With more votes than almost any candidate in the state, Election Day was a mandate for Ken Bennett.
As he prepares for a full term as secretary of state, the position Gov. Jan Brewer appointed him to when she ascended to the Ninth Floor, Bennett is planning on changes aimed at making voting easier and making government more accessible to Arizonans. But secretary of state may not be his last gig in elected office.
More than a year before he racked up the second highest vote total in the state — surpassed only by U.S. Sen. John McCain — Bennett said he would run for governor in 2010 or 2014. When Brewer announced she’d run for a full term herself, picking the year became a lot easier.
Bennett said he’s focused on the job at hand, but he isn’t hiding his ambition either. The singing secretary of state sat down with the Arizona Capitol Times to discuss his political future, his plans for the present, the early talk that he would be a lieutenant governor to Brewer, and what instrument legislators would have heard his famous siné die songs played to if he’d been the younger brother in his family.
Now that you’re preparing for a full term, what are your plans for the Secretary of State’s Office?
I think the overall goal is to focus on maintaining and improving the integrity of our elections system. I think we’ve got a good elections system in Arizona, but we always look for opportunities to make it better.
As I discussed in the campaign, I’d like to explore the concept of voting centers where … anyone within the county could go to a voting center, and that there would be multiple voting centers located conveniently and strategically throughout the counties, instead of people having to go to their one and only polling place in their precinct, and it’s only at that location that their cast ballot is going to be counted.
Going to voting centers would require a lot of cooperation and coordination with the county election officials. There’s nothing we can really implement from the Secretary of State’s Office that would not involve them. So we’ll work very closely with them to see if we can move in that direction.
Would that eliminate a lot of the problems and waits we have with provisional ballots, like we saw with Proposition 203?
Hopefully it would eliminate a lot of provisional ballots, people showing up at the wrong polling location. If you’re at a voting center and the registered voters list was on an electronic poll book, or whatever it might take for all of the voters of the county to be on file at each voting center, and if you had an on-demand printer to print out a ballot for each person’s local races and things like that, then that should significantly reduce the number of provisional ballots that have to be hand-processed the way they are now.
What plans do you have for lobbyist reporting?
In all aspects of what we’re doing in the office, we want to automate it as much as possible so that people can report information to us over the web, kind of like the campaign finance reporting, so that information is searchable and immediately available to the public to do searches and see who’s lobbying who and where the activities of lobbyists are occurring.
I think it’s just part of being more transparent in state government to have campaign finance information and lobbying reports on our website, and searchable and available to the public.
Where’s your famous guitar? I don’t see it in your office.
The guitar is in my car, actually. I have to keep it close.
When did you first learn to play?
I think I was about eight or nine when my mom decided that her two boys, myself and my brother, should each learn an instrument. There was an older couple in the Prescott area who had a music store and they gave lessons.
One of them gave guitar lessons and the other gave accordion lessons. So they came over to the house one night and demonstrated both instruments, and since I was the oldest brother, I got to choose. I chose the guitar, and my brother, I think, has never forgiven me. But he ended up being an accordion player. Somebody had to play “Beer Barrel Polka” for my grandpa.
So it was only by a quirk of fate that we’ve never been treated to an accordion rendition of the siné die song?
Yes, had I been the second brother in the Bennett family, I would’ve done all my siné die songs on the accordion. I think the state was spared that.
When did you start making up your own songs?
I was in a band in high school, so we wrote some songs. The concept of writing a song goes way back to my teenage years, but the political songs and writing them kind of came out of the singing senators when I first got to the Senate. There were two other senators, Rusty Bowers and Dave Peterson and I. I kind of kept the singing senators tradition going, but it quickly became me as Dave left and then Rusty left.
But it was such a hit. I remember the first year we did the siné die song. It was to the tune of “Gilligan’s Island,” and we called it “Leibowitz Isle.” … Dave Leibowitz was on KTAR at the time.
When Governor Brewer first appointed you to replace her, you guys talked about wanting you to be kind of a lieutenant governor to her.
She talked about that, and I think it was envisioned that there would be a much closer working relationship than probably existed previously.
What happened to those plans? I remember both of you talking about it a lot at the time.
Well, I think that the severity of the budget crisis really kind of consumed her office, and having to deal with that. And they spent a lot of time focusing on getting Arizona back on track and cutting the spending and addressing the imbalance between our revenues and our expenditures.
So I think that their focus just was required there. They still included me to some degree, but I don’t think it was as much as either one of us maybe anticipated. But I know that the challenge that they faced just with the budget the last couple years has been nearly overwhelming.
Was your lack of involvement related to your early criticism of Brewer’s plan to raise the sales tax rate?
I don’t think so. I think she understood that the idea of raising taxes was not going to be unanimously embraced by everybody, not the least of which was members of her own Republican Party. I know that I wasn’t the only one who was not in favor of that, so I don’t think that was attributable to that. I think it was just the stress and strain of having to deal with the size of the budget deficit she inherited.
