Mailers in 17th District Senate race get personal

Benton depicted as medieval king in ad sent by independent group; Probst complains of false claims

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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The Senate race in the 17th District is getting nasty.

Last week, a group sent out a mailer with a full-page color image of Benton dressed as a medieval king. The doctored photograph shows Benton eating what appears to be a turkey leg while licking his fingers and smiling. The caption on the photo reads: "Don Benton has been living high on the hog with our taxpayer dollars."

Benton said he expected this to happen. The independent ads, which were ultimately financed by the Democratic Party but not created or paid for by Probst's campaign, are evidence that Democrats will hit him with a barrage of attacks, Benton said.

"We knew when the Seattle Democrat Machine finally convinced Probst to run that the rumors of the promised $250K in negative attacks were true," Benton said in a recent Facebook message. On Monday, Benton called the ad depicting him as a wasteful monarch "despicable" and said it includes "ridiculous claims."

A quarter-million dollar deal? Probst said that's a false claim. Senate Democrats did not offer him massive negative ad support in order to get Probst to run against Benton.

That claim also arose in a Benton-funded mailer last month.

"It's just untrue," Probst said. "Of course Don can predict there would be independent expenditures in this campaign. There are independent expenditures in every serious campaign."

The feistiness demonstrated in the race so far is likely a tune-up for what lies ahead in the three months before the Nov. 6 general election. Benton and Probst don't have to worry about getting eliminated in Tuesday's primary election, because they're the only two running. But the primary results could show who the voters favor so far.

Already, Probst's campaign has spent more than $74,000 while Benton's campaign has spent more than $114,000, according to the state's Public Disclosure Commission. Additionally, an independent group called Working Families for the 17th District has spent more than $16,700 sending out mail pieces that take aim at Benton's voting record, salary and office expenditures.

Working Families for the 17th District is financed through a $20,000 donation from the Roosevelt Fund and a $5,000 donation from the Harry Truman Fund, according to the PDC. Both funds are associated with Democratic caucus committees. Probst criticized the tone of the Working Families ad that depicts Benton as royalty.

"The content appears to be accurate, but that one is not my style at all," Probst said. "I'm going to be asking all sides — my opponents and my allies — to stay truthful and factual and calm" during the campaign, he added.

The independent ad aimed at Benton says Benton missed more than 500 votes since taking office in the 1990s. The ad implies that Benton missed more than 500 days of work, when the statistic actually refers to missed votes, not missed days.

According to online database WashingtonVotes.org, Benton has missed more than 500 votes since becoming a legislator nearly two decades ago. While he missed just seven votes during this year's legislative session, he missed 79 votes last year and 157 votes in 2009.

Benton said it's easier for House members to vote because they vote by the push of a button and can therefore have other lawmakers vote on their behalf if they're busy conducting other legislative duties. He also said the unpredictable nature of special sessions can lead to scheduling conflicts and missed votes.

Democrats are "twisting the working conditions and situations in the Legislature to try to make something out of nothing," Benton said.

The independent ad sent out last week also says Benton has made more than $1 million through working as a state lawmaker, including his salary, cellphone charges, per diem, and other expenditures. Benton denied that claim. Financial numbers from the Senate regarding Benton's expenditures were not immediately available on Monday.

Legislators make $42,106 a year and can collect a $90-a-day per diem when on official business. Legislator pay has increased in the past 16 years. In 1996, state lawmakers made $28,300 a year.

In the end, Probst and Benton both said they want to run a campaign on issues rather than on attacks. Benton said he has a record of standing up for conservatives in his district and serving as a watchdog for taxpayers. Probst said his focus is working toward real, long-term solutions that will fix the economy and get people back to work.

Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523 or stevie.mathieu@columbian.com or www.facebook.com/reportermathieu or www.twitter.com/col_politics.