Support The Wire

Could This be the Same Don Benton? — Correspondence Has Legislature Snorting With Laughter

Yeah, There's a Serious Issue Involved -- But Oh, the Sarcasm

State Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver.

State Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver.

OLYMPIA, Feb. 27.–Okay, first things first – there is no question that state Sen. Don Benton wrote a letter the other day ripping Republicans in the state House who voted for a bill that aims to make it harder to run initiatives. No doubt about it at all. He wrote it, all right. He’s still peeved about the vote on House Bill 2552, and finds it a little hard to believe that his fellow Republicans would support such a thing.

And you can even say the Vancouver lawmaker makes a serious point about the importance of the initiative process in Washington state. But that’s not what has tongues wagging at the state Capitol right now. It’s the equally blistering response he got from Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, the House Deputy Minority Leader. You don’t mess with his peeps, he says.

It has been the talk of the Legislature for the last 24 hours, a letter that has been forwarded from one email basket to the next, the stuff of wicked giggles and nudges in the ribs. Lawmakers say they had trouble keeping straight faces in committee when it showed up on their computer screens. And all Wednesday afternoon you could see members and lobbyists and staffers in the hallways staring at their iPhones and bursting into gales of laughter – a sure sign they had just gotten the forward. If Benton had to fear retaliation for his letter, he got it in the worst way possible – in the form of brutal sarcasm.

So Washington State Wire herewith presents what may the most delightful bit of legislative correspondence in recent years – the letter and the response are posted below.

But first, maybe a bit of context is important.

Pushback on Eyman Initiative

House Deputy Minority Leader Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda.

House Deputy Minority Leader Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda.

House Bill 2552 would require paid petition signature gatherers to register with the Secretary of State’s office in Olympia and complete a training program before they hit the streets. They would have to carry photo-ID and produce it when asked. No signature-gathering could occur without a license – and since the state’s enormous signature-gathering requirements force virtually all campaigns to use paid signature gatherers, you might say it would put a big crimp in the business.

There’s sort of a nasty backstory to this one. Liberal special-interest groups have been pushing bills like these for years. The rationale is that the initiative process has been heavily weighted toward conservative anti-tax proposals in recent years — which makes sense, given the fact that Democrats have held considerable sway in the Legislature over the last three decades. So something ought to be done to make it all harder. Certainly there also have been a fair number of measures that skew toward the liberal side during that time, but they are often run by well-organized union groups and activist organizations that have greater ability to provide training. The ironic thing about this age-old argument is that the bills are usually justified as fraud-prevention measures – but the biggest cases of initiative-signature fraud in recent years have occurred in union-backed signature drives. Commercial signature gathering companies that work the other side of the divide do a rather good job of policing themselves.

Initiative 517 was circulated alongside I-1185 last year, the business-supported measure that reimposed the two-thirds-for-taxes requirement.

Initiative 517 was circulated alongside I-1185 in 2012, the business-supported measure that reimposed the two-thirds-for-taxes requirement.

What’s different this year is that the argument is coming from a business group — the Washington Food Industry Association, which represents the state’s smaller supermarkets. It argues that most signature-gatherers are polite – but there are always a few bad apples who don’t ask permission to gather signatures on store property. Thus the urgent need for the bill. Why is a business association making the same argument that has been sounded by the likes of FUSE Washington, the Service Employees International Union, the Ballot Initiative Network and other progressive groups? Chalk it up to bad blood.

Business Makes ‘Progressive’ Argument

The measure might be seen as a rebuke to initiative promoter Tim Eyman. Last year he was the prime mover behind I-517, which would have expanded the rights of signature gatherers to canvass at store entrances. That isn’t the only reason retailers were peeved about it, though. They found out after the fact that in a sense they had helped finance the campaign. They were among the business interests who paid signature gatherers to canvass for an Eyman anti-tax measure, I-1185. The canvassing crews carried petitions for I-517 at the same time. Though they got paid by the signature on that one as well, the cost of the “piggybacked” campaign was far lower than it would have been otherwise. And so now comes a bill — this one championed by state Rep. Chris Reykdal, D-Olympia, a proud progressive member of the House Democratic Caucus.

Here’s what gets Benton’s goat. Normally you expect Republicans to stand up against such things. An attack on the initiative process? One sponsored by a Democrat? But because a business trade association is behind it — well, apparently things looked a little different. The bill passed the state House Feb. 17, as you might expect, because the House is under Democratic control. But it passed by a whopping vote of  71-26. There were 14 Republicans who voted in favor.

The bill is dead in the Senate: Governmental Operations Chair Pam Roach isn’t about to give it a hearing. But still, it’s the principle of the thing. Benton says the House Republicans must have figured the Senate would kill it, so they could easily take a vote with business. Leaves the Senate to do the messy work of killing the bill. Benton has never been what you would call a shrinking violet when it comes to speaking his mind. Heck yes, he wrote a letter, he says, and he made sure everyone in the House Republican Caucus saw it.

