Political Beat: Slinging dirt over clean campaigns

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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In the days leading up to the Aug. 7 primary, candidates in the competitive 17th District Senate race were making an issue out of the clean campaign pledge. It's an issue that could resurface as the general election nears.

Incumbent state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, said his challenger, state Rep. Tim Probst, D-Vancouver, isn't following the pledge he signed. Meanwhile, Probst criticized Benton for saying he would sign the pledge and then not actually signing it.

The pledge, put out by the League of Women Voters of Clark County, asks candidates to tell the truth about themselves and their opponents, to avoid personal attacks and to denounce any unfair attacks against an opponent that are made by an outside group.

Signing the pledge can allow a candidate to take the moral high ground in a race, but it can also hurt a candidate if his opponent doesn't sign it. It's like playing a game when one side has a harder set of rules.

An example of this can be seen with the unkind mailer targeting Benton before the primaries. The mailer was not sent out by Probst's campaign. It included an illustration of Benton as a medieval king, feasting on what appears to be turkey. The ad says Benton missed more than 500 votes and has made more than $1 million in taxpayer dollars since becoming a lawmaker 151/2 years ago.

The ad was the second one sent out by the Democratic group named Working Families for the 17th District. The first ad it sent out also included the $1 million statistic.

Benton criticized Probst for not denouncing the $1 million figure as false. Benton said Probst needs to stick to the pledge he signed.

"Because the claim is provably false, I call on him to live up to the pledge he signed, the Clean Campaign Pledge, and denounce this effort to deflect from the issues," Benton said in a press release.

Probst said he is adhering to the pledge. He has condemned the recent mailer depicting Benton as a monarch because of the mailer's mean-spirited tone. Probst has not denounced the mailer for the information provided on it, because he said he finds that information to technically be true.

$1 million -- as a state lawmaker?

The Working Families for the 17th District ad states: "Taxpayers have paid Don Benton (R) a King's ransom -- more than $1,000,000 in salaries, cell phone charges, per diems and office reimbursements while he's been in office."

In salary alone, Benton, who was elected to the Senate in 1996, has made more than $586,000. Legislative salaries are set by law and have risen over time. When Benton first took office as a senator, state lawmakers made $28,300 annually, according to the Washington Citizens' Commission on Salaries for Elected Officials. The annual salary today is $42,106.

In addition to salary, lawmakers also may charge the state to cover the cost of cellphone expenses, printing and postage associated with constituent outreach, and cost of living expenses (per diem) while they are on official business. Since 1999, Benton has accepted more than $555,000 in tax dollars for such expenses, according to the Senate's administration. The Senate did not immediately provide records for 1997 and 1998.

Signing the pledge

Probst has criticized Benton for not signing the pledge after Benton told The Columbian he planned to sign.

"This guy is not telling the truth at all," Probst said of recent attacks Benton has made against him. "This kind of distortion really gets in the way of addressing the real problems that we need to fix."

Benton said Aug. 6 that he doesn't need to sign the clean campaign pledge because he is already running a clean campaign. He noted that the pledge isn't enforceable, but said he'd still be happy to sign it.

"Fax me one right now, and I'm happy to do it," Benton said.

Later in the interview, Benton said: "I don't need to sign one. (Probst) needs to honor the one he did sign."

The League of Women Voters of Clark County's president, Anne McEnerny-Ogle, said she hopes Benton will sign the pledge. She said the pledge comes in the election packet each candidate receives, and if he's lost track of that, he can find the pledge on the group's website. As of Aug. 17, Benton had not signed.

"It's very easy for anyone to go to the league's website and download the very simple document, sign it, put it in an envelope and mail it in," she said. "We hope it would be important to him to do this."

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