Don Benton hasn’t thought about what he’ll do next. Even if he had thought about it, he might not tell you — not while his boss fights the results of the U.S. presidential election.
Perhaps the most loyal Donald Trump supporter from southwest Washington, Benton said he’s still clocking 16-hour days in Washington D.C.
Benton leads the federal department in charge of the military draft, the U.S. Selective Service System. It’s paramount work, he said, calling it the honor of his life.
“It’s one of the few appointments where the director reports directly to the president of the United States with no filters,” Benton said. “That’s been an incredible honor for me. And it’s been hard work.”
Trump hasn’t accepted his loss in the 2020 election, and neither has Benton. Reached by phone one recent weeknight, Benton told OPB that his marching orders are clear: For now, just do your job.
“That’s been the message from the administration, you know, keep focusing on your job. And when it comes time to talk about transition — if comes time to talk about transitioning — we will all do that and be engaged in that.”
Benton’s a firebrand for southwest Washington conservatives, particularly among those repelled by any talk of new taxes or new efforts to replace the Interstate 5 bridge. His deep government roots and newfound Trump cachet could make it easy to find a place back into the region’s politics.
With the Nov. 3 election results cementing day by day, Benton’s future in the D.C. beltway may not survive the winter. In Benton’s home base of Vancouver, questions loom in local political circles about what he will do when he takes a final, one-way flight to Washington state.
Adding to the concerns of Benton’s critics, it appears he’s dabbled in local politics already.
Still behind Trump
Every administration ends eventually, Benton admits, but he did not outright dismiss a second Trump term in the phone call. Plus, he said, President-elect Joe Biden may not appoint a new department head until after he takes office in January.
“I’m going to keep doing it until a new president, whoever it is, whether it’s Donald Trump or Joe Biden, tells me they don’t want me to do it anymore,” Benton said.
Benton’s tenure in D.C. has been covered by the likes of Rachel Maddow, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Seattle Times. His first Trump-appointed stint in D.C. was as part of the Environmental Protective Agency until a reported feud emerged between he and then-administrator Scott Pruitt.
At the Selective Service, Benton also made headlines when he reportedly suggested dress code changes that told women to wear pantyhose, closed-toed shoes and “conservative” tops, and men to wear sport coats or suits and ties with dress shoes.
At one point, documents show, he made a pitch to be Trump’s chief of staff, signing the letter “Big Don” Benton.
He told OPB he takes pride in his tenure at the Selective Service. The department provides manpower to the military and would help find non-military work for conscientious objectors. Much of the work, he said, is keeping government databases fine-tuned.
“It needs constant updating, which requires a lot of money,” he said. “I’ve told people on many occasions there is no federal agency with such a small budget that has such a huge responsibility to fulfill.”
Still, Benton hasn’t abandoned life in southwest Washington entirely for his job in D.C. He continues to live in Vancouver. He said his wife and children do, as well.
When OPB first reached out to him, the former Washington state senator was preparing to fly home for Thanksgiving and disclosed his trip, flying in the face of surging COVID-19 cases, with a laugh.
“President Trump is a very family-oriented boss,” he said. “I’m sure most members of the administration will be spending the Thanksgiving holidays with their families, as well, as I think most Americans will.”
‘He wielded that sword’
Benton’s future intrigued many whom OPB spoke to for this story, but almost no elected official agreed to talk on the record.
They often cited Benton’s combative reputation, cultivated as a state lawmaker in Olympia. Benton’s predilection to make threats and intimidate colleagues, which many compared to Trump, made him a firebrand among fellow Republicans.
“I think at times Don was a phenomenal member of the Senate Rs, yet at the same time … he wielded that sword,” said Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver.
First elected to represent Vancouver in the House in 1994, then to the Senate in 1996, Benton served at a time when Republicans controlled more of the capitol than in today’s Democrat-majority legislature. Harris said Benton was a champion of his caucus, unafraid to break close votes if they weren’t going his way.
“That caused problems,” said Harris, adding Benton wasn’t alone in this tactic. “They wanted certain things and made threats, quite frankly.”
Others describe him as a bully. Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said she had a front-row seat to times Benton cursed and tried to intimidate other lawmakers.
“That works for maybe some people, it’s just not a style I’m comfortable with,” Rivers said. “In fact, I’ve always, my entire life, been the one to stand up to the bully and punch him in the nose.”
