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Ballenger Announces Time Has Come ‘To Pass the Torch’

North Carolina Rep. Cass Ballenger (R) announced today that he will not seek a 10th term in 2004, saying that it’s time for him to move on to other things.

“It has been an honor to represent the people of the 10th District for nearly 18 years,” Ballenger said in a statement released following his appearance on a live radio talk show in his hometown of Hickory. “But the time has come for me to pass the torch.”

In his retirement, Ballenger said he looks forward to devoting more time to the plastic packaging company he heads and the Ballenger Foundation, which helps to furnish hospitals and schools in Latin America. He also pledged to work to elect more Republicans to office.

“Retiring from elected office doesn’t mean I’ll be taking it easy,” he said.

Ballenger had already drawn primary opposition, although he was still favored to win another term in 2004.

Textile executive George Moretz announced in late October that he would challenge the Congressman in a primary next year. Moretz, chairman of the board of Carolina Mills and a former Ballenger ally, is now expected to run for the open seat.

The western 10th district, which stretches from the mountains of Tennessee to the South Carolina border, is reliably Republican territory and Moretz will likely face a crowded primary.

Other potential GOP candidates mentioned are state Sens. Austin Allran and Jim Forrester and state Rep. Patrick McHenry.

The area has been hit hard in recent years by the loss of manufacturing jobs, and Ballenger’s key vote in favor of fast track legislation in late 2001 is one of the factors credited with his being held below 60 percent of the vote in last year’s re-election for the first time since he came to Congress.

But Ballenger, who turns 77 on Saturday, has weathered the most controversy and unwanted media attention over the past year.

In August he blamed the breakup of his 50-year marriage in part on the stress of living near the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which is headquartered across the street from his Capitol Hill home. He said the proximity to CAIR after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks “bugged the hell” out of his wife and the couple worried that the group was so close to the Capitol that “they could blow the place up.”

At the same time he also groused about the Congressional gift ban imposed by House Republicans, saying that too put a stress on his marriage because meals and theater tickets from lobbyists once meant “a social life for [Congressional] wives.”

Ballenger also stirred controversy last December when he admitted that former Rep. Cynthia McKinney, a black Democrat from Georgia who lost a primary in 2002, had stirred “a little bit of a segregationist feeling” in him.

“I mean, she was such a bitch,” Ballenger also said of McKinney at the time.

He later apologized for what he called “pretty stupid remarks,” even as an aide was painting white what had been a black lawn jockey in his yard.

Ballenger currently serves on the Education and the Workforce and International Relations panels.

Ballenger began his 38-year political career when he was elected Catawba County Commissioner. He went on be become a state Representative and state Senator before being elected to the 10th district seat in 1986. Ballenger has never lost an election.

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