Former U.S. Rep. Cass Ballenger, who over 38 years in public office became as well known for his humanitarian efforts as his politics, died Wednesday. He was 88.
Ballenger, a Republican, was a Hickory businessman who served 18 years in Congress representing the 10th District. He also served in the N.C. General Assembly and chaired the Catawba Board of County Commissioners.
Ballenger and his wife, Donna, took an abiding interest in Central America, where they were known for relief efforts as well as personal diplomacy. In 2001, they hosted a barbecue for Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez at their Hickory home.
Ballenger had a ready laugh, a self-deprecating sense of humor and a candor rare even then in Washington.
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“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,” said his successor, Republican Rep. Patrick McHenry. “He was a rare person.”
Former GOP Rep. Sue Myrick of Charlotte called Ballenger “a true gentleman.”
“But he wasn’t afraid to speak his mind,” she said. “He said what he thought and kind of let the chips fall.”
Once, talking about a book he wrote on constituent service, he told a reporter, “The bureaucracy is heartless. It doesn’t give a damn.”
Sometimes that outspokenness landed him in trouble. In 2002, he told the Observer he had occasional “segregationist feelings” about an African-American congresswoman from Georgia. He called her “a bitch,” though later apologized.
Ballenger was a Hickory native who served in the Navy during World War II and then attended college at Amherst. After returning home, he started a company called Plastic Packaging Inc. that made packing materials.
His first political foray came in 1966 when he was elected county commissioner. In 1974, he won election to the state House and two years later to the Senate. But he had aspirations for higher office.
In 1984, he was one of two Republicans weighing a run for governor. He met in a Statesville restaurant with his would-be rival, U.S. Rep. Jim Martin. Ballenger decided to support Martin, who would go on to become North Carolina’s second GOP governor of the century.
“He was patient and thoughtful and wanted to do what he thought he could do best,” Martin recalled. “He thought he could help me in the Senate, which he did.”
Ballenger got his chance for higher office in 1986 when U.S. Rep. Jim Broyhill was appointed to an unexpired term in the U.S. Senate.
In Congress he was known as a moderate conservative who could work across the aisle.
“He had a great, easy way of working with just about anybody,” Martin said. “He had strong conservative beliefs, but he didn’t aggravate people who didn’t share them. He just stood his ground. He had a great sense of humor.”
Ballenger championed business-friendly changes to regulations involving the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. When Republicans took control of the House in 1995, he chaired a subcommittee on Workforce Protections.
He also served on the International Relations Committee and chaired the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee. It was a post that allowed him to indulge a longtime interest in Central America.
Ballenger and his wife had first gotten involved after a 1972 earthquake that devastated large portions of Nicaragua. In 1990, they founded the Ballenger Foundation to pursue their charitable work.
Over the years, they built medical clinics, sponsored orphanages and delivered relief supplies.
Ballenger once told a reporter that constituents sometimes got angry about his international involvement. “They say, ‘Why haven’t you done anything locally?’” he said.
“I would say one thing,” he went on. “The poor people in this country don’t even know what poor is.” He said poor was places such as Haiti, where he donated shovels and trash cans to help build passable roads and Honduras, where he sponsored orphanages.
During his final days in Congress, he was visited by a group of Haitian business and church leaders looking for his help on a trade agreement.
“He’s not only a member of Congress from the South,” one member of the delegation told a reporter. “He is also an ambassador of Haiti in the Congress. We are going to be missing him.”