WHO WILL SUCCEED CASS BALLENGER?
When it closed its decade-long run recently, the TV series Friends had a few harried and unanticipated moments but in the end, closed happily and with no surprises; Chandler and Monica moved from Central Perk out to the suburbs, Rachel and Ross re-ignited their romance, and the gang rang down the curtain by going out for coffee.
The departure of venerable Republican Rep. Cass Ballenger from North Carolina’s 10th District has not gone as smoothly or, certainly, predictably. Sources close to Ballenger (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 89%) had told me last year they expected the lawmaker to retire in ’06, when he would have put in 20 years in Washington. But this year, talk began to mount that Ballenger, at 77, would call it quits sooner. Although few felt that any challenger could come close to Ballenger in a primary, it did not help the cause for his remaining in office that millionaire businessman George Moretz announced he would run for office regardless of the incumbent’s plans and made no secret of his desire to spend large sums of his own money on a campaign.
But it was, Ballenger told me, primarily a desire to “go back home to my [plastics] business and spend time with my grandchildren,” that convinced him to step down this year instead of in ’06. As it was for Ballenger when he succeeded fellow Republican Rep. (1960-86) James Broyhill in 1986, the Republican primary is tantamount to election in the 10th (Hickory-Morgantown). Although several Republicans have joined early-bird contender Moretz in the all-important primary July 27, signs are strong that the front-runner is now businessman Sandy Lyons, who has received the endorsement of the popular Ballenger.
Although the blessings of the outgoing congressman have given a major boost to candidacy of the 47-year-old Lyons, other factors that have clearly created his present momentum. The lone veteran in the GOP sweepstakes, Lyons is a graduate of West Point and past infantry captain in the U.S. Army. At a time when the ranks of veterans in Congress are diminishing severely in successive elections, voter support of candidates who have worn their country’s uniform has risen suddenly since 9/11. Three Medal of Honor recipients are among those endorsing Lyons.
Like Ballenger himself, Lyons had a successful career in the private sector and rose up the corporate ladder in the Siecor Corporation. He later became chief executive officer of the high-tech firm as it was growing into a $3 billion-a-year player in the fiber optic cable industry. Based on his experience as an engineer and executive, Lyons told me he plans, if elected, to pursue a seat on the House Ways and Means or Energy Committees.
If there is any debate between Lyons and Moretz, it is over the issue of trade–a sensitive and potentially explosive issue in a district where 40% of jobs are in manufacturing and unemployment is at 11%, or about twice the national percentage. Moretz preaches from the Book of Buchanan and is a protectionist while Lyons calls for “enforcing the laws we now have on the books on trade.” In addition, Lyons calls for the United States. “to fight dumping of goods here with tough-anti-dumping laws, particularly against China, and not to trade with countries that give government support to certain industries. We’ll have a recovery when we can compete on a level playing field and that’s what I will work for.”
The two other contenders are in the GOP sweepstakes–State Rep. Pat McHenry and Catawba County Sheriff David Huffman–both receive good marks from conservatives, but it is considered unlikely that either will have sufficient resources to force Lyons or Moretz into a run-off. (Under North Carolina law, a candidate must win 40% of the vote outright or face a run-off with the second-place finisher.
JACK ECKERD, R.I.P.
For all of his titanic achievements in the private sector and military and as a most generous backer of charities and community, Jack Eckerd nevertheless fell short in all three of his bids to win elective office. In a sense, his undoing in elective politics was directly related to his success in just about everything else. As founder of a drug store empire that bears his name and now stretches throughout the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic region, multimillionaire Eckerd–probably one of the few Republican candidates who could list his occupation as “philanthropist”–was an easy target for caricature by Democratic opponents as an aloof plutocrat who could not relate to middle-class voters. A longtime friend of mine who volunteered in Eckerd’s U.S. Senate campaign in Florida in 1974 admitted that the candidate was “a little boring, maybe even gruff in person. I remember him smoking a cigar almost like Daddy Warbucks.”
When he died May 19 at age 91, Eckerd was remembered by conservatives as a take-charge leader who never got the opportunity to lead in the public arena where, most on the right felt, he would have excelled.
After graduating from Culver Military Academy (Indiana) and flying combat missions for the U.S. Army Air Corps in Burma during World War II, the young Eckerd moved to Florida. With a $150,000 loan from his pharmacist-father, he purchased three small drugstores. The Eckerd chain expanded to 435 stores throughout Florida and then the South, becoming the second-largest drugstore chain in the nation. The founder generously donated large sums from his wealth to numerous charitable causes–notably more than $10 million to struggling Florida Presbyterian College (now Eckerd College). In 1970, the buffoonish antics and support of Nelson Rockefeller for President two years earlier by Republican Gov. Claude Kirk had made him very unpopular among conservatives. The Sunshine State’s first GOP governor since Reconstruction was challenged for renomination from the right by then-State Sen. (and later U.S. Representative from 1972-82) Skip Bafalis in the Republican primary. But with polls showing Bafalis trailing Kirk, the better-known Eckerd entered the primary and, to the surprise of many, drew enough votes to force the governor into a run-off. But, following revelations that Eckerd had donated to several Democrats in the past, Bafalis and other conservatives switched their support to Kirk, who defeated Eckerd with 55% of the vote. In November, Kirk was ousted by Democrat Reuben Askew, who later appointed Eckerd to chair a state Management and Efficiency Study Commission.
Four years later, with Republican Sen. (1968-74) Edward Gurney retiring, Eckerd triumphed in the GOP primary to succeed him over then-State Public Service Commissioner Paula Hawkins. In the fall, however, former Belle Grade Mayor John Grady took a handsome 15% of the vote as the American Party candidate–almost surely costing Eckerd (with 41%) the race against Democratic Secretary of State Dick Stone (44%).
After a stint as head of the General Services Administration under Gerald Ford, Eckerd made another run for governor in 1978. With erstwhile foe Hawkins as his lieutenant governor running mate, Eckerd easily won the primary by a margin of 3-to-2 over Rep. (1968-78) Lou Frey. The combination of Frey’s hard attacks on Eckerd and Frey’s refusal to endorse the nominee until October help spell a win for Democrat (now Sen.) Bob Graham. (Frey’s home base of Orlando, normally Republican, went for Graham. Well-known after her races against and with Eckerd, Hawkins would go on to become U.S. senator herself in 1980.)
CHANGE IN MICHIGAN
In a state where the Republican Party has long been dominated by moderates such as former Gov. (1969-82) William Milliken and the late State Party Chairman Elly Peterson, it is a delight for Michigan conservatives these days to find contests where all candidates are on the right. So it was at the state GOP convention, June 21-22, where 2nd District Chairman Holly Hughes beat incumbent Republican National Committeeman Sharon Wise by about 188 votes out of more than 1800 cast.
“We were both conservatives and support the pro-life plank to the party platform,” said Hughes, a fourth-generation Michigander and mother of two. Their contest, she told me after the vote, was not about ideology but who was going to work harder.” In stumping the state (“and losing 35 pounds!”), Hughes underscored her activities as a volunteer and fund-raiser–notably coming up with $500,000 in last-minute funds to put Republican Mike Cox over the top in the tight 2002 battle for attorney general. Wise was backed by State Party Chairman Betsy DeVos and Representatives. Dave Camp and Candace Miller, while Hughes had the support of GOP National Committeeman Chuck Yob (who was unopposed for re-election). Following the vote, two women embraced on the convention stage.