R.I.P. Ross Bates

by | Sep 6, 2015 | Editor's Blog | 2 comments

When Ross Bates died on Friday, the world of political consulting lost a pioneer. He was one of the first political consultants to use direct mail as a primary source of communications in campaigns. I lost a great friend.

In the 1970s in Los Angeles, Ross and a group of young consultants started producing oversized post cards that were heavy on photos and headlines to reach voters. They found an efficient and cost effective strategy that worked so well that direct mail quickly became a staple in campaigns across the country. By the 1980s, Ross was traveling the country providing direct mail to all types of races.

When I met Ross in 1998, his firm, BatesNeimand, set the standard for quality direct mail. He had been in Washington, DC, for ten years by then and the North Carolina House and Senate caucuses were his clients. I knew about Ross long before I met him.

My initial introduction to Ross was awkward. I’d worked with two candidates who won Democratic primaries and the caucus organizations wouldn’t let me provide their mail for the general election. Instead, they brought in Ross. He understood my frustration and was very respectful, though I can only imagine what he was saying in the office. With little confrontation, we built a working relationship that left us on friendly terms at the end of the cycle.

Over the next ten years, I went to work for other direct mail firms and competed against Ross in several primaries in several states. I’d see him at various conventions and we’d always compare notes. In one race, my candidate defeated his by about 100 votes and a few years later, he had a candidate who beat mine by about the same margin. We rehashed those elections for years.

In 2008, we met for dinner in Carrboro. I had been writing op-eds about North Carolina’s role in the presidential election and Ross wanted to discuss the upcoming cycle. We shared an interest in targeting and the changing electorate in the state. He was still doing the North Carolina House caucus here but had moved back to the West Coast, settling in Seattle. By the end of the cycle, we were putting together a business and by mid 2009, we formed Bates and Mills Consulting.

Our business relationship began a running conversation that outlasted Bates and Mills and continued until Friday. Even after I tried to retire from politics following the 2012 cycle, we continued long talks that focused on politics but ventured into pop culture, sports, movies, and just interesting, often funny, anecdotes. Ross became a mentor and confidant.

Ross helped me understand and appreciate the nuances of Jewish humor that made Jon Stewart so much more enjoyable. He frequently referenced old movies and seemed to know every line of “Blazing Saddles” by heart. He never seemed remotely athletic and yet was one of the most avid and informed sports fans I know. To all of his interests, he brought a witty, intelligent perspective that was just outside of the mainstream but not out of bounds.

Ross was passionate in his love of animals, especially his dogs. He had little tolerance for factory farming practices or anyone who mistreated other creatures. He was also an avid Bruce Springsteen fan who saw the The Boss several times a year and could tell you exactly how many concerts he had attended. Last I asked, he had been to sixty-something.

In a world of big egos and big bravado, Ross was humble and unassuming. During his career, he worked with every major Democratic consultant in the country and some of the most powerful politicians. He was respected by almost all of them but would seem genuinely surprised when people like me knew who he was before they met him.

Ross was my sounding board and critic. He could see flaws in my arguments or strategies and he made them stronger. He called bullshit when he saw it but rarely left me defensive. Ross always let me know when I wrote something he liked and I was always proud to have his approval.

Our last conversation was in mid-August as I was driving through northern Minnesota. He called to compliment me on a campaign I had just launched and a recent blog post I had written. We talked for over an hour  and I told him I’d call him when I got back to North Carolina. Last week, he commented on a blog post, comparing it to an article in The Onion. I’ve been meaning to call him ever since.

If there’s a silver lining to losing Ross much too soon, it’s knowing that he was in a great place in his life. He enjoyed doing politics in California and was working with people he liked including consultants who had been around the business as long as he had. He had a great relationship with a special woman who obviously made him very happy. He was close to his daughter and granddaughter who also lived in Seattle. And, being Ross, he had a great relationship with his former wife. It may be little consolation to those of us left to grieve, but Ross died a content and happy man.

I’ll miss Ross. I’ll miss his quirky humor. I’ll miss his simple wisdom. I’ll miss his astute analysis. I’ll miss the long conversations. I’ll miss his stories, even if I’ve heard most of them before. My life is richer because I knew him. Thanks, Ross, for everything.


  1. Russell Scott Day

    In my studies I had come across your friend’s work. I forgot his name but remembered the work. I myself have long used postcards, sometimes up to the 8X10 size.
    It is significant when friends, true friends are lost. Motorcycles and prison have claimed my own people who could never be replaced. We meet something like 250 thousand people and of that there are probably 5 that we are lucky to call close friends.
    I appreciate your loss, and hope that no more are lost to you.

  2. Bob

    It’s great to have these kinds of relationships in our lives to keep us grounded and honest with ourselves. Sorry for your loss. Mr. Mills, please don’t retire!

Related Posts


Get the latest posts from PoliticsNC delivered right to your inbox!

You have Successfully Subscribed!