It isn’t often that a single college course can have a major impact on your life, but Jamie Ballinger can attest that it happens. While a student at the University of Tennessee, she was one of 18 Normandy Scholars who spent a semester studying World War II, capped by a visit to the French town where the Allied forces got a foothold to invade Europe and eventually end the war. The trip was paid for by the Normandy Foundation, an organization dedicated to teaching a younger generation the causes of World War II.
While in Normandy, Ballinger met a World War I history buff named Michael Holden on a visit from his native Canada. They hit it off and became good friends. He went back to Canada and she came back to Knoxville. International calls were expensive so that led to email exchanges. Thus began a five-year long-distance relationship that included visits back and forth every three months. “On one visit, in October of 2000, I carried him to a UT football game. It blew his mind.”
They realized that one of them had to move. Ballinger had just been offered a position with Baker Donelson, one of the biggest and most prestigious law firms in the state. So Holden moved to Knoxville. They’ve been married for 14 years.
Ballinger grew up in Anderson County in a family of staunch Democrats. She got her undergraduate degree at UT and then took a year off. She got a chance to spend two months visiting with Holden’s family. She sold ads for Cityview magazine and Blount Today, a since-defunct E.W. Scripps weekly in Blount County. Then she started law school at UT. She graduated UT Law in 2008 and entered the recession economy when jobs were hard to find. But she landed a position at London Amburn, a law firm specializing in representing doctors and hospitals. By 2014 she had made partner at the firm, but Baker Donelson called with an offer. “It was my dream job.” She does business law at the firm and still is involved in representing doctors and hospitals, among other clients.
In 2018 she was urged to run for office as the Knox County Democrats were determined to field a slate of good candidates for all legislative races. She found herself running against a popular Republican in a Republican district – Sen. Richard Briggs, a retired heart surgeon.
“It was the best thing I ever did, and it was the hardest thing I ever did. Running for office reaffirmed my faith in people. I went door to door and talked to people. I have no regrets; I didn’t do any negative campaigning; I wanted to be proud of my campaign when it was over. You can’t listen to people telling you to go negative. They say being negative works, but I don’t agree. I didn’t want my MeMaw to hear terrible things about me on the radio.
“I developed an empathy for politicians, people who put their name on the ballot. My mother told me when the race started that win or lose, remember it’s not personal. Your family and friends know you, but nobody (in the public) knows you. They have an idea of who you are, but they don’t know you.”
Despite running against a popular, entrenched incumbent, Ballinger came within about 10 points. This exceeded expectations in a Republican district, and it got her noticed. A lot of heavy hitters in the Democratic Party want her to run for something else right away. At 40 years of age, with a successful career and marriage, how does she feel about a future in politics? She says one reason she ran was that she had talked about the need to get more women to run for office, and she felt it was time to walk the walk. But what about the advice to run for something else?
“It’s flattering. But you can’t jump right into something. It has to be the right thing for the right reason. Just running to be running is not helpful.
“I found out going door-to-door that you can have the best conversations, even with people who disagree with you. I met a man with an AK-47 tattoo and we talked about the Second Amendment. We agreed to disagree on some things. When you talk to a woman who has two jobs and she cries, it’s a big deal. And all you can say is that I will try to help you.”
She and her husband enjoy camping, and she found it helpful to get rid of the stress after the campaign. “Especially if you don’t have cell service.” She said she and Briggs remain on friendly terms, and running against him was not personal.
Fun fact: Back in the day, Briggs contributed money to the Normandy Foundation, the organization that sent Ballinger to France.