People to Watch
(page 6 of 11)
Photograph courtesy of Greg Ball
By: Greg Ryan
If one of the marks of a successful politician is the ability to generate headlines, then consider Greg Ball a civic titan in training. The 32-year-old state assemblyman represents an eastern sliver of Dutchess, Putnam, and Westchester counties, but in the three years the Republican legislator has held the seat, his name has reverberated far beyond the district’s borders, both for his eagerness to upset the applecart in Albany and his anything-goes style of campaigning. (In one particularly noteworthy gambit, Ball sent a person dressed in a chicken suit to pester an opponent who refused to debate him.)
Now, Ball is fixing his sights on the Congressional seat occupied by Democrat John Hall, who is up for reelection next November. Ball’s candidacy appears ascendant: His health care forums this year reaped considerable media coverage, and his campaign says it out-raised Hall in the second and third quarters of 2009. This summer, Republican leaders in Washington awarded Ball “On The Radar” status in the House GOP Young Guns program, an initiative that funds those candidates whom the party considers most likely to upend a Democratic incumbent.
Born and raised in the district he now represents, Ball grew up in Pawling, the son of a father who logged long hours as a union postal worker and a mother who worked the night shift at Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center. His parents also served as caretakers of the Pawling estate of Jean Kennedy Smith, the younger sister of John F. Kennedy. “Every now and then, when they weren’t around, we could use the pool,” he says with a laugh. Despite his present political affiliation, he grew up to respect the famous Democratic family, and even counts Robert Kennedy as a political idol. “They took care of those around them,” he says.
In fact, Ball admits his views do not always adhere neatly to the party line. “If I were a voter and not an elected official, I would probably cast myself as an unaffiliated voter,” he says. Even in high school, Ball gravitated toward politicians with an independent streak. In 1992, he volunteered for Ross Perot’s first run for the presidency, traveling to Dallas to meet the billionaire candidate. “It was a fascinating campaign — just a straight-talking, no-BS patriot taking on the political establishment,” Ball says. “It showed there was still capability in politics to be a representative of the people, say what needs to be said, take the hits, and still be successful.”
After graduating from Pawling High School, Ball attended the Air Force Academy, where he interned at the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy under President Clinton. (“I had a somewhat different experience than Monica Lewinsky,” Ball quips.) From there, he served as an Air Force protocol officer in Washington, D.C. for several years — he remains in the branch’s reserve corps today — and then as a commercial developer, during which time he traveled to India and the Bahamas.
Eventually, Ball returned the Hudson Valley. In 2005, he decided to pursue a path he had considered since his Air Force days: a run for political office. He launched a primary challenge against longtime Republican Assemblyman Willis Stephens Jr., whose family had held the seat for almost 80 years. “Nobody thought I would win,” Ball says. Over two years, he knocked on 10,000 doors and engaged in aggressive campaign tactics such as the aforementioned chicken-suit strategy. The hard work paid off. Ball ultimately won 72 percent of the primary vote, then easily dispatched with Democrat Kenneth Harper in the general election.
The main impetus behind Ball’s victory had been his vow to try to change Albany. “It would have been the easiest thing in the world for me to get elected on my reform mantra and do what everybody else does — which is send out photos of seniors, puppy dogs, and rainbows — and get reelected every year,” Ball says. “My first speech in the Assembly was telling them that they violated the public trust and they were the most dysfunctional legislature in the United States of America. I became the great uniter — both Democrats and Republicans booed me. Now, with the dysfunction — when you have the State Senate turning the lights out — people are like, ‘Greg, you were right on.’
“I went there to fight for my constituents. It’s cost me a few friendly conversations, but at the end of the day, it was exactly the right thing to do.”
Ball won’t say whether he aspires to an office higher than Congressman. “I’m focused on this race like a laser,” he says. “To win a race of this caliber, you absolutely have to be.” As a child, Ball considered a career as a large-animal veterinarian, but says he has no plans to hang out in a barnyard (other than the Capitol) any time soon. “I love public service, and believe that — at least for the intermediate future — I’ll be involved politically,” he says. As long as that’s true, it shouldn’t be difficult to find out what this talented rabble-rouser is up to.
» Next: Meet Galen Joseph-Hunter and Tom Roe