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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

State Sen. Don Benton won’t run for re-election

Benton said in a statement Saturday that he will finish his current term, which expires at the end of the year

By Lauren Dake, Columbian Political Writer
Published: January 30, 2016, 3:11pm

Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, announced on Saturday he is not seeking re-election.

Benton, a vocal conservative who has served 22 years in the Washington Legislature, said he would step down at the end of his term on Dec. 31.

“Given my love for public service, I make this decision with a heavy heart,” Benton said in a four-page statement. “But it has become clear to me that my current employer has decided that it is no longer desirable for me to serve in the Legislature while doing my job at the county.”

Benton is director of Clark County Environmental Services. Earlier this month, Acting County Manager Mark McCauley sent Benton a letter alerting him to a change of policy: Benton would need to be at work during the county’s regular business hours if he wanted to be paid for county work.

Benton responded to McCauley, in an email, saying the inability to telecommute from Olympia hurt his ability to pay his bills.

Benton’s county job pays $115,000. State lawmakers earn $45,474.

In his statement on Saturday announcing his decision, Benton mentioned he would “continue to take unpaid leave as I always have for my legislative work in Olympia.”

In March 2014, however, The Columbian reported McCauley and Benton worked out a verbal agreement allowing Benton to receive a portion of his salary for county work he accomplished while in Olympia. At the time, McCauley told The Columbian expecting Benton to take weekslong leave of absence was “unreasonable.”

Recent decision

On Jan. 14, Democrat Tim Probst announced he was running for Benton’s seat. Probst, a former legislator, lost to Benton for the 17th Legislative District Senate seat in 2012 by 76 votes.

At the time, Benton confirmed he planned to seek re-election. Benton noted the slim majority margin Republicans had in the state Senate and said, “A lot of people like the idea that Republicans blocked some of the crazy ideas of this governor, where the House just rubber stamps them. If you want the Senate to be a rubber stamp for his proposals, you should vote for Tim Probst. But if you like checks and balance in your government, then I would hope you would vote for me.”

Brent Ludeman, the executive director of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee, said he was first notified on Saturday of Benton’s decision.

“We thank Sen. Benton for his 20-plus years of service and we wish him the best in his future endeavors,” Ludeman said.

Benton previously served as the chair of the state Republican Party.

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Benton, 58, was first elected to the state House in 1994 and to the state Senate in 1996.

A fiscal and social conservative, Benton has a long history of staunchly opposing tax hikes.

Benton was a key player in killing the Columbia River Crossing. From the start of the project, he opposed extending light rail and voiced concerns that replacing the bridge would result in a bottleneck down the road on Interstate 5.

“I knew from the beginning that light rail and more tolls wasn’t the right fit for what Vancouver, Clark County, and Washington State needed,” Benton said in his statement.

Benton could be tenacious: He tried several times to end a loophole in the state’s three-strikes law. Called the Chelsea Harrison bill, his proposal targeted the loophole that allowed Harrison’s murderer to be free at the time of the 14-year-old Clark County girl’s death. After several attempts, Benton struck a bipartisan deal to close the loophole.

Benton said his “heart has been heaviest” when it comes to supporting veterans. He points to his successful efforts pushing for a World War II memorial.

His tenure in the state Senate has not been without its controversies.

In 2013, Benton and Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, made headlines for a series of high-profile spats. Benton reportedly called Rivers a “trashy trampy-mouthed little girl.”   

A legislative panel ruled the two lawmakers shared in the blame for the arguments. Benton alleged Rivers swore at him on the Senate floor and during a caucus meeting.

In December 2014,  Benton was ousted as majority deputy leader by his fellow Republicans after a closed-door caucus vote.

Although he ran for re-election to the leadership position, Benton said he made it clear to his colleagues in the meeting his “preference would be to chair a committee.”

“Our caucus is expanding, we have more people and we need to make sure everyone has a position. Those of us who were doing multiple jobs don’t have to work as hard,”  Benton told The Columbian at the time, adding he felt comfortable taking on a policy role now that the caucus is on “stable ground.”

Benton currently serves as the chair on the Financial Institutions and Insurance Committee. He also serves as vice Chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and is a member of the Senate Government Operations & Security Committee and Senate Rules Committee.

County job

Benton’s hiring at the county level also generated controversy and a lawsuit.

Republican county Councilors David Madore and Tom Mielke hired Benton amid opposition. Opponents depicted Benton’s hiring as political cronyism.

The county ended up settling a $250,000 lawsuit brought by the former interim Environmental Services director, who alleged the county violated state law and its own hiring policies.

In his press statement, Benton touts his accomplishments as Environmental Services director and said he’s looking forward to leading the county team as the director for many years to come.

“After 30 years of elective public service with 22 of those travelling up and down I-5, I will miss the annual treks north to work with my many friends and colleagues to solve the challenges that face all of us,” Benton said. “While I will dearly miss my colleagues in Olympia, I will not stop fighting for the issues I care most about. In particular, I plan to work on two issues very close to my heart — homelessness and support for veterans.”

Benton did not return calls for comment.

This report includes material from The Columbian archives.

Columbian Political Writer