Citing health, problems freshman Rep. Frank Ballance (D-N.C.) tendered his resignation from Congress Tuesday, setting up a late-summer special election to replace him.
The 62-year-old lawmaker, who will leave the House on Friday, had already announced he would not seek re-election in November.
North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley (D) said Tuesday he would call a special election to fill the vacancy in the 1st district, a solidly Democratic seat that spans much of northeastern North Carolina. Although a date for that contest has not yet been set, observers believe the special is likely to take place July 20 or Aug. 17, the dates of the state’s primary and runoff elections, respectively.
After the governor sets the date for the special election, the Republican and Democratic party executive committees in the 1st district will meet to select a candidate for the race. That person could be a candidate who has already qualified to run in the July 20 primary or a placeholder who would only hold the seat until a successor is elected in November.
In a short statement, Ballance said his declining health makes it impossible for him to continue to serve.
“I made this decision because I am no longer able to carry out the responsibilities of this office due to my current health condition,” Ballance said. “It has indeed been an honor for me to represent the constituents of the First Congressional District of North Carolina.”
His office delivered a resignation letter to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) Tuesday and sources said Ballance informed House Democratic leaders of his decision late Monday night.
Ballance’s resignation comes just one month after he withdrew his candidacy on the last day of the state’s filing period, having previously filed to run for re-election.
At the time, he 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 that required him to seek treatment at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
He had recently been hospitalized again in North Carolina and missed votes in the House last week. He was resting at his home in the district Tuesday.
Former state Supreme Court Justice G.K. Butterfield (D) is considered the leading candidate vying to succeed Ballance in November. Butterfield, who resigned as a Superior Court judge to run for Congress, was appointed to the state Supreme Court by Easley.
Other Democrats running are East Carolina University professor Christine Fitch, Elizabeth City businessman Sam Davis and attorney Darryl Smith, a former aide to Rep. Eva Clayton (D-N.C.). Ballance was elected to succeed Clayton in 2002, after defeating both Fitch and Davis in the 2002 primary.
Republicans are not expected to contest the seat, either in the special election or in November. The heavily Democratic district is 51 percent black.
Davis, the only white candidate in the 2002 primary, won 26 percent of the vote last cycle in the four-way primary and observers believe he could force a runoff with Butterfield this year.
In North Carolina, candidates must receive more than 40 percent of the vote in order to avoid a runoff. If no candidate gets more than 40 percent, the second-highest vote getter must then request a runoff election.
Depending on whom 1st district Democrats nominate as their special election candidate, it is possible for the same person to appear on two separate ballots regardless of whether the special election is held in conjunction with the primary or runoff.
The chairman of the 1st district Democratic committee is Snow Hill Mayor Don Davis. Davis initially tossed his hat into the race to succeed Ballance, but withdrew shortly thereafter.
He did not return calls for comment by press time Tuesday.
Ballance spent much of his time in Congress under the shadow of an ethics cloud. Since November 2003, a federal grand jury and the FBI have 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.
As news of Ballance’s resignation spread Tuesday, Democratic leaders from Raleigh to Washington, D.C., praised the former state Senator and wished him well.
“Rep. Ballance has served the people of Eastern North Carolina for nearly two decades,” Easley said in a statement. “He has always been a strong advocate for the poor and has worked hard to see that rural interests are represented.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she looked forward to working with Ballance’s successor. The race to replace him will be the fourth special election held this cycle.
“On behalf of House Democrats, I thank Congressman Ballance for his service, his leadership of the freshman class, and his commitment to his constituents,” Pelosi said. “I am greatly saddened that his health will not permit him to complete his term of office and am praying for his health to recover.”