She used to support like increased money for education, which she voted against this session. So, it’s definitely not a personal vendetta the way it is for some people.
Devon: I wonder if some of it had to do with the fact that we had lost so much – we lost the bipartisan coalition. We were feeling down anyway, and it was just another thing. People were so dejected to begin with and I think they felt like they had just gotten kicked in the teeth when they were already down.
And she really, really tipped the scales with the party. With her switching, we lost a couple committee seats. Not only don’t they have power, they don’t even have a seat at the table for conversation.
Devon: Well, it is done at this point, and there’s nothing you can do to undo it, so why not put your energy into being positive and changing it back, rather than just lamenting, and holding grudges and all of that. It’s more like – this is not acceptable, and I’m stepping forward to do something about it.
Ross: Yeah. And I do think that the volunteer team will support me and put some of that energy toward my campaign.
Devon: I think that more than even just voters, that if you were someone who had taken your time and volunteered for her, and knocked doors for her, and devoted your precious resources, you’d be even more invested in changing things as they are now. Because no one has enough time or money to devote to every candidate they want to.
Ross: Yeah, exactly.
Devon: Talk about your experiences door-knocking!
Ross: It’s been really fun. I’ve gone to about 400 doors so far. Since I’m working full time and going to doors after work, I’m pretty tired when I start out. But then I have a few interesting conversations with my neighbors and I’m completely energized again. Alaskans are such a unique and wonderful bunch. It’s great to meet people and hear their stories. I live in a pretty terrific district!
Devon: Are people surprised you’re out so early?
A lot of people are following Lindsey’s controversy and are very excited to see someone running and working so hard for the seat. Those that aren’t following her are just appreciative that someone cares enough to come to their door. When I remind people that the election is over a year away, they are impressed that I’m working this hard already.
Devon: What do they say regarding Lindsey Holmes?
Ross: Most people are pretty angry. Not so much that she switched parties – there are a lot of independents in the district who vote for the person, not the party. It’s that she switched after they volunteered, donated and voted for her as a Democrat. They felt let down, and betrayed.
Devon: What issues, other than the recall, seem to be most on their minds?
Ross: Education is important to many people. They’re concerned that state funding isn’t keeping up with local need and don’t like having things like summer school and graduation counselors cut. I spoke with a family today who’s kids are currently in the Anchorage School District and they’re worried that their kids are not going to get the same high quality education that their 30-something dad got when he went through the system.
Of course, people are concerned about oil taxes. While most people recognize that we need to help oil companies stay profitable, they’re skeptical that the new oil tax is really in the best interest of the people.
Devon: Tell me about your recent “virtual fundraiser!” That got some very good press. Why did you decide to do one that way?
Ross: I really want to engage and energize folks who’ve become disillusioned with politics as usual – people who are highly active on the issues, but are not going to go to a traditional house party. They are an important part of my team and I wanted to provide them an outlet to participate in my campaign within their comfort zone. I’m also so busy going door-knocking right now, that I didn’t want to spend a lot of time planning a big event. For those that prefer to give in person, I’m also planning several house party fundraisers this fall.
Devon: What did it entail? How did you make it engaging for people?
Ross: I reached out to several highly-connected friends and asked them to spread the word to their lists. I also sent an email to my followers the week before to give them a head’s up. I posted my results and goals throughout the day, and people seemed really excited to see our team get closer to the goal. I also followed up with a phone bank with a small group of friends that evening to make sure we met our goal.
Devon: How much did you raise? Did you make it?
Ross: We raised $5500 from 68 donors, which beat my goal of $5500 from 53 donors!
Devon: That’s impressive. Any other events coming up we should know about?
Ross: You can find me out at the doors in the district most nights and weekends. I’m also planning a traditional house party fundraiser for mid-September.
Devon: So, you were talking about education, and how you were unhappy with Lindsey Holmes’ vote.
Ross: Specifically what I was talking about was increasing the per-student allocation, and it wasn’t a very big increase. And it went straight down party lines. Democrats voted for the amendment to increase, and the Republicans voted against it. I know there are money issues, and we can’t fund everything, but funding education is one of the state’s most basic responsibilities.
Devon: Right, and if we’ve decided we’re funding BP, Conoco, and Exxon, that’s a skewed priority.
Ross: Right. And what I’m thinking about education is that whenever we say that we need more money for education they say, “oh, we can’t just throw money at the problem, we need to come up with innovative solutions,” and yet for oil they ask how to get more oil out of the pipeline and they say, “well, we’ll just throw some money at it!”
And the more you fund education, the better off you are in the future I believe, because you’re investing in the kids that can figure out the solutions that are going to get us out of financial problems in the future.
Devon: I have a kid in high school, and I hear back about cuts. There are courses that she wanted desperately to take, and waited for, that are no longer available. Counselors are being cut, staff is being cut. These kids are old enough to notice that, and old enough to be mad, and ask what’s going on. I think it’s going to be really interesting in a few years when the underfunding of education affects kids that can now vote.
Ross: I know what you mean. Yeah, that will be interesting.
Devon: Because my daughter says, “my friends are mad.” They all see the cuts. They know who is there and who isn’t there, and what used to be available and now isn’t. They know that graduation coaches are no longer around.
