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Meet Don Benton, state Senate bill-monger

The Republican Senator won reelection in a tight race this year that clinched a Republican majority coalition in the Senate. He's not looking back.

By John Stang

January 25, 2013.

One of his constituents recently told Sen. Don Benton that he couldn't know how long he'd be in the Washington Senate majority — so don't waste time. Benton is taking that advice to heart.

So far, just two weeks into the legislative session, Benton, R-Vancouver, has introduced 30 bills. You can expect more.

They include: Requiring parents to be notified if a girl, 18 or younger, gets an abortion. Making the children of illegal immigrants ineligible for in-state college tuition. Requiring proof of citizenship before getting a new driver's license. Keeping that pesky United Nations out of Washington's land-use laws.

Just to name a few.

The bills also tell us a lot about Benton himself. The state Senator — a 55-year-old father of four and consultant for television station sales staffs — is an ardent protector of property rights. He also describes himself as persistent. He is. Over the course of his legislative career, which includes 16 years in the Senate and two in the House, he's introduced numerous bills each year. But the Democrat-controlled Senate committees have usually killed them before they got off the ground.

It's been pretty frustrating to him.

This year though, a Republican-dominated majority coalition controls the Senate and Benton has reintroduced lots of his old bills, plus a few new ones. With Republicans in control of most Senate committees, he hopes they will get at least hearings this time and perhaps even have a decent chance of passing the full chamber. The Republican-heavy majority coalition gives Senate Republicans the chance to pass bills that have been dead on arrival in the past.

"Is there a pent-up demand for fair hearings on bills by Republicans? I say yes. ... There's no grand master plan. The plan for me, Don Benton, is to incorporate legislation that has been stifled by Seattle's domination in the legislative arena," Benton said.

A major chunk of the Legislature's Democrats live in Seattle and its surrounding area. House Speaker Frank Chopp and Senate Minority Leader Ed Murray are both from the liberal 43rd District, composed of Seattle's Wallingford, University District and Capitol Hill neighborhoods. The anti-Seattle sentiment was one of the reasons Sens. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, and Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, jumped the aisle to team up with the Senate Republicans for a Senate takeover.

Benton's re-election was the key to enabling the new majority coalition's control of the Senate.

It had been a bitter race. Probst spotlighted Benton's failed attempt at reelection as the Washington Republican Party chairman amid allegations of mishandled finances. In 2000, the Seattle Times reported that Benton refused to resign after he left $1.2 million in donations unspent during the 2000 campaigns, which included Democrat Maria Cantwell's narrow unseating of Republican incumbent U.S. Sen.Slade Gorton. Party leaders also criticized him for putting $365,000 in escrow to move the party headquarters from Tukwila to an Olympia building, without telling party leaders.

Meanwhile in 2012, Benton sent out an aggressive political mailer: "My opponent has been promised $250,000 in negative attack mail by the Seattle Democrat machine. They will stop at nothing to maintain their failed control of the state Senate, including lying to you about my record."

The Columbian newspaper of Vancouver dug into the issue: Democrats denied the attack mail allegation, but Benton told The Columbian that his allegations were true. They came from several sources, he said, which he declined to name to the newspaper.

Initially, former Rep.Tim Probst, D-Vancouver, beat out Benton by a slender 222 votes. The tiny margin triggered an automatic recount, which Tom and Sheldon watched closely. A win by Benton would provide the 25th vote they'd need to justify switching sides because of their philosophical differences with the other Democrats on budget matters.

The recount made Benton the winner by 74 votes. And power shifted to the Senate's Republicans.

As a member of the new majority Benton was named chairman of the Senate's Facilities and Operations Committee, which handles the Senate's internal administrative matters. There, he became involved with the other part of the plan that gave the Republicans their majority.

Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, had been previously exiled from the Republican caucus for abusive behavior, including verbal attacks on staff members. She'd lost her staff privileges. The Benton-led Facilities and Operations Committee restored those privileges on Jan. 15 — completing a series of concessions to Roach in return for her support of the alliance.

"They have an interesting coalition and I don't know how long they can manage the moderates with the larger right side by side," Senate Minority Leader Murray said. "[Benton] is really to the right," he added.

"I describe myself as a Constitutionalist-Libertarian," Benton counters. "I'm not right wing. Others might say I'm right wing."

This year, Benton hopes to make more progress with the power shift. "Of course, I want them to pass. But at least now they'll get a hearing. ... I'm bringing forth issues that are important to at least half the people in the state," he said.

But Benton and the Senate Republicans face a colossal obstacle — the Democrat-controlled House, which will look dimly on conservative-oriented bills. Still, as he noted, that threat works two ways: the Republican-oriented Senate can also block House Democrat bills. "If the House wants some bills to pass the Senate, they can't kill every one of ours," he said.

John Stang is a longtime Inland Northwest newspaper reporter who earned a Masters of Communications in Digital Media degree at the University of Washington. He can be reached by writing editor@crosscut.com.

View this story online at: http://crosscut.com/2013/01/25/under-the-dome/112641/meet-don-benton-state-senate-bill-monger/

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Printed on April 21, 2014