Probably the most-rumored and least surprising retirement of any U.S. representative of either party has been that of Rep. Cass Ballenger (R.-N.C.). At 77 and with 12 years in the state legislature and nine terms as congressman from the safely Republican 10th District of the Tarheel State, Ballenger had what press secretary Tommy Luckadoo called “a good run.” U.S. Navy veteran and Hickory, N.C., plastics company founder Ballenger was well known as a spokesman for fellow businessmen in Congress-speaking out against OSHA excesses (“We ought to change the attitude of OSHA from being a Gestapo to being a teacher”) and against the Clinton health care package of 1994 and helping craft the flex-time bill (in which workers can trade overtime pay for compensatory time) that was so fiercely opposed by the AFL-CIO.
But Ballenger (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 89%) was also a lawmaker deeply engrossed in foreign policy. As a member of the International Relations Committee and chairman of its Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, the gentleman from North Carolina championed the cause of anti-Sandanista presidential candidate Violetta Chamorro in Nicaragua to the point of donating plastic campaign hats to her winning race in 1990 against former Marxist strongman Daniel Ortega. Interestingly, Ballenger also had cordial relations with Venezuela’s leftist strongman Hugo Chavez. He invited the president who scrapped his country’s democratic constitution to come to Hickory for a barbecue to meet with people other than the liberal Democratic House members with whom the Venezuelan usually spent his time in the U.S. In spokesman Luckadoo’s words, “He was trying to knock some sense into Chavez.”
When Ballenger announced shortly before his 77th birthday December 6 that he would not seek re-election next year, it was anticlimactic. Within days, various Republicans were either exploring or actively running for the nomination to succeed him in a district in which the GOP candidate has been almost guaranteed election since 1960. The first candidate out of the gate is George Moretz, chairman of the board of Carolina Mills, who has vowed to spend $1 million of his own money on a campaign. Moretz, whose campaign will be orchestrated by former Jesse Helms political operative Carter Wrenn, takes the Ballenger line on most issues. But he also preaches from the Book of Buchanan on trade, backing higher tariffs on imports. While some express worry that this may hurt Moretz with “mainstream” primary voters; others point out that this stance may help Moretz in a district that is heavily blue-collar and has the lowest high-school graduation rate in the state.
Unannounced but sounding increasingly like a candidate is fellow businessman Sandy Lyons. A West Point graduate who heads the fiberoptics manufacturing company Sicor, Lyons is also a conservative and does not share what Moretz calls his “fair trade” views. Lyons has already lined up much of the business community in Hickory that is close to Ballenger and is reportedly the first choice of Ballenger himself as a successor. (So far, however, the retiring congressman is silent about supporting any candidate for his seat.)
Neither Moretz nor Lyons has held or sought elective office before. Three state legislators from Gaston County-State Senators Austin Allran and Jim Forester and State Rep. Patrick McHenry-are strongly considering a House bid. So is car dealer Jamie Parsons, a favorite of evangelical conservatives. Given the considerable personal resources and contacts of Moretz and Lyons, however, none of the others is considered a top-tier contender at this time.
JOE SKEEN, R.I.P.
With his cowboy boots, Western suits, and booming voice, Joe Skeen appeared every inch the sheep rancher he was during his tenure as a Republican U.S. representative (1980-2002) from southern New Mexico. When he died on December 7 after a long bout with Parkinson’s Disease, that is primarily how the conservative (lifetime ACU rating: 86%) Skeen was remembered-as the “cowboy congressman,” a fierce champion who fought vigorously for his fellow landowners and often battled with the extreme environmentalists.
To those who are involved in politics anywhere and at any level, Skeen was an inspiration. During a ten year period, Skeen lost three races for statewide offices-enough to convince most people to hang up their boots and retire to the ranch.
Two years later, Roswell rancher Skeen won his House seat in a spectacular upset — and did so as a write-in candidate, no less. Only three other members of Congress in history have that unique distinction. To those who fail a test, don’t get a job, or are written off politically, Joe Skeen was the defiant cowboy who never gave up and ended up a hero.
A graduate of Texas A&M University and a U.S. Navy veteran, Skeen served in the New Mexico senate from 1960-70 and was state Republican chairman from 1962-65. Under Chairman Skeen and fellow conservative operative Anderson Carter, Land of Enchantment GOPers sent a delegation to the national convention in 1964 solidly committed to Barry Goldwater for President. In 1970, as the lieutenant governor nominee, Skeen and gubernatorial candidate, and present U.S. Senator, Pete Domenici were narrowly beaten by their Democratic opponents. In 1974 and ’78, Right-to-Work booster Skeen himself was the nominee for governor and both times met defeat by less than 3,800 votes.
But Skeen’s political career was suddenly revived in August 1980 following the unexpected death of Democratic Rep. (1970-80) Harold Runnels. When a special Democratic Party committee named David King, nephew of then-Gov. Bruce King and a newcomer to the 2nd District, to replace Runnels on the November ballot, other Democrats cried “foul!” and supported a write-in candidacy by the late congressman’s widow Dorothy Runnels. Denied a place on the ballot by a judge, Skeen also launched a write-in campaign and won 38% of the vote in the three-candidate race. He would never have difficulty in any of his ten re-election bids.
“A vintage New Mexican,” was how Skeen was eulogized by New Mexico’s Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, who had often clashed with his Republican colleague when they served in the House together. Skeen was 76.
SPECIAL ELECTION UPDATE
Thune To Tackle Daschle: Despite pleas from supporters in South Dakota and Washington that he should run for his old at-large House seat, former Rep. (1996-2002) John Thune announced last week that he would not enter the House race, but would remain committed to his original goal: dumping Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle in ’04. With the decision of freshman Republican Bill Janklow to resign his seat January 20 in the wake of his recent manslaughter conviction, Thune-who lost a Senate race last year by fewer than 500 votes to Democratic incumbent Tim Johnson-had been under mounting pressure to run for the House to try to keep his old seat in Republican hands. A special conclave of GOP leaders from the state’s 64 counties is expected to meet days after Janklow’s resignation takes effect and choose from a field of eight candidates for the Republican nomination in the special election June 1. The certain Democratic nominee is attorney Stephanie Herseth, who drew a handsome 46% of the vote against Janklow in ’02 and will be a heavy favorite next year. . . .
Chandler’s Back and Forgy’s Got Him: To the surprise of almost no one, Republican Party leaders in Kentucky’s 6th District (Lexington) last week chose State Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr as their standard-bearer in the February 17 special election to replace just-inaugurated Gov. Ernie Fletcher. The conservative Kerr will face Democrat A.B. (Ben) Chandler, III, former state attorney general and defeated Democratic nominee against Fletcher this year.