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WENATCHEE -- When Scott Ballard shook hands with President Bush Tuesday morning he made sure to point out the cuff links he wore for the special occasion. The cuff links were given to Ballard by his father, former Washington state Rep. Clyde Ballard. Clyde Ballard received them from George W. Bush's father when he was vice president in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan.
Scott Ballard, 42, of Wenatchee, and his family were in Washington, D.C., Tuesday, where he participated in a town hall discussion with the president on Social Security reform. The discussion was carried live on C-SPAN network and clips were shown on most national news networks as the president tries to persuade Congress to accept his plans for partial privatization of Social Security.
Ballard was one of five panel members picked to talk with Bush and Social Security experts Tuesday before an audience at the Andrew Mellon Auditorium a few blocks from the White House. His name was submitted for the role by FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy group Ballard is a member of and that supports Social Security changes.
"It all happened very fast," said Ballard, co-owner of Ballard Ambulance in Wenatchee. Ballard said he got a phone call last week that he was suggested by FreedomWorks to serve on the panel because of his interest in Social Security issues. He was later interviewed by phone by White House aides on his opinions on Social Security reform. He told them he supports putting a portion of Social Security taxes into a private account that can be managed by the taxpayer and which would revert to the family in the case of death before the taxpayer's retirement.
"My ideas were similar to what the president proposes," Ballard said in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C., on Tuesday afternoon.
Last Thursday, Ballard was notified that he had been selected to be on the panel. FreedomWorks paid for air travel and hotel accommodations for Ballard, his wife MaryAnn, and two children, Christopher, 13, and Matthew, 9. They caught a plane from Seattle Friday.
Ballard said he was very nervous Tuesday morning in spite of going through a discussion rehearsal with
a stand-in for the president Monday evening. When the family arrived at the auditorium a couple hours before the actual event Tuesday there was already a long line of spectators waiting to get in.
"We were all pretty nervous. I was really nervous. But when the president came in he had an immediate calming effect. It was like we had known him all our lives. He was a really nice guy. He put us at ease," Ballard said.
When Ballard showed him the cuff links given to his father 20 years before, Bush immediately called for an assistant to get a new pair. "Now you have a pair of presidential cuff links," Ballard said the president told him with a smile. Bush gave MaryAnn a lapel pin and Ballard's two boys presidential pens, telling them not to sell them on e-Bay.
When the discussion began minutes later, Ballard said he was relatively relaxed once it came his turn to speak. He told the president as a business owner he was concerned when older clients told him that Social Security didn't give them money to pay their ambulance and hospital bills. He also said he was concerned about his young employees having enough money to live on when they reached retirement age and told the story of family friends who were tragically killed in an accident on their first trip after retirement.
"Where does all that money go that they put into the system? It's essentially gone. But with a personal retirement account, that money could be passed on to their children," he said during the discussion.
Bush, who is now trying push his Social Security plan through Congress, said the personal retirement account would give Americans more control over their benefits and encourage people to take a more active role in preparing for retirement.
Ballard said he was glad to be asked to show public support for what Bush is proposing.
"It was a chance of a lifetime and for a good cause too," he said. The family planned to return to Wenatchee today.
Rick Steigmeyer can be reached at 664-7151 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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