Benton and Rivers sparred often. In 2013, he famously called Rivers a “trashy, trampy-mouthed little girl.” That statement came around the time he and Rivers actually shared a common issue: opposing the Interstate 5 bridge.
For his part, Benton fought tolls and efforts to incorporate light rail into the project, then known as the Columbia River Crossing. Benton supported building a third bridge somewhere else that connected Vancouver to Portland. In 2013, he led Washington senators’ refusal to pass a transportation funding package that included the crossing. The multi-billion-dollar project fell apart, and skepticism between the states still lingers.
A bridge replacement is once again becoming a major endeavor for Washington and Oregon. Very early price estimates say it will cost north of $4.8 billion, setting the table for debates about tolling in the future.
Rivers, herself now a Senate Republican leader, sits on the joint commission talking about reviving the crossing.
Benton told OPB his views haven’t changed. He said he prefers decongesting traffic in Portland, such as widening near the Rose Quarter. Barring that, he still supports a new bridge altogether.
“The corridor is full,” he said. “You could have a 10-lane bridge across the river… if you have three lanes meeting on either side, doesn’t matter what you do with the bridge, right?”
Whether Benton’s viewpoint still holds sway with Washington state Republicans remains to be seen.
‘Maybe you know something I don’t’
Even from D.C., Benton has remained an active citizen in southwest Washington.
Publicly available records show he has voted in every major election in Clark County during his time. Including special elections, he cast 11 votes from February 2017 to the last general election.
Rumors have swirled, too, that Benton helped fuel a write-in campaign for former state Rep. Tom Mielke to siphon Republican votes from Rivers.
Mielke received $11,000 from a committee called “The Committee To Hold Elected Officials Accountable,” according to records from the Washington Public Disclosure Commission. That committee also spent $11,000 against Rivers.
Benton initially denied any involvement, citing the Hatch Act, which prevents federal employees from engaging in political activities.
“I haven’t had any role in local politics that I’m aware of, so maybe you know something I don’t,” Benton said. “Because the Hatch Act kind of keeps me from being involved as a federal employee.”
However, Benton was actively involved with the committee, records obtained by OPB show. Ahead of election day, Benton communicated more than a dozen times with the campaign finance regulators between Sept. 3 and Oct. 20, 2020.
On Oct. 7, he asked if donors to the committee who paid less than $1,000 needed to be named. On Oct. 9, Benton called the agency trying to get the committee’s email changed so it wouldn’t list his personal email.
“I have tried to correct the email on the committee filing and it won’t let me know,” Benton said in a voicemail. “And of course, it’s got my name in the email and I don’t want my name in there.”
On Oct. 18, he wanted regulators to make sure he appropriately reported two expenditures for “automated voter contact.”
“I spent another $630 with (a company),” Benton wrote, attempting to update financial disclosure records. “This now totals $1,630 for the (expenditure) so far and I am trying to report it.”
The Washington Public Disclosure Commission is investigating the committee for improperly reporting campaign expenses, records show.
When reached again on the topic, Benton said his involvement with the committee was legal. He said he cleared it with an attorney. He also said he didn’t raise money nor put his name on any campaign materials, adding his role was purely administrative.
“Any citizen can do it. I was asked if I knew how to do the paperwork and I said, ‘Yeah I know how to do the paperwork,’” he said. “I can’t be involved. I’m not allowed to, you know, campaign or raise money or do those kinds of things.”
Benton added: “You don’t give up your right to be involved in politics simply because you work in federal government.”
Mielke, the former state senator, said Benton was trying to help an old friend — and put Rivers on notice, he said, for re-engaging in an I-5 bridge replacement and being favorable to taxes.
He said he and Benton put up campaign signs together, but Mielke said he was unaware of Benton’s involvement in the committee until after the election.
“I actually called Don and said ‘Hey did you do that PAC?’” Mielke said. “And he said, ‘Yeah, I had the PAC.”
While Mielke said he would consider running again, he added Benton is less interested in politics. Both men are in their 60s. Still, he said, they’re both worried about their community.
“(Politics) have kind of left a sour taste in his mouth,” Mielke said. “But yet, like I tell Don, ‘What are we going to do? We still live here.’”