Jamie Ballinger’s hero is her grandmother, Arzetta England, who lives in Powell and worked for many years at C&S Laundry.
“She’s extremely frugal and can squeeze a nickel until it’s a quarter,” said Ballinger, who ran unopposed in the Democratic primary and is now challenging one-term state Sen. Richard Briggs in November.
She described her grandmother as a big-hearted woman who was a second mother to the neighborhood kids and said that neither of her parents graduated from high school.
My dad (Mike Ballinger) was a union electrician; mom (Jane Ballinger) worked a lot of retail jobs. They are the hardest working people I’ve ever known.”
She was brought up to believe that hard work gets rewarded and found that to be true. Ballinger, who got her first paying job when she was 15, says she’s running for office to help restore that possibility. She’s going to be focusing on education, health care and good-paying jobs.
“We tell people that if you get up and work hard, you can have a better life – but that gets more difficult every year,” she said. “Tennessee has the most minimum wage jobs of any place in the country. You can work 40 hours a week at minimum wage and not be able to pay the rent.”
Education tops Ballinger’s priority list for a reason.
“Public education is the best chance for the most people – and a lot of people invested in me. I carry that with me, and I want to make sure young people coming up have the best chance.”
Ballinger and her husband, Michael Holden, live in Fourth & Gill, not far from the former St. Mary’s Hospital where she was born. She grew up in Anderson County, where her father had access to union jobs and graduated from Anderson County High School. She wondered how she’d survive at the University of Tennessee.
“I was scared to death. There were graduates of Webb and Baylor and GPS (Girls Preparatory School in Chattanooga) in my classes, and I was afraid that with my little Anderson County education, I wouldn’t be able to keep up,” she said.
She needn’t have worried.
She got a bachelor’s degree in rhetoric and writing – with highest honors – and followed that up with a law degree (also from UT) in 2008 – again with honors – and has established a successful practice as an attorney with Baker Donelson where she specializes in medical malpractice defense and employment law, is an adjunct professor at UT law school and participates in a long list of professional and non-profit organizations.
“I got a wonderful education in Anderson County. It changed my life.”
Her husband, Michael, taught middle school for 10 years before taking a job with an educational software company, so Ballinger has had a good overview of what teachers have faced in recent years.
“So many teachers are leaving education. They’re tested to death, the teachers and the kids. By the time they get to April, everybody is so exhausted. It’s hard, watching them go through that. We’ve got to get a more reasonable approach.”
Ballinger is challenging Republican incumbent Richard Briggs, who has an impressive resume of his own. She says she wants a vigorous debate but won’t be trashing her opponent.
“I don’t have a thing against Dr. Briggs,” she said. “I think he’s a nice person. We just have different priorities. I want to focus on fully funding public education. That issue hasn’t gotten enough attention and has not been prioritized. He talks about how low unemployment is, but doesn’t take a deep dive into the numbers, which include temporary workers, minimum wage workers and don’t count people who have been out of a job so long they’ve quit applying.
“He talks about how he believes in Medicaid expansion, but was unable to move his (Republican) caucus. I wish he would have made it his rallying cry. There shouldn’t have been a day go by when we didn’t talk about it.”
Ballinger, who has been knocking on doors to spread her message, knows the numbers in her GOP-dominated district. But says she talks to lots of voters from both parties who like what she has to say.
“It’s interesting. They’re open to giving new people a shot. I don’t have anything against Dr. Briggs, but it’s important to me that we give them a good dialog. He and I will talk about issues. This place is home, so I take everything that happens to it really personally.”
Note: This line has been removed from the original story: (dubbed “Redneck Tech” by snooty Oak Ridge rivals) It was added by the writer and not a quote from Jamie Ballinger – a point which should have been obvious but was misread by a reader who just won’t let go.