Blowhard or death blow?

Controversial Don Benton may be a strong leader for state GOP.

LIBERALS WOULD CALL the election of state Senator Don Benton as Washington's GOP party chair "counterintuitive"—a term they use when they mean lacking common sense. Metaphorically, liberals compare Benton's victory to a person grabbing valises, gripping satchels, and strapping on fanny packs to sprint a tightrope across the Grand Canyon. The person is the state Republican Party, the canyon is statewide elections, and the baggage is Benton.

A more intuitive choice, in liberals' minds, would be a chairman who could raise money, heal old wounds, attract sexy new candidates, and win back traditional funders like Boeing still pissed at the party's far-right agenda and support of tax-cutting Initiative 695. Benton, conventional wisdom holds, is out of step in this optimistic year for Republicans when Senator Slade Gorton and George W. Bush are racing to the middle and doing pretty well at it.

It's easy and comforting for those of us perched atop the seven hills of Seattle to stereotype Republicans as one-dimensional. But this may be a dangerous miscalculation in these ultrapartisan days. The GOP is as rich in philosophical diversity as it is poor in racial and ethnic variety. This contradiction is the party's biggest problem, of course; conversely, the multicultural Democrats' discourse usually runs the gamut from a to b. Republicans are always on the brink of self-destruction, while Democrats are in danger of total atrophy. Meanwhile, voters care less and less. Leadership would be an antidote for both maladies; therefore both parties are desperate for personnel qualified to lead.

Don Benton is no John Kennedy, but he's an example of the folly of broad-brushing the GOP. He's more capable, complex, and mainstream than his friends, and certainly more so than the press credits him as being. State Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-Seattle), who is as far from Benton in policy and style as one could be, says Benton "continually surprises me as to what he'll do or support. When we find that nexus, he's actually enjoyable to work with."

Kohl-Welles teaches women's studies and education at UW. Benton "is proud of his daughter, who plays football in high school," she says. "When I've had resolutions on women in sports, he'll speak on the floor on the importance of equity and equality of females."

Don Benton, closet feminist? Probably not, but there's a tenacity and integrity about the man that leads observers to think he might even try reason and inclusiveness if it means succeeding where his detractors predict he will fail.

"He's a likable guy, very conservative," West Seattle Democratic Senator Mike Heavey told The Seattle Times. "He comes up with a lot of ideas he decides later won't work out. I kind of admire that."

THE JURY IS still out on his ability as a party builder. As a young, aggressive Republican in the Senate in 1997, Benton said, "Politics is a business of confrontation. I don't think the public is well served by gentility." Bellevue Representative Jennifer Dunn calls him "feisty," but the word "blowhard" comes up a lot too. Governor Gary Locke (who later apologized) called Benton an "arrogant blowhard" in the heat of the last year's elections. "That's just a slur on Don's girth," says state Senator Pam Roach (R-Auburn) of her portly colleague and friend, "you never hear someone skinny called a 'blow-hard.'"

Many believe that Benton's election reaffirmed the continued right-wing domination of the GOP. He has the blustering record of a Gingrich ideologue. "I'm very straightforward, and some folks don't like that," he says. He wants to amend two of the most important environmental laws on the books: the Endangered Species Act the and Clean Water Act. He opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest, favors designating English as the official language, opposes benefits for same-sex partners, and supports a Constitutional amendment outlawing flag burning. He regularly votes with harsh bibliolaters such as state Senators Harold Hochstatter and Val Stevens.

Benton points to pulling together his splintered caucus on a transportation plan this session as an example of his unifying abilities. "You don't do that if you're divisive," he claims.

There was no sign of weight bias at the GOP's state central committee last month when they elected Benton party chair. "I was elected by a very clear majority," he says. The vote was not along the conservative-liberal fault line that's kept the party sidelined for years. He beat party insider Ron Carlson (no relation to John) who was expected to win and hold the seat until the party could find someone else.

Benton won by burning shoe leather and kissing delegate's rings one at a time. "He really wanted it bad," says Chuck McClellan, state coordinator of the moderate Mainstream Republicans. "He drove the state and went to every vote on the state committee." Benton delivered a stemwinder at the final meeting, pledging to throw body and soul into the charge. I-695's Tim Eyman says, "The contrast between [Ron Carlson and Benton] was stunning." Benton and Pam Roach buttonholed delegates one-on-one right up to the final vote.

Benton filled a vacuum left when former state party chairman Dale Foreman quit. But Benton says there was a vacuum before Foreman left. "I think Dale was at headquarters one day a month. I'm here every day."

One outstanding issue is whether Benton will retain his Senate seat (he's unopposed so far). Former King County Council member and fellow Republican Brian Derdowski says, "There's an inherent conflict of interest in being an elected official and being the head of a party. He'll vote on laws dealing with party accountability like public disclosure requirements and so forth. He should resign his Senate seat."

Don't look for that to happen, but watch Don Benton as he does this job. His future depends on his scorecard electing Republicans this fall. All his warts will be beauty marks if the party wins at the polls. The GOP just might have a leader on their hands.

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