Ross: I’m involved in the United Way’s 90 by 2020 campaign, and I participated in a focus group about two years ago with some at-risk teens. Some were almost out of high school, and some were just out of high school and the number one thing that came up was that they didn’t have adequate counseling. Their teachers obviously cared, for that hour that they were with them, but they didn’t have that one person looking out for them. And a lot of them didn’t even meet with a guidance counselor until a couple months before school was out. And then what are they going to do? And that seemed to be the number one thing that kids really wanted was a counselor that was meeting with them from freshman year, to help them plan their future.
And then to see that’s the first thing that gets cut is just awful.
Devon: And when you look at what happened after graduation coaches were instituted at the beginning until the end, we had a noticeable increase in the number of kids who graduated. There was tangible proof of the best kind – hundreds of kids with diplomas who never would have graduated.
There’s actually a video that was done showing the affect that the graduation coaches had on these kids, that was really incredible, really moving. And they showed it at a School Board meeting, and the School Board members were almost choking up – it was so good.
Ross: And I look at the School District, and I feel sorry for them. I mean, I work at the library and I don’t want to see school librarians cut, but what are they going to cut? There’s really not much left. You can’t cut teachers, and have no teachers in the classrooms. I feel bad for the School District, and that’s why I think that it’s the state’s responsibility to make sure it’s fully funded and the School District doesn’t have to scramble every year. They almost don’t know until the school year starts how much they’re going to have.
Devon: So, I’m guessing then if you had to name an issue that’s your pet issue, education is it?
Ross: Yeah, definitely.
Devon: What are other issues that speak to you?
Ross: I’m really into economic development. I’ve been volunteering at the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation on their Live Work Play campaign. It’s great. It’s like Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. They have someone from the library, a real estate agent, someone from the museum, someone from the hospital, and we all meet fairly regularly.
Devon: What’s the goal of the campaign?
Ross: It’s really cool. They’re trying to pick some overarching themes that we can all work on together, and furlough housing is a big one. It’s hard to have success in the other areas until someone has a good place to live. And then we’re working on creative placemaking in recognition that art is really important to the economy in a way that a lot of cities don’t recognize, and Anchorage is starting to recognize – considering art a little bit more, and valuing art. And we don’t know how that’s going to work yet, but we’ve started it.
They had Richard Florida come up and talk this winter, and he wrote The Rise of the Creative Class. And he was working in Pittsburgh to try to develop the tech sector there, and he did all of this… capital improvements, tax breaks, all this stuff to try to lure in the companies, and they were about to get this really big one and they decided to move to Boston instead.
So, he called the head of the company and asked why, because Boston’s got a higher cost of living, and higher taxes. Why would you move there instead of Pittsburgh? And he said because that’s where all the cool, smart people live. I couldn’t get the right people I need for my company in Pittsburgh like I can in Boston. And so he really started thinking about that and how creative people, and brainy people. We can’t just sit around and wait for the oil industry to save us when I think that the most valuable resource we have is the Alaskan people, and there has to be more we can be doing to diversify our economy.
Devon: And oil is a finite resource, no matter how much we don’t want to think about that from an economic standpoint. But at some point, it is. So, you’re right. We need to be thinking about what our post-Kuparak economy will look like. Because in as much as Boston or San Francisco may have cool people, or a great arts scene, Alaska also has a non-monetary lure for people, but it’s the outdoors. If you love to fish, or you love the scenery, and the incredible open wilderness spaces, you might take a job here that pays less than one in New York, because you can hike the Chugach, or go to Ship Creek to fish after work. And just because we’re lucky enough to have that, doesn’t mean we have to stop at that.
Ross: Yeah, yeah. And through that, I got to go to a really interesting conference. The Lt. Governor oversees a state committee on research, and they just put out a draft of their master plan, and it’s so great. It’s a state document and it’s about 10 pages long, so it’s really readable. And they picked some areas we excel at, and that we can build industries around. And a lot of it is resource development, and cold climate kind of things – engineering related to cold climates. And the University of Alaska just came out with this product that’s like plastic wrapped in rolls, and you lay it on the ground and pour cement on top to heat sidewalks, instead of those really expensive coils. And it’s been developed at UAA and I think they’re about ready to take it to market. And so there’s all sorts of things like that happening across the state that don’t get any attention.
Devon: Wow. That’s amazing. And we’re really a petrie dish for all kinds of renewable energy projects and innovation up here. And just in Anchorage, you’ve got geothermal potential across the inlet, and tidal energy like crazy, wind now on Fire Island, solar, you name it.
I feel like Anchorage is at a transition point, and we’re about to blossom. I feel like we’re at the beginning of something really exciting, and I think that this Old Guard that runs Juneau, like I said, is sitting around saying “Oh, oil companies, come save us!” And they don’t realize that there are all these young people doing incredible things that the establishment doesn’t even know about. And so that’s kind of what my campaign is. I’m part of the movement of those younger people that is starting to move up into leadership to develop new and creative things that show we don’t have to just keep the same old way of doing things.
Devon: Thank you so much for talking to me. I really feel like I have a deeper sense of you as a person, and what your aspirations are for the community and the state.
Ross: It was great talking to you.