OLYMPIA, Aug. 29.—It’s the biggest headscratcher in all the headline Senate races this year. You have a Vancouver district where the number-one issue is a mismanaged bridge project that might mean massive tolls for the 60,000 Clark County residents who commute to work each day in Portland. But if you’re paying attention to the back-and-forth in the contest between Republican state Sen. Don Benton and a sitting Democratic state representative, Tim Probst, it’s all about whether Benton missed too many votes and whether his office expenses have been on the high side.
Actually, it’s not that much of a surprise, Benton says. “This is what you’ve got when you’ve got nothing to talk about.”
Probst says it is a big deal. “When I’m in the Senate, I will follow the Senate voting rules and cast votes.”
Maybe it just seems strange in Olympia. Anyone who has spent time at the statehouse knows how those votes are recorded, and that it’s a little harder to maintain a perfect voting record in the Senate than it is in the House. Yet in Vancouver USA, it seems to be an issue that plays. In the August 7 primary election, Probst scored 48 percent of the vote to Benton’s 52. It’s not really that much of a difference in a low-turnout election where one can’t read too much significance into the numbers, but it’s close enough to make the 17th District one of the key battlegrounds in the fight for control of the Senate. It’s going to be a fight to the finish in November.
You just have to wonder if this one is going to be battled on generic grounds – or on an issue in which every Clark County resident has a stake.
Over the Top
Here’s how over-the-top things have gone. Just before the primary, the Working Families for the 17th – an independent campaign financed by labor, trial lawyers and other contributors to the House and Senate Democratic caucuses – sent out one of the more astonishing hit pieces ever used in a legislative race. It showed Benton in Henry VIII garb, gnawing turkey from the bone and licking grease from his fingers. “King Don Benton has been living high on the hog with our taxpayer dollars,” it said. The backside told of “524 missed votes” and said he had been “paid $1 million in taxpayer dollars” for salary, staff, and office expenses — a career figure that covers the last 18 years. It posed the question, “Could you miss 524 days of work and keep your job? Don Benton shouldn’t, either.”
And if Benton actually had missed 524 days of work, everyone might agree with that. It would mean Benton hadn’t bothered showing up at his desk in the Senate since 2007.
Just goes to show what’s being talked about in the 17th District – and what’s not. You want to talk about issues? Benton says. Talk about the bridge. Just talk about the bridge. It’s what people care about in Clark County. “It is unfortunate that my opponent doesn’t want to talk about these critical issues,” Benton says. “All he wants to do is sling mud and distort my record.”
Benton, a television ad-sales trainer when he’s not at his desk, is one of the best-known quantities in the Legislature after one term in the state House and four in the Senate. He’s a former state Republican chairman and a fierce partisan battler – sometimes beyond the point where others in his caucus would give up. He constantly can be seen at his desk on the floor, flipping through his little red book of legislative rules, looking for the parliamentary tactic that might give his side the edge. He’s never met a new tax he liked, promises never to vote for one, and is no doubt the bluntest speaker under the Dome. Don’t mistake passion for abrasiveness, Benton says. “I tell the truth to people. If you ask me how I feel about something, I don’t try to obfuscate where I’m at or talk in circles or be namby-pamby about it. No, I tell you I’m opposed to that and this is why. Or I support that and this is why. You know, a lot of times legislators are afraid to say yes or no because they will alienate somebody. And so they try to hide their real position.”
Benton may be in the fight of his career this year. Probst, 42, a former workforce training executive, has survived two elections, winning his last with 53 percent of the vote. Don’t make too much of that number. The 17th is a swing district, as likely to vote for a Democrat as a Republican – and in his last election, Benton himself squeaked through with just 51 percent.
The thing about Probst is that he’s great on the campaign trail, says Michael King, executive director of the Senate Democratic Caucus campaign committee, in charge of campaign efforts this year. “He’s just a charming and engaging guy, the nicest guy you’ll ever meet in the world. If you sit down and meet him it’s hard not to walk away liking the guy. And it’s one of the reasons we feel good about this race. We think he really connects with people. He’s one of those guys who is in this for all the right reasons.”
Probst is no partisan warrior himself. “We are in the worst economic time of the last 70 or 80 years,” he says, “and sometimes I feel like the two parties are wanting to play politics more than they are wanting to fix our economy. So that’s what’s driving me.” He can tick off a list of bills he’s worked on over the last four years that deal with economic development, workforce training and improvements to WSU-Vancouver. He’s got a seven-point plan to continue the work, including tax credits for job creation and training programs for skilled trades. “The real issue, when I’m out talking to people at their doors, is this incredible economic crisis that we have and the fact that other nations are more competitive than the United States,” he says.
