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Politics & Poker: Ball Invites Scrutiny With Google Me!’

“Google me!—

New York Assemblyman Greg Ball says this more than a few times in a recent conversation with writers and editors from Roll Call and the Rothenberg Political Report.

[IMGCAP(1)]Ball, the likely Republican nominee against Rep. John Hall (D-N.Y.) — and a top recruit in the eyes of the National Republican Congressional Committee — is defiant as he invokes the G-word. Yeah, there’s a lot of crazy stuff out there, he concedes. But it’s also, he argues, a sign of how thoroughly battle-tested he is.

“Google me!—

The taunt has echoes of Gary Hart in 1987: “Follow me around.— Hart, in an interview with the New York Times Magazine that sure seems creepy in retrospect, was trying to debunk persistent rumors about his womanizing.

Little did he know that the very day those words were printed, a reporter from the Miami Herald, acting on a tip, was doing just that, turning up in the bargain a tasty morsel named Donna Rice. So much for Hart’s frontrunning presidential campaign.

“Google me!—

For his history-altering scoop, the Herald’s hardworking Tom Fiedler flew to Washington, D.C., hid in bushes, conducted round-the-clock surveillance and then confronted the principals. But in the 21st century, our “investigation— demands just a few strokes of the computer keys.

So we Googled Greg Ball. He’s right, there’s an awful lot out there. For a guy who is just 31 years old and in his third year in the Legislature, there are already 267 footnotes on his Wikipedia entry — that says something about the kind of passions he inflames.

“There’s controversy surrounding him in the past and there’s going to be controversy around him going forward,— says Michael Edelman, a Republican consultant and commentator in Westchester County, one of the five counties in the Hudson Valley district Ball is hoping to represent.

What kind of stories does Google reveal?

Well, for starters, Ball was accused of stalking a former girlfriend, who got a temporary order of protection against him. He’s been accused of posting on the Web misleading photographs of an encampment of illegal immigrants in his legislative district. A dead goat was found recently in his front yard — the work, Ball believes, of Salvadoran gangs who oppose his tough anti-immigration stance — and he’s been sleeping with a 12-gauge shotgun under his bed ever since. And until recently he has been in a vicious blood feud with his political enemies — who by the way, happen to be fellow Republicans.

Oh yes, Ball was also accused of sexually harassing a former Assembly aide. Details of this are scant on the Web, but in his conversation with Roll Call, which borders on the surreal at times, Ball dutifully provides some. The woman, he says, was put up to it by the establishment Republicans who were waging jihad against him. And the bottom line, from his point of view, is that the Assembly Standing Committee on Ethics and Guidance “cleared— him.

Which is technically true. On Oct. 20, 2008, the committee issued a letter — which is available online — saying an investigation into the accusation found that a violation of the Assembly’s Sexual Harassment/Retaliation Policy “was not established.— The committee also makes it a point to say that the statute of limitations on the woman’s accusations had run out, so the Assembly couldn’t have taken any action anyway.

A clean exoneration? Ball likes to think so. Google him — and judge for yourself.

It’s worth noting that additional dirt about Ball exists in the political ether that surpasses some of things that are out there in cyberworld. The point here is not to titillate, or to sling mud. The point is to ask, is this guy really viable?

Ball has many admirable qualities and an interesting story to tell. The son of blue-collar workers, he got a Congressional appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy and worked a bunch of policy jobs in Washington, D.C., after his discharge. Since launching his political career, he’s been a ferocious reformer, unafraid to take on the entrenched interests of his party and the Democrats who run Albany.

Ball is handsome, driven and indefatigable, and he has advanced a populist political agenda that’s appealing and hard to pinpoint on the ideological spectrum.

“Democracy is not a spectator sport, and I am in this fight not to tear down the incumbent, but to restore America’s promise to the Hudson Valley,— Ball said during the formal announcement of his Congressional bid Saturday. “Blue-collar folks like my family and friends feel shafted by elitist politicians on both sides of the aisle. The unsustainable spending, the bailouts, the corporate welfare, the runaway defense contracts; all of this must stop and we must refocus our priorities in this time of crisis.—

Ball is reminiscent of a young Rahm Emanuel. He’s got a sharp political mind and an intense focus. And you get the sense that he’s got the 19th Congressional district, with its wealthy suburbs and rural areas, blue-collar precincts and liberal enclaves, wired. He’s studied the place since he was a kid, and he knows where his voters are and how to reach them.

With all due respect to the incumbent, it’s a sure bet that Ball will outwork John Hall in the 18 months between now and Election Day 2010.

What’s more, in the post-Clinton era, politicians can weather all manner of sex scandals. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), after all, appears on his way to re-election, despite being linked to a D.C. prostitution ring.

But it’s a little trickier to survive this kind of stuff when you’re a fresh face, trying to introduce yourself to voters. Just ask Mike Erickson, the businessman who was the Republican nominee the past two cycles in Oregon’s 5th district. His candidacy was undone last year by reports that despite his opposition to abortion rights, he had driven a pregnant ex-girlfriend to a medical clinic to get an abortion. Erickson had an explanation, and maybe it seemed plausible to him — but it didn’t wash with the voters.

Alex Coronado (R), a local school board member, was waging what seemed like an earnest, appealing long-shot challenge to Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) in 2004. But in a conversation with Roll Call that was every bit as surreal as the one we had with Ball, Coronado started talking, unprovoked, about the man who was stalking her and her teenage daughter. She lost by 20 points.

That same year, Pueblo County Sheriff Dan Corsentino (R) seemed like a leading candidate for an open House seat in Colorado’s 3rd district, until he became undone by multiple sex scandals involving his office.

Greg Ball is a talented guy. But he seems to be the opposite of teflon. Just the other day, the local media were raising questions about the paperwork for his declaration of candidacy. A small matter, perhaps, but emblematic of something bigger.

Greg Ball may take comfort in knowing what’s out there when people Google him. But he’s never faced attacks like the kind the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and liberal interest groups are going to throw his way. It’s all too easy to see the 30-second ads with the words “stalker— and “sexual harassment— in them.

“John Hall is not going to mess around with him,— Edelman predicts.

And that alone may be enough for Hudson Valley voters to conclude that Hall is “still the one— in 2010.