A barely-mentioned fact in reports of the death Wednesday of former Rep. Cass Ballenger, R-N.C. — and one that frequently surprised reporters who covered him to learn — was that the very conservative Republican from the Tarheel State was a direct descendant of an early Democratic nominee for president.
Cass Ballenger, in fact, was named for his great-great-grandfather Lewis Cass — a general, territorial governor of Michigan, and later U.S. senator, secretary of war, and U.S. ambassador to France.
In the presidential race of 1848, Cass carried the Democratic banner for president on a platform of letting each state decide on its policy toward slavery. This wasn’t enough for anti-slavery Democrats, who ran former President Martin Van Buren as the nominee of the Free Soil Party and split the Democratic vote enough for Whig nominee Zachary Taylor to win the presidency.
Like John Kerry, Cass proved there was public life after a presidential defeat and went on to serve as secretary of state after his party had retaken the White House.
Cass Ballenger (who was 88 at the time of his death) like his ancestor, believed strongly in the power of the states and that the role of the federal government "should not be adversarial but more consultative."
He led the fight for fellow small entrepreneurs against the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, saying the attitude of OSHA had to be changed "from a Gestapo and more of a teacher." The North Carolinian also led the fight for the flex-time bill (in which workers can trade overtime pay for compensatory time) that was bitterly opposed by the AFL-CIO.
An Amherst graduate and U.S. Navy veteran of World War II, he launched a successful plastics company and entered politics in middle age. After a stint on the Catawba County, N.C., Board of Commissioners and 12 years in the state Legislature, Ballenger won a U.S. House seat in 1986 that was vacated by fellow Republican James T. Broyhill after his appointment to a vacancy in the Senate.
As a freshman congressman at age 60 and one who had already accomplished much in politics and the private sector, the wise-cracking, chain-smoking Ballenger could be excused if he was set in his ways and in his interests. But he surprised many by serving on the House Foreign Affairs committee and developing an interest in Central America that could almost be called passionate.
In 1990, he traveled to Nicaragua several times to champion Violetta Chamorro in her campaign for president against that country’s Marxist strongman Daniel Ortega. The congressman even donated plastic campaign hats to Chamorro’s campaign.
"And those hats were made at my [plastics] company in Hickory [N.C.] and paid for with my money," he emphasized to this reporter. Ballenger also faithfully attended the annual "Freedom Dinner" of the International Republican Institute in Washington and was a major congressional booster of IRI’s work in promoting democracy.
The North Carolinian rose to become chairman of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee of the Foreign Affairs panel and knew the leading politicians in many Latin American countries.
On a mission to Guatemala in 2003, Ballenger was accompanied by fellow subcommittee member and Rep. Jerry Weller, R-Il. At a reception, they met Zury Rios-Montt, a member of the Guatamalan Congress and daughter of the nation’s former military strongman Efrain Rios-Montt.
"We were told she was the majority leader and so we were expecting someone who looked like [then-U.S. House Majority Leader] Tom DeLay," Ballenger once recalled, "Zury turned out to be beautiful — Jerry certainly thought so." Weller and Rios-Montt were married a year later, the first members of national legislative chambers to become husband and wife.
In 2001, Ballenger left more than a few fellow conservatives flabbergasted when he invited Venezuela’s Marxist President Hugo Chavez for a country barbeque at his home in North Carolina.
Five years later, after Ballenger had retired from Congress and Chavez had publicly likened then-President George W. Bush to "the devil," the former congressman explained to this reporter that "We got along fine and [Chavez] used to call me his father. I wanted to expose him to folks other than the liberal Democratic congressmen he usually met with when he came to the U.S. I was trying to knock some sense into him but, obviously, I wasn’t successful."
In his twilight years, Ballenger remained active in politics and community work of his hometown before succumbing to dementia.
There was another relatively little-known side to Cass Ballenger. As his successor and fellow Republican Rep. Patrick McHenry told reporters: "It would take volumes to list the philanthropic work of Congressman Ballenger and his wife, Donna. They are responsible for countless schools, day-care centers, hospitals, and disaster responses in the United States and abroad."
This part of Ballenger’s life was little-publicized because, for the most part, he rarely publicized or discussed it.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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