Embattled Ballance Retiring

Posted May 7, 2004 at 6:25pm

Freshman Rep. Frank Ballance (D-N.C.), whose first term has been clouded by his affiliation with a scandal-tarred organization, announced last week that he would not seek re-election, just hours before the state’s filing period closed.

Citing health concerns, Ballance withdrew his candidacy Friday morning after filing to run for re-election on Tuesday. The deadline for Congressional candidates to file was noon Friday.

Two well-known Democrats immediately jumped in the race to succeed the 62-year-old lawmaker in the 1st district, a solidly Democratic seat that spans much northeastern North Carolina.

In a statement, Ballance said he had been diagnosed in early February with myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disease. He said he began to reconsider his re-election plans after suffering a setback Wednesday that required him to seek treatment at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

“Considering the number of candidates in the primary and those expressing an intent to file, I do not believe that the current state of my health will allow me to mount the vigorous campaign necessary to win,” Ballance said.

Just three days earlier, Ballance had described himself as “the best possible option” for the district as he filed for a second term.

Shadowed by ethics troubles for months, Ballance had repeatedly batted down speculation that he would not run for re-election.

Since November 2003, a federal grand jury has been probing a nonprofit substance-abuse prevention program run by a foundation Ballance founded and once chaired.

A state audit released last October revealed that the John A. Hyman Foundation had numerous conflicts of interest and had made $325,000 in questionable payments.

Ballance helped steer money to the foundation, which he founded in 1985, when he served in the state Legislature. Since 1994, the foundation had received $2.1 million in state funds.

According to state officials, the FBI also has been looking into the foundation’s dealings.

Knowledgeable House Democratic sources said Ballance’s announcement was not a complete surprise, noting that conversations had been ongoing within the Caucus about his future.

Those sources said House Democrats were worried Ballance’s legal troubles could put the otherwise solidly Democratic seat in peril. They said if Ballance was indicted mid-cycle, it could put a mark against the Democrats and give Republicans an edge.

That’s a risk the party can’t afford to take when trying to win 12 seats this cycle, well-placed aides said.

“This was not unexpected,” said one knowledgeable Democratic aide. “There were some concerns about his candidacy and now with his health, this makes sense.”

But the aide also insisted that Ballance’s health troubles were not being exaggerated, noting, “it was even to the point that he was concerned about having to campaign in a wheelchair.”

After Ballance’s withdrawal Friday, former state Supreme Court Judge G.K. Butterfield and Snow Hill Mayor Don Davis, the chairman of the 1st district Democratic Party, filed to run in the July 20 Democratic primary.

Also running are East Carolina University professor Christine Fitch, attorney Darryl Smith and Elizabeth City businessman Sam Davis. Ballance defeated both Fitch and Sam Davis in the 2002 primary.

If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, an Aug. 17 runoff will be held.

Sam Davis, the only white candidate in the primary, released a statement Friday claiming momentum in the new open-seat race. Davis won 26 percent of the vote last cycle in the four-way race. The district is 51 percent black.

“Given my existing fundraising operation, district-wide political network and name recognition, I clearly have the ability and momentum needed to win this Congressional seat,” Davis said.

But party strategists defined the contest to succeed Ballance largely as a battle between Don Davis and Butterfield, although they say that either man could eventually wind up in a runoff with Sam Davis.

Butterfield, who resigned as a Superior Court judge Friday, had at one point formed an exploratory committee to look at challenging Ballance. He announced in April he would not run, but as late as last week, even before Ballance withdrew from the contest, he was still floating the possibility he could change his mind.

“I continue to feel that the 1st district has been damaged by the Hyman investigation,” Butterfield said in April. “Many of my friends across the district feel embarrassed about the federal investigation and feel that we need a fresh start in the 1st district.”

Don Davis, meanwhile, stressed that he had committed to not challenging Ballance, whom he described as a supportive friend.

After learning of Ballance’s withdrawal early Friday, Davis drove to Raleigh and resigned his party chairmanship before filing to run.

“I felt that I had a lot to offer and a lot to bring to the table,” Davis said in a brief interview.

Sources indicated that while Ballance has personal relationships with both Butterfield and Davis, the Congressman would likely back Davis if he chooses to make an endorsement in the race.

Last cycle Ballance was aided by the support of his longtime friend and ally Rep. Eva Clayton (D-N.C.), who endorsed him after announcing her retirement in 2001.

“He said I was an up and rising star in the district, but I have not at this point sought an endorsement,” Davis said.

Davis was elected mayor in December 2001, and at 32 years old, he said he is believed to be youngest person to hold that position in the state.

“I’m really excited,” Davis said, referring to his candidacy. “I think I’ll bring ideas and new leadership to the district.”

Ballance is the 29th Member to announce plans to vacate his or her seat at the end of this Congress. Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas) was defeated in a primary.

Republicans are defending 17 open seats in November, while Democrats are defending 12. Only a handful of those races are expected to be competitive, though.

A special election is scheduled for June 1 to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of Rep. Bill Janklow (R-S.D.).

Filing deadlines have not yet passed in 19 states.