RICHMOND – For someone who’s new in politics, Jason Ballard seems somewhat atypical. Instead of engaging in the partisan bickering that has taken grip of Virginia’s state legislature – particularly as the body nears the so-called crossover (Feb. 15, the last day for each chamber to act on its own legislation) – the Republican freshman delegate from Pearisburg seems rather focused on learning the ins and outs of legislating, intent on making new friends, not just from within his own party’s ranks but also from across the aisle.
“My approach is I just try to meet all those folks. Whether it’s a Republican or a Democrat, I always try to learn more about them and what motivates them to be here, and then you learn more about their district,” Ballard, 43, said in a recent interview at his office on the second floor of the Pocahontas Building in Richmond’s Capitol Square.
“It’s very easy for me to gravitate towards people from Southwest Virginia, because that’s what I’m comfortable with. But I think the bigger challenge is to meet with someone that I have never spoken to before and I have no idea about their background and their district,” Ballard said, adding that just learning more about why they are here, what issues are important to them personally, and what issues are important to their district helps him “understand how it all fits together.”
A lawyer, veteran, lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves and former councilman in his hometown Pearisburg, Ballard in November defeated Del. Chris Hurst, a Democrat from Montgomery County, with a comfortable 10% margin in the 12th district. He is one of three new lawmakers from Southwest Virginia who have joined the new Republican majority in the House, and leadership has tapped him to serve on the Courts of Justice, Public Safety and Counties, Cities and Towns committees.
With a little over a month under his belt as a freshman lawmaker, Ballard said he was surprised with the workload facing legislators each year. “The big shock to me when I got here was just how busy we are,” he said. “You always hear about how this is a citizen legislature, a part-time legislature, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. This is a full-time endeavor, and I was very surprised with just the amount of hours that delegates and senators work here.”
Ballard said that his day usually starts at 6:30 a.m. with committee meetings and he usually gets back to his hotel at 9 or 10 p.m. “It’s not always work here in the office, it’s meeting stakeholders on particular legislation, or it’s kind of expanding your network to learn about whatever subject it is. It’s very time consuming,” he said.
But unlike his new colleagues, Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick County, and Del. Marie March, R-Floyd County, who have both drawn widespread attention for sponsoring legislation that some political observers have deemed polarizing and controversial, Ballard has mostly managed to stay under the radar, focusing on what Republicans have deemed “kitchen table issues” in recent political discourse. “I don’t see my role as being one of the legislators to file the abortion and gun stuff because it’s already being carried,” he said.
In fact, Ballard is chief patron of bills that reflect his background as both a criminal defense attorney and a veteran, said Karen Hult, a professor of political science at Virginia Tech, citing Ballard’s House Bill 415 on criminal sentencing, HB 794 dealing with evidence of a defendant’s mental condition, HB 411 relating to free admission of military personnel to state parks, museums and cultural institutions, as well as HB 417, which would allow members of the U.S. armed forces to carry concealed weapons without a permit.
“Delegate Ballard also serves as chief patron of legislation with probable support from parts of his district,” Hult said. “More generally, he is co-patron for similar legislation and for bills supported by most members of the House Republican caucus or by those from more rural parts of the state, including K-12 education, abortion (right to informed consent), agri-business, and voting.”
And Ballard has no intention of competing with March, who has filed 27 bills in her first session, and Williams, who has filed 15. Having sponsored just 10 pieces of legislation in his freshman year in the House may seem underwhelming to some, but to Ballard it is part of his strategy. “I think it’s probably just a difference in opinion in regards to what’s realistic to get through the General Assembly. You can file all the bills that you want, but if they don’t have a chance of passing both the House and the Senate, what are you really trying to accomplish?” he said.
Some legislators may sponsor certain bills because they are trying to make good on a campaign promise or simply to make a statement, Ballard said. “I get why some people file things, but that’s not my approach, I try to be more deliberate. Also, as someone new coming in, a little bit of your role is to sit back and learn. I applaud people who want to go big or go home, but I try to develop as many relationships as I can, and learn as much as I can, because that’s ultimately going to help my district.”
While Ballard, March and Williams all share Southwest Virginia roots, the first five weeks of the 2022 session have shown that they have very different goals and priorities. This is partially owed to the fact that unlike the districts of his two colleagues, which are deeply Republican, Ballard’s district also includes pockets like Blacksburg and Radford, which lean Democratic, forcing him to walk a fine line of representing all his constituents – including those who didn’t vote for him.
And that makes his support for some legislation particularly tricky. Take the much needed regulation of marijuana, which Republicans are attempting to create a framework for.
While some personal possession and home growing became legal last summer, the parts of the legislation that would create a full, legal marijuana marketplace by 2024 aren’t yet finalized.
Ballard said that this is an issue that he has been thinking about a lot. “When I look at that diversity in my district, I know that generally speaking, most people in Giles County are not going to favor any type of legislation that empowers or encourages the use of cannabis,” he said. “I struggle with that part of it, because that’s the conservative side of my district.”
But Ballard said that he also knows that Blacksburg and Radford need to be represented, “and those folks generally are in favor of legalizing and regulating it. So I’m walking that line, not because I’m wishy-washy on the issue, but I’m trying to make a decision that best represents the district.”
While he has some concerns with the law enforcement side of marijuana legalization, Ballard also believes that it would provide an economic opportunity for Southwest Virginia if it is regulated and taxed. “My personal opinion is, I don’t necessarily have a problem with it, it’s just kind of the way things are going in the world,” he said.
Working in the unique circumstance of a divided government where Republicans hold all three statewide offices and a majority in the House of Delegates while Democrats still hang on to a slim 21-19 advantage in the Senate has allowed Ballard to reach across the aisle to get the job done.
“In the House of Delegates you have 100 people who generally are swimming in opposite directions, it’s not always in sync,” he said. “But it’s kind of a really neat process, because at the end of the day we all come together and we generally agree, probably 85 or 90 percent of the time, with what is going on,” Ballard said, referring to the chamber’s busy uncontested calendar.
“Now on some certain social or economic issues we are going to differ a little bit, and that’s what kind of drives the news cycle. But I tell people back home, it’s neat to have people come together that generally agree on stuff, that’s what’s good for Virginia. My process is just to learn as much about everyone as I can, and that helps me at least understand where they are coming from when they bring a bill to the floor.”
But while he enjoys working with Democrats – and maintains that he has a “great relationship” with many of them – Ballard said that in the end, it comes down to the will of his constituents. “I may have strong feelings about a bill we are discussing, but that doesn’t do my district justice if the majority of folks back home are in opposition,” he said.
“I try to do a little sampling of the folks back home, and then I’ll talk to the folks across the aisle and ask them to tell me why this is good or why this is bad. As a lawyer, I try to analyze all of that. It may not always be a perfect process, but at least I have all the information available so I can make the best decision that I can and vote my conscience for folks back home.”
As the General Assembly approaches the 2022 session’s midpoint, Cardinal News has interviewed two of the three freshman delegates from Southwest Virginia about their experience in the legislature so far. Del. Marie March, R-Floyd County, declined to be interviewed, citing scheduling concerns.
Tomorrow: Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick County.