Just a few months ago, Sen. Don Benton (R-17, Vancouver) was an outspoken—and sometimes outsider—member of the minority party in the Senate, clinging to a sliver of a lead in his bid for reelection to his fifth term as Vancouver's senator.
Fast forward to this week: He’s a key player in the political power struggles that have marked the start of the 2013 session in the Senate.
As deputy Republican leader, he’s part of caucus leadership. But his role as chairman of the Facilities and Operations Committee is what has really pushed Benton being into the spotlight. Last week, his committee lifted sanctions against Sen. Pam Roach (R-Auburn) – then announced an investigation into who leaked an embarrassing report about Roach's alleged abuse of staffers to The Associated Press.
The investigation has since apparently been scaled down a bit, according to Andrew Garber at The Seattle Times, but not before Democrats criticized the Majority Coalition Caucus (the group of 23 Republicans and two dissident Democrats that now controls the senate) on the floor, saying the MCC was more interested in tracking down the person who leaked the report than in taking workplace abuse seriously.
This week, Benton's committee shut down an effort by Democrats to install Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, a Democrat, as a nonvoting chairman of his committee. Benton’s response: That it was “quite embarrassing” that Democrats hadn’t “graciously” accepted their status as the minority party, according to Jordan Schrader at The News Tribune.
Benton is also the prime sponsor of more than 30 bills that range from requiring parental notification before a minor gets an abortion, to preventing undocumented immigrants from receiving in-state tuition and financial aid, to lifting the law requiring adults to wear helmets while riding motorcycles to a Tea Party-inspired anti-Growth Managment Act bill about the U.N.'s agenda to promote sustainable development. Unlike previous years, this isn't just a laundry list of hot-button proposals suggested by a minority party senator with no hope of getting a hearing—two of those three bills have public hearings on the books.
I wanted to talk to Benton about what all of this means moving forward this session, but he did not return numerous calls throughout Wednesday and Thursday. Two Senate Republican Caucus communications staffers also tried to get Benton on the phone Thursday, but he was in committee meetings.
So where does this leave us? The focus on the Roach leak and subsequent investigation will likely shift to policy discussions as session progresses. And whatever your opinion of Benton’s bills, few have a realistic chance of passing a Democratic-controlled House or being signed into law by a Democratic governor (and that’s saying nothing of their chances of passing the MCC-controlled Senate).
As a member of the leadership team of a bipartisan coalition caucus, Benton seems to have come out swinging. That not only makes news now, it sets the tone for the next three months.
[Editor's Note: Niki's pick for Capitol Newsmaker of the Week last week was another Senate Republican, Steve Litzow (R-41). Democrats, you need to step up your game.]
PubliCola is excited to welcome Niki Reading to our news team. Reading has covered state government and politics in Washington for five years at The News Tribune and TVW, where she wrote the excellent nerdy news blog, The Capitol Record. She has also worked for The Associated Press covering state government in Oregon. Reading will be posting a regular preview of the week's action in Olympia and a regular re-cap featuring her pick for Olympia's newsmaker of the week.
Full disclosure: Reading is married to the state senate Democrats' Deputy Chief of Staff, Jeff Reading. —Eds.