State Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, is plugged into the Donald Trump campaign in Cleveland as part of the Republican nominee’s campaign team.
CLEVELAND — Most of Washington’s delegates to the Republican National Convention are beginning their days this week at a suburban hotel, a good 20-minute drive from the convention site.
But one state politician is getting a more up-close view of the action as Donald Trump accepts his party’s nomination for president.
State Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, is part of Trump’s campaign team and has been staying at the same downtown hotel where Trump and other top advisers are stationed, a short jaunt from the action at the Quicken Loans Arena.
Benton has spent the week in Cleveland wearing an earpiece, plugged into the Trump team’s communications, helping to count delegate votes and tamp down a mini rebellion over convention rules.
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A state senator since 1997, Benton is a former state Republican Party chairman known — like Trump — for self-confidence, at-times bombastic rhetoric and a willingness to get into political brawls.
In a year when many top Republicans in Washington are keeping their distance from the party’s nominee, Benton has stepped into the void. He’s been Trump’s paid state campaign director since this spring.
In that role, he has emerged as what Washington, D.C., political newspaper The Hill called an adviser who is little known but “highly respected” by Trump and has his ear “to an unusual degree.”
That relationship grew when Trump made his only campaign stop in Washington in May. Benton flew with Trump in between rallies in Spokane and Lynden. The two spent 40 minutes together, Benton says, and shared a lunch from McDonald’s.
“I had a Filet-O-Fish and he had a Big Mac,” Benton said.
On that flight, Benton says, Trump agreed to stay active in Washington state. As a result, he said, the state now has five paid Trump campaign staffers, including himself.
“Are we a battleground state? The answer is no, of course not. Have we been written off? No, and that’s good news for Washington because we usually are written off by presidential candidates,” Benton said.
Benton said he became intrigued by Trump after fellow state Sen. Brian Dansel, R-Republic, started talking up the New York billionaire during caucus meetings.
Benton said he started out favoring any of the “outsider” GOP presidential candidates: businesswoman Carly Fiorina, neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Trump. The U.S. has reached a point, he said, where the nation needs a president who is not “tainted” with political experience.
“I was pulled over to him (Trump) in the end because he is unconventional. He is not swayed by political correctness. He will tell you what he really thinks,” Benton said.
Over the past few months, Benton said, he’s communicated with Trump on a regular basis via email and the occasional phone call. This week, he expects to meet personally with the nominee.
“He does have Trump’s ear. It’s kind of amazing,” said Dansel, who has joined Benton this week working the convention floor as part of Trump’s team.
Benton was paid more than $9,700 in salary and expense reimbursements by the Trump campaign in April and May, according to Federal Election Commission data, with more recent reports unavailable. Another $9,900 went to two Benton family members over the same period.
Benton is retiring from the state Senate, having announced he won’t run for re-election this fall. Known as a fiscal conservative who delivers blistering attacks on tax proposals, Benton in 2013 played a key role in halting a proposed Columbia River Crossing project that would have included light rail to Portland.
He’s generated controversy over the years, including a clash with state Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, in 2013. He reportedly called her “a trashy trampy-mouthed little girl,” according to an account in The Columbian newspaper.
Benton said Rivers had sworn at him during a caucus meeting and on the Senate floor. A legislative panel said both lawmakers shared blame for their dispute, The Columbian reported.
His controversial job as Clark County’s environmental director also is coming to an end due to a county reorganization. Benton was hired by political allies on the county commission, resulting in the county paying a $250,000 settlement to the former interim director of the department. She alleged the county violated hiring practices.
Benton’s stint as state GOP chairman also ended in 2001 after a short eight months marked by turmoil. He was criticized for handling of party finances and for abruptly ousting key staff and changing the locks on the party’s headquarters.
Although the national convention’s first two days have been marked by some internal dissent, Benton grinned broadly at the proceedings. He said he believes the GOP will unify behind Trump, because Trump has a chance at making history.
“It’s the first chance we’ve had at winning 45 or 46 states since Ronald Reagan. Of course we’re going to unify,” Benton said. “It’s going to be a wipeout in the general election, that’s my opinion.”
He dismissed polling that has shown Democrat Hillary Clinton leading in key swing states, and said Trump could even win in Washington state.
Benton said the U.S. “does not have a habit of electing a chronic criminal to the White House” — referring to Clinton’s use of an unsecured email server while secretary of state.
If Benton is right, might he be in line for a job in the Trump administration?
“Look, I don’t want anything except for Mr. Trump to win and to make our country great again,” he said.
However, Benton says he’d step up if needed.