Updated Feb. 20 | Former North Carolina Rep. Cass Ballenger, a pro-business conservative and Republican ally of Hugo Chavez known for his off-the-cuff comments, died Wednesday after a prolonged illness. He was 88.
A former plastics executive, Ballenger spent 38 consecutive years in elected office, and served as the standard-bearer for the GOP on labor issues during his nine terms in Congress.
A Ballenger aide said he died at a local hospice.
“Cass was wholly dedicated to serving the people of North Carolina and I often look to the example he set in his sincere attention to his constituents," said Sen. Richard M. Burr, R-N.C. "As a lawmaker, he was knowledgeable and careful, insisting on understanding all angles of an issue before making a plan, as evidenced in his transformation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration."
Ballenger announced his retirement from Congress in 2004, facing a defamation lawsuit from the nation's largest Islamic civil liberties group. He was quoted calling the Council on American-Islamic Relations "the fundraising arm for Hezbollah" and saying living near its Washington headquarters had contributed to the breakup of his marriage. The lawsuit was thrown out by a federal appeals court in 2006.
Before the marital troubles, Ballenger and his wife, Donna, had a longstanding interest in Latin America, where they traveled extensively for charitable and humanitarian causes. Republican leaders recognized the bond in the 107th Congress by handing him the chairmanship of International Relations’ Western Hemisphere Subcommittee.
The pair went on missions to Central and South America. After hitting it off with Chavez on a trip to Venezuela, Ballenger invited the leftist president to visit his home in Hickory, N.C., as an effort to press him closer to the political center. Ballenger liked to tell a story that Chavez, who spoke little English, once walked up to Donna Ballenger and said, “I love you very much.”
Rep. Patrick T. McHenry, R-N.C., who won the 2004 race to fill Ballenger's seat, remembered his predecessor as a colorful storyteller.
"Anyone who spent any time with him knew that he was affable, kind, and brutally honest," McHenry said in a Wednesday statement. "He would tell you exactly what he was thinking and generally with a hilarious delivery. He was one of the few people who could hold someone accountable in the most blistering way, make him laugh, and help him out of a tight spot all in one conversation."
Ballenger's tongue got him into trouble in 2002. As the airwaves were full of discussion about Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott’s praise for the 1948 pro-segregation presidential campaign of Strom Thurmond, Ballenger told a local paper he had “segregationist feelings” himself after run-ins with black Georgia Democratic Rep. Cynthia McKinney. He quickly apologized and rescinded the comments, but some groups called for him to resign.
Back home, Ballenger tried to counter further fallout by having his yard's 3 1/2-foot tall black lawn jockey statue painted white. The cast iron statue had been a thorn in Ballenger's side during re-election campaigns.
Sen. Thom Tillis also offered his condolences, saying Ballenger "represented North Carolina’s foothills with distinction and was a leader in efforts to control the growing size and scope of the federal government and limit its day to day burden on hardworking families and small businesses."
Ballenger is survived by his wife and three daughters.
According to the Bass-Smith Funeral Home's website, a memorial service for Ballenger will be held Feb. 27 at 2 p.m. at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Hickory. A reception will follow the service in the parish hall.
In lieu of flowers, memorials may be sent to the Episcopal Church of the Ascension; 726 First Ave. NW, Hickory, N.C., 28601.
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