In race to represent D.C. as shadow senator, Pete Ross focuses on the future


Shadow senator candidate Pete Ross, right, speaks to shadow representative candidate Nate Bennett-Fleming on March 17 at the Ward 8 Democrats' Red & White Intergenerational Ball, as Bennett-Fleming's friend Markus Batchelor listens. (Astrid Riecken/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
Mike DeBonis
District of DeBonis March 20, 2012

Rest assured that Pete Ross doesn’t need the $200,000 he’s prepared to spend on his pending run for shadow senator.

“It’s not going to hurt me one iota,” says the 65-year-old businessman and longtime Foxhall Village resident. “I have a house in Palm Beach, and I have a house in — have you heard of Manhattan Beach, Calif.?”

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays. View Archive

I have. I am told his house there is right on the ocean and the grandkids love it. But right now, he insists, he’d rather spend his cash on a quixotic political campaign.

This year, the $202,000 he’s injected into his campaign coffers would be enough to make him the best-financed candidate in the race for an at-large D.C. Council seat — a position that comes with actual power and a decent paycheck. But instead he’s challenging incumbent Michael D. Brown (D) for the powerless, payless shadow senator job.

Should Ross outpoll Brown in the April 3 Democratic primary, he would likely have six years worth of access to a soapbox to advocate for District statehood — a relatively small soapbox.

Ross made his money in furniture — high-end plastic furniture, to be exact. One of his crystal-clear acrylic dining tables can retail for as much as $20,000. They’re quite popular with interior designers in Miami and Los Angeles, I’m told.

Ross, active in neighborhood politics for two decades, says he’s ready for a new challenge. “I’ve been doing my business for 35 years. I’m, shall we say, tired of it,” Ross says.

Now, what makes him something other than a low-rent Mike Bloomberg is that he lost his fortune. And in the course of losing that fortune, he failed to remit $203,651.43 worth of payroll taxes on behalf of his employees. And when then IRS started asking questions, he hid income and assets from investigators. He ended up pleading guilty to a felony tax evasion charge in 2007 and did 90 days in a halfway house.

Since his first business failed in 2002, Ross has built it back up — hence the houses and the disposable income. He says he’s made full restitution to the government, ahead of schedule. He shows the contrition you’d expect of a candidate seeking office after bilking the government.

All well and good, and D.C. voters sure love a redemption story. But with all that’s going on in the city — a council member soon headed to prison; federal agents digging deep into campaign misdeeds — do we really need a convicted felon in citywide office?

That’s what Brown’s asking. “I’m all about redemption, too, but a guy with this kind of record can’t go up to Capitol Hill,” Brown says. “You go up there and they say to you: ‘How are you going to be a state when you can’t run your own affairs?’ ”

Brown is offended that the six years he has spent ginning up support for statehood are in danger of being overwhelmed by a felon’s riches. Ross is offended at the suggestion his criminal record would disqualify him from public service.

Ross says he’s reminded why he wants the job every time he tries to go to Manhattan Beach. When you book a ticket online with Alaska Airlines — they have the only direct DCA-LAX flight — Ross picks his home state from a list: “You look at Delaware and you expect to see District of Columbia. But no, it goes Delaware, Florida.”

D.C. is listed separately, below the 50 states, between American Samoa and the Federated States of Micronesia. “That gets my gander up every time,” he said. “I’d like to educate those idiots.”

To that end, Ross has spent about $60,000 of the $202,000 he’s loaned his campaign. He has several paid staffers, impressive literature and some very nice signs you have probably seen around town.

Brown, meanwhile, is running his campaign on the same shoestring budget he ran his last senatorial campaign on — albeit with the priceless advantage of having the same first and last names as a sitting council member. “I’m running as hard as I can,” Brown says. “I’ve got people giving me 10 bucks, 20 bucks, 30 bucks, but I’ll never get to $200,000.”

Both candidates are hucksters at heart, looking for a chance to make the big sale. But for Ross, it’s also the big buy. “I can go out and with $200,000, I could have a [Ferrari] Testarossa,” he says. “But it’s not Pete Ross. It’s not what Pete Ross wants to do.”

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