Benton, Probst begin to trade jabs in Senate race
With the general election more than three months away, the claws have started to come out in the race between incumbent state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, and his lone challenger, state Rep. Tim Probst, D-Vancouver.
Benton recently mailed out a political advertisement that included a warning: “My opponent has been promised $250,000 in negative attack mail by the Seattle Democrat machine. They will stop at nothing to maintain their failed control of the State Senate including lying to you about my record.” The mail piece goes on to ask people to report any slanderous negative attacks against Benton to the Office of the Attorney General.
Michael King, executive director of the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee used strong language to condemn that statement in Benton’s ad. The committee was involved in recruiting Probst to run in the Senate race and plan to support him, but when asked if the campaign committee offered some sort of negative ad deal, King said that’s “blatantly untrue.”
King continued: “This is made up. This is not factually correct. Don Benton is making something up out of thin air.”
On Monday, Benton defended the statement. He said he got his information about the $250,000 figure from “several lobbyists” and “several political operatives.”
“I’ve been told this enough by enough people that I know it to be true,” Benton said. “I also know how these things work.”
When asked to name some of his sources, Benton declined. “I’m not going to burn my sources,” he said. Then, “I wouldn’t get any more information, would I?”
He continued: “It’s very common knowledge. Hearsay is when you hear it once or twice,” but eight or 10 times? That’s different, he said.
So far, The Columbian has yet to come across any political ads sent out by the Democratic campaign committee that attack Benton.
Voters receiving Benton’s mailer should also be aware that calling the Attorney General to report campaign ads is “not the appropriate avenue,” Attorney General spokesman Dan Sytman said.
They can, however, report it to the state’s Public Disclosure Commission, which is able to enforce the state’s political advertising laws. But to get to that point of enforcement, a high threshold of proof must be met.
“Candidates are usually public figures, which means that it’s much harder to bring a successful libel or slander action against them,” University of Washington law professor Hugh Spitzer said. “Political speech is protected, and historically our courts have protected the rights of citizens to say what they think about political candidates.”
In Washington state, the PDC would take action against someone only if the statement in question is one that can be determined as true or false (as opposed to an opinion); if it was made in a political ad (as opposed to in a speech or a quote in a newspaper); if the person making the statement knew the information was false; and if the statement caused significant harm to the victim’s occupation or livelihood, the PDC’s lead political finance specialist Tony Perkins said. And all of those things must be backed up with clear and convincing evidence, he added.
“It’s not an easy law to enforce,” Perkins said.
Per diem becoming a campaign issue
Probst issued a press release last week that did not mention Benton specifically, but did criticize the practice of accepting per diem pay during a special session — an allowance Benton took earlier this year while Probst did not. Lawmakers are given up to $90 a day to cover certain living expenses, such as food and lodging, when on official business during special session.
When lawmakers couldn’t agree on a budget before the end of the regular 60-day session earlier this year, they had to embark on an additional 30-day session to continue budget talks.
Probst said in the press release that he wants to eliminate per diem payments for legislators in any special session that is called because lawmakers failed to pass a balanced budget on time. He said he hopes to discourage “the practice of political brinkmanship, where both parties wait until just before the deadline before putting real compromises on the table.”
During this year’s special session, Benton accepted a total of $2,340 in per diem, which was less than the maximum $2,700 allowed. Benton said Democrats were to blame for the special session because they had wasted valuable budget negotiation time on passing legislation allowing same-sex couples to marry. He also said that although he wasn’t directly involved in the closed-door budget talks during the special session, he stayed busy in Olympia by attending caucus briefings, meeting with lobbyists, and talking to constituents.
State lawmakers from Clark County took different approaches to per diem during the special session, for a whole host of reasons. State Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, didn’t accept the allowance because he was busy campaigning for state auditor during that time. Former Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, did accept most of the allowed per diem, because he was heavily involved during the session in closed-door budget talks.
Most local lawmakers who weren’t involved in those talks waited to take per diem toward the end of the session, when they could participate more in the process. State Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, said he took the maximum per diem during the entire special session to maintain his apartment in Olympia, and because he had to continue his unpaid leave of absence from his job as a drug counselor.