At the time, rumor had it that Brewer took away your key card to the Ninth Floor because of your opposition to the sales tax plan.
There was a time when the card worked and then it didn’t work, and then it went back to working. But that was also during a time when they were kind of cleaning out all of the old cards that were in the system. I haven’t spent a whole lot of time worrying about whether my card worked or not.
Does your card work now?
Last time I tried it, it did.
There’s a lot of speculation about your plans for 2014. Are you planning to run for governor?
My plan is to do the very best I can as secretary for the next four years. I have never had a big, long plan as to what I was going to do after this or what I was going to do after that. My experience has been that if you do a good job at what you’re doing right now, then your options are the best you can probably hope for as far as other opportunities that you might explore.
Obviously, I know that I can only be the secretary for four years. I am enjoying public service, and if the voters continue to have me back, I’ll probably be looking at other options in ’14, including the governor’s race.
You said last year that you’d run for governor either in 2010 or 2014.
That was prior to when Governor Brewer had announced whether she was running in 2010. So I want to make it clear that was not an idea I was harboring for ’10 once she had announced. But 2014 is obviously a time when I’ll be considering it.
What would you be doing right now if Brewer hadn’t appointed you secretary of state?
I’d probably be much more involved in some of the businéss entities that I was working on in the alternative and energy saving industries. Or I might have run for the CD-1 seat.
It would’ve been quite the crowded CD-1 field in the Republican primary. Maybe I would’ve kept the primary a little skinnier.
Tell about how you first got into politics.
Dad was on the City Council in Prescott in the ’70s, when I was in late high school and into my college years. So when I moved back to Prescott after graduating from ASU I wanted to be active in the community, and thought about either running for school board or City Council. And it just so happened that there was a City Council race coming up, so I ran for the City Council and got elected in ’84.
But I’d always been kind of interested in public service and politics. I was on the student council back in middle school. Dad was on the council. Mom was always doing something in the community — PTA president or Cub Scout master or den mother. So I was just raised by parents who taught us to be involved in the community.
After you made your way to the Legislature, you served in a split Senate. How difficult was it working in that environment?
I think it’s always tough to get 16 out of 30 votes. … I think I had two years at 17-13, and may have had two years at 16-14.
But whether you have 16 or 17, or whether you have 19, 20 or even 21 like they have now, getting 16 people to agree on anything is tough.
It’s difficult, but it’s exciting and invigorating because it involves a lot of working with people, listening, understanding where their priorities are, building trust and good working relationships, learning how to compromise on getting things done without compromising on principles that you hold dear or expecting others to compromise on their principles.
So you look for ways to let people be who they are, but come up with win-win solutions. And that’s a very difficult but exhilarating process.
Would it be a lot easier to deal with a supermajority, like your successor as Senate president will have in 2011?
On the surface, it obviously feels like it would be easier to try to come up with 16 votes out of 21 instead of 16 votes out of 17 or 18. But when I was Senate president, we also had a shared governing relationship with a Democrat governor. So we were also working to get as much of our caucus to support something as possible, but also realizing that we had to negotiate something that Governor Napolitano would sign, and by so doing, that would bring votes from the Democrat caucus as well.
What do you expect the biggest challenge your office faces to be during your upcoming term?
Protecting the integrity of elections, I don’t know how you could say anything’s more important than that.
I’m sure we’re going to have some difficult challenges as the budget difficulties continue to unfold the next year or two. The general fund is still in a deficit situation, and in order to address that, I’m sure the Legislature is going to ask every agency to do more with less.
UpCloser with Ken Bennett
What was your high school band called?
What kind of music did you play?
We played kind of medium rock-type stuff. One of our favorite groups was Grand Funk Railroad. We played a lot of Bad Company and Deep Purple and Bachman Turner Overdrive. We played some Creedence and Eagles. The Eagles were brand new.
Did you have long hair?
I had hair probably collar length. A little shaggy but not long. … A kind of Tom Brady-ish look.
What’s your favorite song you’ve written since you got to the Capitol?
Probably “Kumbaya Croc,” to the tune of “Crocodile Rock” by Elton John.
It was Randall Gnant’s presidency, when the Senate was literally 15-15, and everyone was anticipating that the two caucuses were going to negotiate a power-sharing agreement. But instead, one of the Republicans, Mr. Gnant, went to the Democrats and cut a deal that made him president, but then treated them as the majority in exchange. Of course, that made the other 14 Republicans mad as heck. But he tried to assuage everyone’s concerns on the opening day of session by telling us the next two years, as an evenly divided Senate, was going to be like “Kumbaya.”
Where did you go for your LDS mission?
Southern Japan, around Hiroshima. The southern part of the main island and the smaller of the four main islands.
Do you still speak any Japanese?
Sukoshi. Yes. Hai.
I still speak it a little bit. I used to dream in it when I was fluent, but those days are long gone.