Political Beat

Let’s go to the tape: Benton says he ‘schooled’ LaHood

State Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, wants you to know that he emerged victoriously from a closed-door caucus meeting yesterday with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. LaHood had made a special trip to Olympia to talk about the Columbia River Crossing project.

In a boastful press release, Benton states: “We were ready with questions when Governor Inslee brought Secretary LaHood in to lobby our coalition this morning. As a result, it wasn’t even a fair fight. I’d say we schooled the transportation secretary in a way he couldn’t possibly have expected.”

His press release prompted state Sens. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, and Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, to send a letter to LaHood, apologizing for the “undignified reception” Benton provided. (Full text of that letter is included below.)

For whatever reason, someone video taped the caucus meeting. It reportedly was posted on the Senate conservative caucus’ YouTube channel, but the video was later listed as private. Later, another YouTube user posted a recorded version of the video:

The video starts with Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, discussing her concerns about the project, saying the citizens of Clark County have “woken up” and many now oppose the project. Benton starts talking at about the 4-and-a-half-minute mark, hitting on all the major points CRC opponents have raised. Benton tells LaHood that his opinions on the CRC have been consistently ignored by those planning the Interstate-5 Bridge replacement.

Other senators then tell LaHood about their own transportation needs back home, then LaHood gets the final word on the CRC at the 20-minute mark.

“When you do big things, there are always going to be people who don’t like it,” LaHood says. “If you’re offended by the fact that at some point you’ve got to fish or cut bait, hey, that’s what you get elected to do. You get elected to vote. You get elected to make decisions. it’s decision time. And if you’re offended by it, I’m sorry. You’ve got to make a decision.”

All in all, the discussion wasn’t what I expected after reading Benton’s news release yesterday. Jordan Schrader of The News Tribune put it well when he wrote: “based on a news release from GOP Sen. Don Benton, you’d think LaHood cried uncle –or maybe just cried.”

Here’s the entire text of Benton’s release:

It’s Benton 1, U.S. transportation secretary 0 in CRC debate at Capitol

OLYMPIA… Sen. Don Benton says there’s no question that the people of Clark County came out ahead this morning when he and members of the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus went toe-to-toe with U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood over the Columbia River Crossing project.

“I’ve been working hard to keep our coalition members informed about the many significant flaws in the CRC project, so we were ready with questions when Governor Inslee brought Secretary LaHood in to lobby our coalition this morning. As a result, it wasn’t even a fair fight. I’d say we schooled the transportation secretary in a way he couldn’t possibly have expected,” said Benton, R-Vancouver, noting LaHood’s visit is part of a CRC propaganda blitz at the Capitol today.

“I guess the governor thought he could strong-arm the Senate Majority Coalition into rolling over by bringing the D.C. folks in to give us the same ‘this bridge or no bridge’ lecture he’s been delivering. Instead, the transportation secretary had his hat handed to him, and I have to believe I will find even more support now for my efforts to force a redesign of the CRC project.”

Benton said he and other coalition members let LaHood have it on the whole range of CRC concerns: how the bridge height would cost Clark County thousands of permanent jobs, how replacing the Interstate 5 bridge without addressing the corridor as a whole would fail to reduce commute times from Clark County to Portland by more than one minute, the financial liability that would go with including an extension of light rail from Portland, and more.

Project supporters want the Legislature to authorize a $450 million allocation, which would serve as Washington’s share of the $3.5 billion CRC project; with less than three weeks to go in the 2013 legislative session, Benton said, the writing on the wall is becoming clearer.

“I was very proud of how our coalition joined me in standing up for the people of Clark County,” said Benton, who is the coalition’s deputy leader. “The governor and the CRC supporters are obviously getting more desperate by the day; they see how time is running out to get the Legislature to go along with this boondoggle.”

“The best thing the governor can do now, after seeing that his federal emissary couldn’t sell this boondoggle to our coalition, is to agree to a redesign of the project.”

And here’s the text of the apology letter Cleveland and Eide sent LaHood:

Dear Secretary LaHood:

First and foremost, please know how much our caucus valued your trip to Olympia to show your support for the Columbia River Crossing (CRC).  The CRC is a project that is critically important to our state, to the West’s north-south transportation corridor and to our nation’s larger economic vitality.  Replacing the bridge will not only keep drivers safe, but will also spur economic activity from Canada to Mexico, which is exactly what our region needs as we continue to rebound from the Great Recession.

We whole-heartedly agree with the observations you shared specific to the movement of freight and the future prosperity of our region and our country, as well as the need to provide a safe and reliable crossing for everyday travelers. As Gov. Inslee noted, the existing bridge sits on rotting piers that were put in the Columbia River in 1917 and would not survive a major earthquake. Every new delay on the project jeopardizes the safety of the people who travel the bridge each day.  The events of recent days show that the vast majority of legislators share this view.

Second, we regret the undignified reception you received when you met with the Republican majority coalition in the state Senate. The views of a single vocal member by no means represent the will of our larger legislative body. Most of our members realize this project will translate into jobs for both the short-term and the long-term. The majority of our members also realize this bridge isn’t just for those who live on either side of the river but for people and businesses all over the West Coast and beyond.

We hope Wednesday’s political grandstanding will not alter your desire to move forward with a transportation system worthy of the 21st Century. The CRC project has received 12,000 comments at over 1,000 public meetings over 16 years.  We trust that you will not be discouraged from the commitment your administration has made to help us move forward with a project intended to keep the public safe and is in the best interests of our local communities, our state, our region and our nation.

We will continue working toward a good end and, with your help and our perseverance we will get there.

Stevie Mathieu

Stevie Mathieu is a political writer at The Columbian. Contact her at 360-735-4523 or stevie.mathieu@columbian.com or www.facebook.com/reportermathieu or www.twitter.com/col_politics.

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