“I wanted to educate new members as to the history in the Legislature of Republicans standing up for the initiative process,” he says. “And when I was approached by a lobbyist and the ‘bipartisan’ word was used in an attempt to convince me to support the bill, it made it very difficult. I said, what you mean by bipartisan? And he showed me that there were 14 Republicans who voted for it.

“You know, we have a very thin margin over here [in the Senate]. It is hard to kill bills in general, and it is much harder to kill bills that come out of the House on a bipartisan vote. So those Republicans made it very difficult for the Republicans in the Senate to continue to do what we have always done, which is to stand up for the initiative process. So I wanted to let them know that there is another stop on the way, and that is called the Senate. And it doesn’t help us when you vote for stuff and expect us to kill it.”

‘…And You Voted for It!’

And now here’s what has the whole Capitol snorting with laughter. First, the email from Benton, addressed to the Republicans who voted for the bill:

“As a fellow Republican legislator, I am deeply disturbed by your yes vote on the Democrats’ House Bill 2552.

“I did my due diligence and checked and confirmed that you did, in fact, vote for HB 2552 and I was completely surprised to see your name on the list. Republicans in the Legislature have diligently defended the initiative process from legislative assault by Democrats going back as far as 2003. Every year, the Democrats propose eliminating the initiative process, increases in filing fees, and imposing ridiculous new burdens on signature collection. Each and every time, the Republicans have stood firm against the Democrats’ arrogance. We’ve stood up to pressure from the unions and special interests to join the Democrats in pushing these additional burdens on the citizen initiative process. After all, the initiative process is a constitutional right of all Washingtonians.

“HB 2552 is one of the most oppressive Big Government anti-initiative bills they’ve ever tried. And you voted for it! Even the ACLU opposes it. Remember the words of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, … and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Please check the details in the bill! I was on the receiving end of the same rhetoric as you, claiming it was a small change and that it protected private property rights. Not true. It’s filled with a laundry list of burdens that simply cannot be justified.

I strongly urge you to rethink your support for the Democrats’ bill. Republicans in the Senate, specifically the members of Senate Government Operations Committee, are adamantly opposed to this terrible legislation that restricts every citizen’s constitutional right.


“Don Benton

“Deputy Majority Leader

“Washington State Senate Republican Caucus

“17th Legislative District”

Could This be the Same Don Benton?

And now, here’s the response that has the Capitol laughing:

“Senator Benton, I wanted to alert you that someone may have hacked your online account and sent the below-attached message from your e-mail address!  I think this because there is no way that you, a fine gentleman who:

*   voted to enact collective bargaining for state employees in 2002;
*   voted to authorize collective bargaining for WSU employees in 2008;
*   voted multiple times with the union positions on industrial insurance and apprentice programs in 2008 and 2009
*   voted to enact the Democratic budget in 2006;
*   supported union mandates for electricians in 2012;
*   voted to enact job-killing climate change and emissions laws in 2004, 2005 and 2007;
*   voted for mandates requiring businesses to provide family leave in 2007; and
*   as chair of the Senate’s Facilities & Operations Committee has continued to hold closed-door meetings from which the press and public are excluded,

“– could possibly be chastising other elected officials for voting the ‘wrong’ way on a bill.  We all know the high ethical standard to which you hold yourself, so there is no way I can believe that you—who has so often crossed his own caucus and voted for Democratic bills for what some uncharitable observers might say were self-serving reasons—would be so shameless as to try and take to task fellow elected officials whom you judge ‘guilty’ of the same party-crossing conduct for which you are so rightly famous.

“Obviously, this cannot be the real Don Benton, whom we know to be a principled civic leader who, like the elected officials castigated in the e-mail, votes his conscience and seeks to do what is best for his constituents and the people of our great state.  This is why, of course, no one in the House of Representatives Republican Caucus ever took to e-mail to attack you, publicly or privately, for your votes, because such behavior is beneath the dignity of honorable people (and, quite frankly, it would makes us all look ridiculous).

“Moreover, this same e-mail supposedly from you also includes a fundraising appeal, which is a violation of our ethics and campaign laws and the ‘freeze’ on fundraising which applies to all of us during the legislative session.  There is no way that the paragon of ethics that is the real Senator Benton would ever have inadvertently sent such a solicitation using his state e-mail, of course.

“And, of course, it goes without saying that all of us strongly support the initiative process and the people’s right to be involved with that process and active in their government.

“Please take steps to secure your account to ensure that no further silly attacks on colleagues purporting to be from you are made in the future.

“Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.  With that, please join me in tackling the problems of our state in the remainder of the legislative session, and let there be no more sniping at one another or grandstanding for outside groups.  We have better things to do with the offices with which our citizens have entrusted us.

“Best regards,

“Joel Kretz
“Deputy Republican Leader”

— Erik Smith

Your support matters.

Public service journalism is important today as ever. If you get something from our coverage, please consider making a donation to support our work. Thanks for reading our stuff.