The New York congressional district stretching from northern Westchester across Putnam has frequently been represented by plain-vanilla moderate Republicans like Hamilton Fish IV and Sue Kelly. It says something about the political climate that in 2006, its voters dumped Kelly and elected Democrat John Hall, co-founder of the folk-rock group Orleans (“Still the One”).
Republican Assemblyman Greg Ball wants the congressional district to switch the parties representing it, but he’d like them to continue having unorthodox representation. Last weekend, Ball announced he was going to challenge Hall for re-election in 2010. Clutching Ross Perot’s book United We Stand, the second-term legislator made clear he wasn’t going to run as a Brand X Republican.
In an interview with TAS, Ball said the Republicans’ 1994 Contract with America owes a debt to Perot’s quirky 1992 presidential candidacy. “The genius of Newt Gingrich was to adopt the thunder of ideas that animated the Ross Perot movement,” he says. He argues that Republicans once again have an opportunity to appeal to discontented voters who are angry at the system and don’t necessarily identify with the GOP — but they might first have to distance themselves from the party establishment.
Bucking his party is something Ball has never been afraid to do. As a 29-year-old Air Force veteran, he decided to take on a 12-year-incumbent assemblyman in the Republican primary, running on a simple platform: illegal immigration is illegal. Virtually the entire party leadership lined up against Ball in support of the incumbent.
Then a high school senior named Matt Neuringer contacted Ball about a poll he had conducted for a class project, showing the Republican incumbent with just 26 percent name recognition. “All the rhetoric — ‘Hey Greg Ball, you can’t take out the political machine’ — we found out was just a hollow brick,” Neuringer told the American Conservative in 2007. “To get involved in local politics you have two options. You either kiss the ring of the party bosses and wait 30 years for when they tap you to run, or you challenge them in a primary.”
Challenging them in a primary worked out well for Ball. He defeated the incumbent Republican with over 70 percent of the vote and has now been elected to the legislature twice. Ball believes most of the hard feelings have been smoothed over, saying area Republicans have “never been more united” going into his congressional candidacy.
That doesn’t mean Ball is ready to play nice party regular. “It took the Democrats almost 50 years in the majority to lose the trust of the American people,” he says. “It took us a little over a decade.” The reason, he argues, is that Republicans became bereft of ideas and ignored “blue-collar Americans and New Yorkers.”
“We don’t talk about the bread-and-butter issues that really concern voters,” Ball says. “We don’t talk about how our trade policy has gutted an entire sector of the American economy. We abandoned our values of limited government and adopted excessive spending.” And he contends that the Democrats are even worse.
“Neither party is talking about the issues,” he says. “Republicans and Democrats shy away from talking about taxpayer bailouts for multinational corporations whose executives should possibly be in jail.” Ball presents himself as a consistent opponent of the reckless federal spending that began under George W. Bush and has now been made worse by an order of magnitude by Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid.
Ball is more conservative than Sue Kelly. He is pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, and wants to keep taxes, spending, and borrowing low. But he’s willing to criticize his own party for more than earmarks. He argues that Republicans should take on corporate welfare too, and not be afraid to rethink certain issue positions. “I didn’t support the war in Iraq,” he says. “I give President Bush credit for keeping us safe and believe 9/11 changed him for a very good reason. But it didn’t change the core conservative needs for a clear objective and an exit strategy.”
Yet his criticisms easily segue into arguments against the Democrats. He expresses similar exit-strategies concerns about Obama’s plans for Afghanistan. And he returns to the bailouts and corporate welfare. “The Democrats say Republicans voted to give President Bush a blank check in Iraq but then vote to give that same president a blank check for a near-trillion dollar bailout,” Balls says. “That’s what John Hall did. There’s no accountability and our constituents are left with high levels of debt.”
Despite his strong stance against illegal immigration, he doesn’t resort to throwing rhetorical bombs. “This country has benefited from a thriving immigrant population,” Ball acknowledges. “I understand that the businesses in Silicon Valley weren’t built mostly by redheaded kids from Iowa.” He blames an immigration system that “penalizes people who obey the law while rewarding lawbreakers” on “Republicans who want cheap labor, Democrats who want future votes.”
Ball has made many enemies in both parties and stories about his past controversies — like this one in Roll Call — suggest they won’t give him an easy time during the campaign. But Ball sees his race against Hall as part of a larger effort to revive the Republican brand.
“John McCain is a great American hero,” Ball says. “But you can’t keep having town hall meetings about the Republican Party’s future led by John McCain. There are many Republicans out there who are young in body and mind in boardrooms and state legislatures. Some will lose; some will self-destruct. But they’re the future.”
Greg Ball hopes the future is now.