Probst says he considers himself an independent thinker and certainly his votes on the big bills don’t prove otherwise. On the two most important tax votes of the last four years – the suspension of I-960 and the 2010 tax bill that followed – Probst was among the handful of Democrats who voted no. Though the same might be said of other swing-district Democrats facing tough re-election campaigns. It’s not the sort of independence in the way Olympia sees the term, on those perennial battles between business and labor. Probst attended the early meetings of the Roadkill Caucus, the business-friendly Democratic group that has flouted party leaders and changed the course of the Legislature these last two sessions. Probst says he bowed out because members took too hard a line. “I pride independent thought and I make the best decisions I can on the issues, so I tried out the Roadkill and I decided that is not for me, either. It felt kind of like a caucus rather than just a place where people can meet and be independent.”
Independence is all in the eye of the beholder, of course, and the question is independence from whom? Probst has an 84 percent lifetime voting ranking from the state Labor Council and 67 percent from the Association of Washington Business. Benton’s scorecard is more lopsided, 30 percent from labor and 88 percent from business. Most dramatic are the rankings from the National Federation of Independent Business, the state’s leading small-business group. Benton gets 90 percent. Probst gets 20 percent, the same as House Democratic leaders. “There are some pro-business Democrats who are actually making an effort to support business where they can, and that is different than what you see from Rep. Probst and others, who say they support small business and vote against us 80 percent of the time when they come to Olympia,” says director Patrick Connor. “In Rep. Probst’s case, not only is he out of step with where small businesses are on the issue, his 20 percent record shows that he is in lockstep with Frank Chopp and Pat Sullivan and other members of the House Democratic leadership.”
A Bridge Too Short
But what about the bridge? That’s what makes the race so curious. The Columbia River Crossing is the single biggest issue facing the district and all of Clark County, yet Benton is the only one raising a fuss. He says the project has been bungled since Day One, a plan for a mammoth double-decker bridge on I-5 with light rail belowdeck, with tolls that might reach $8 for the daily commute. He calls it a Trojan horse for a costly light rail project connecting Vancouver with Portland, and one which Clark County voters vehemently oppose. That is likely to be underscored by a Clark County light-rail vote in November. Recent revelations that transportation planning agencies ignored Coast Guard objections about height requirements could mean plans will have to be torn up after more than $100 million has been spent.
By itself the proposed tolls are bad enough, Benton says – a $160 or maybe even $200 monthly tax on every worker whose job is on the other side of the river, sucking money out of the local economy. Benton figures it makes more sense to build a new bridge at Ridgefield to feed the Port of Portland, upgrade the existing I-5 drawbridge, and build a new railroad bridge at lower cost that because of drawbridge alignments would cause fewer interruptions to highway traffic.
But it’s a tricky thing: The downtown Vancouver interests want the bridge. Probst isn’t taking a position. He says he wants a public vote. “Let the people vote and let the people decide,” he says. “I absolutely trust that the people will make the right decision on that, and people need to see the actual figures, how much the tolls will be, how many jobs will be created, and what are the pros and cons.”
And so it all comes back to the missed-vote issue – perhaps the one big thing voters learned from the flurry of mailers that went out just before the primary. Probst himself has raised the issue with a flier charging Benton with 299 missed votes over the last four years – he says he’s missed only three. Probst points out he didn’t have anything to do with the Henry VIII flier – and while he might prefer a higher tone, he says the facts seem accurate.
It’s a charge that drives Benton to distraction. It’s harder for senators to vote because the Senate uses oral roll calls. Members must be present and must wait their turn to speak. It’s easier in the House, where an electronic voting machine allows members to press a button from their desks, and with a wink or two members frequently vote for absent seatmates. At the same time, the Senate passes far more routine legislation than the House, some 2,000 gubernatorial appointments every four years, and if you’re out talking to someone in the hallway — one vote really doesn’t make a difference. But just try explaining that back home, Benton says. “It’s a little disingenuous for Tim Probst and I to come and meet with a fourth-grade class from Harmony Elementary, talk with them for 20 minutes, and answer their questions and then go back to our respective floors, Tim not having missed a single vote by doing so, and me missing four or five votes while I am doing so.”
Probst says it’s a big issue. “People send you up there to cast your vote as their representative, to be there and say yes or no on significant issues that matter. It is one of the fundamental jobs of a state senator to cast a vote on behalf of your constituents on each bill that is coming through and might become law.”
Brent Ludeman of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee says wearily his side is looking forward to more attacks like that one. There are plenty of old chestnuts that have been roasted in previous races. “You’ve got to wonder what convinced Tim Probst to run for the Senate,” he says. “Was it this exaggerated claim that Don Benton missed a lot of votes or was it that the Senate Democrats promised him a lot of money?”