Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett holds an office normally associated with dry-as-dust election matters. But Bennett’s handling of some of those matters produced notable political dustups for the former legislative leader who may run for governor in 2014.
Bennett first raised eyebrows last spring even among some fellow Republicans by suggesting that questions about President Barack Obama’s birthplace might somehow keep him off the Arizona ballot. That despite repeated declarations by Hawaii officials that Obama was born there.
“Frankly, the birth certificate issue, with all due respect to Donald Trump, is such a fringe issue that even the more conservative members of the party are just scratching their heads saying enough is enough,” said Jason Rose, a Republican political consultant.
Bennett then drew the ire of backers of a proposed tax increase for schools, transportation and other public services by trying to keep it off the November ballot because of a paperwork error, though more than 290,000 voters signed petitions without the error.
“By doing the bidding of anti-education forces, he is hurting not only schoolchildren but damaging public trust in the democratic process,” said Ann-Eve Pedersen, leader of the initiative campaign.
Bennett says he acted in good faith — to serve constituents who requested action on the birth certificate issue and to defend the integrity of the initiative process.
However, some political operatives say Bennett’s course opens the door, if he runs for governor, to attacks based on questions about his motivation and judgment.
Mario Diaz, a Democratic political consultant who managed Janet Napolitano’s 2002 successful campaign for governor, said the two decisions raise questions about Bennett’s priorities.
“The first impression from Bennett as a potential gubernatorial caudate is talking about birth certificates and denying the right of 300,000 Arizona voters doesn’t make sense to me,” Diaz said. “It’s not a very good start for Secretary Bennett.”
Diaz said Democrats could use the issues to attack Bennett in the 2014 campaign if he’s the Republican nominee.
Those attacks would come earlier than the 2014 general election campaign if voters this fall approve a proposal to scramble Arizona’s primary election system so that only the top two finishers advance to the general election, Diaz said.
And it’s not as though Bennett has a clear path to the governor’s office upon the departure of the term-limited Jan Brewer, a fellow Republican. She appointed Bennett to replace herself as secretary of state in 2009, and he won a four-year term of his own in 2010.
State Treasurer Doug Ducey and Mesa Mayor Scott Smith are among Republicans mentioned as possible 2014 candidates for governor, while Democrats who could run include House Minority Leader Chad Campbell and former Board of Regents President Fred Duval.
Rose, the GOP consultant, said Bennett’s actions on Obama’s birth certificate and the sales tax initiative either were mistakes or “clearly calculated moves to appeal to the right wing of the Republican Party.”
But the birth certificate issue is a fringe issue for most Republicans and even those hand-liners who care about it likely won’t ever line up behind Bennett, Rose said.
Bennett was appointed to the state Board of Education by a Republican governor, and the former petroleum products company owner had a record as a fiscal and social conservative during his eight years in the Legislature.
But as Senate president, Bennett had to cut deals with Napolitano when she was governor, Rose noted. “He’s never going to be the darling of the right.”
There’s more political logic to Bennett trying to block the sales tax initiative because anti-tax sentiment is a core value for many Republicans, Rose said.
Bennett said his decision to declare the initiative petitions invalid — and to appeal a judge’s ruling to the Arizona Supreme Court — was based on concern for the initiative process, not politics.
“I made my decision based on what is right and this is what I think is right,” Bennett said during a recent interview.
Bennett has said he sought a new declaration from Hawaii that Obama was born there to respond to a request by constituents who were among many tea party activists who Bennett said were flooding his office with demands that he do something.
While Democrats accused Bennett of pandering to Obama critics to help himself and Republican Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign by pressing the birth issue, Bennett said he was trying to put the issue to rest.
“I didn’t seek any publicity on this. All I was doing was do what a constituent asked me to do,” Bennett said during a May interview. He received official verification from Hawaii’s state registrar in June.
Rose said it is possible that Bennett’s decisions weren’t politically motivated, but the consultant expressed doubt.
“You’d like to believe that about most people in office, but political calculation is inevitable whether you’re running for justice of the piece or if you’re running for governor,” he said.