Patrick Ballantine has been around state Republican politics for so long that it’s hard to believe the former Senate minority leader has yet to turn 40.
Now, the Wilmington attorney hopes a combination of experience and relative youth can set him apart in the crowded field seeking the GOP gubernatorial nomination in the July 20 primary.
Despite the fact that three of his competitors are old enough to be his father, Ballantine notes, “I have more experience than any of them in state government.
“I believe my experience and energy … gives me the edge” in the fight to face Democratic incumbent Gov. Mike Easley in November’s general election, he said.
Some people mistook Ballantine for a page when he first came to the Senate at age 29. But he rose through the ranks and was named GOP leader in 1998.
Ballantine spent the next five years as foil to Democrat Marc Basnight, the Senate majority leader, often decrying what he viewed as runaway spending and waste in state government.
In recent years, Ballantine and his GOP Senate colleagues kept a list of $2 billion in wasteful spending, presenting it often during floor debates. Democrats, who held a solid majority in the chamber, usually ignored the list, but Ballantine said it made a point that he and his colleagues were determined to act constructively.
“We’ll vote ‘no’ on core issues but we’re going to explain why and articulate the reasons why we voted ‘no,'” he said. “Then we’re going to roll up our sleeves and we’re going to find alternatives.”
Ballantine has made that “problem solver” persona the cornerstone of his campaign for the nomination.
“I’ve always been able to relate to people, listen to people, help people solve problems,” he said.
Born in North Dakota, the son of a corporate comptroller and a teacher, Ballantine moved to Charlotte as a young boy and later to Wilmington.
Ballantine was an altar boy in church, a good student and point guard on the basketball team at his private high school, Cape Fear Academy, and — according to his sister Amy — a goody-two-shoes.
“I didn’t want to disappoint my parents,” he said.
Reggie Shuford, a statistician for the basketball team and one of the first black students to attend Cape Fear, recalled Ballantine’s anger when he learned someone had used a racial epithet against Shuford.
“Unlike a lot of other people, he went out of his way to be friendly,” said Shuford, now a New York-based attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union who has parted ways with Ballantine politically but remains grateful for his long-ago kindness. “He was truly upset about some of the things he heard.”
Ballantine likes to emphasize the inclusivity of his campaign, noting he was the only Republican candidate to attend this year’s Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament. The CIAA tournament, which is held in Raleigh, features all historically black colleges and universities.
On a recent week on the campaign trail, Ballantine could be seen behind the Legislative Building talking to members of the conservative Citizens for a Sound Economy one day. The following day, he was out in 90-degree heat with the State Employees Association of North Carolina, which often has aligned with Democrats.
“Eighty percent of it is showing up,” he said. “But I don’t pander. I don’t speak a different tune. They know I’m conservative.”
His youthfulness may leave him with a mixed bag politically.
He’s developed a “Generation Ballantine” Web site in hopes of attracting young Republican primary voters. The site urges visitors to e-mail five friends about Ballantine.
On the site, Ballantine’s biography notes that he listened to the band R.E.M. growing up and worked at construction sites during summers home from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
“There are kids out there … that want their voices heard and think their issues are overlooked,” said Matt Bales, the 19-year-old Generation Ballantine co-chairman from Roanoke Rapids.
But Ballantine may look too young to some voters, said Ted Arrington, a political science professor at UNC-Charlotte.
“I think people like their governors closer to 50,” Arrington said. “They may see Ballantine and think he needs more seasoning.”
Ballantine ran television ads late last year, but the ethereal spots failed to give him a lot of traction in polling of potential primary voters’ preferences. The ads closed with Ballantine’s 5-year-old daughter, Wilker, saying “Believe.”
He acknowledges that his name recognition lags in comparison to some opponents.
“Richard Vinroot has probably spent $12 million over the past 10 years running for governor. Bill Cobey was (state Republican) chairman for four years,” he said.
But Ballantine notes that Vinroot, the former Charlotte mayor, carried just three of 48 eastern North Carolina counties in his 2000 loss to Easley.
Cobey lost his last electoral bid, a 1980s run for U.S. Congress, and the other well-funded candidate in the race, George Little, is making his first run for elected office.
“I’ve run in five elections and I’ve won all five,” Ballantine said. “All of us are similar on the issues but we need somebody who can win.”