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A political dynasty goes down; Bennett's loss end of era

Published May 9, 2010 11:27 pm

Politics » Senator who followed in father's path says he wouldn't take back unpopular votes.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The similarities between the Senate careers of Wallace Bennett and his son Bob are striking. They both went into politics later in life after long business careers and focused primarily on financial issues.

The biggest difference, however, is how their tenures came to a close. The late Sen. Wallace Bennett walked away on his own terms. His son didn't get the chance.

For the first time in seven decades, a sitting U.S. senator from Utah was denied his party's nomination. Republican state delegates favored Tim Bridgewater and Mike Lee over Bob Bennett, a three-term incumbent, ending one of the state's most enduring political dynasties. Bridgewater and Lee will face off in a June primary.

Bennett's multimillion-dollar fundraising advantage, conservative credentials and the backing of such Republican superstars as Mitt Romney, Karl Rove and Newt Gingrich couldn't save him in a year in which all of his perceived strengths were seen as flaws by many of the delegates.

This was not the year to be a senior member of the banking committee with ties to Wall Street firms, a defender of earmarks and the author of a bipartisan health reform plan.

Those close to him have said he didn't give enough respect to the tea party uprising and was slow to commit to an aggressive campaign. But the 76-year-old senator, who will leave office in early January, said he has little regret.

"The political atmosphere, obviously, has been toxic and it's very clear some of the votes that I have cast have added to the toxic environment," Bennett said after his loss Saturday. "Looking back on them -- with one or two very minor exceptions -- I wouldn't have cast any of them any differently even if I'd known at the time it would cost me my career because I have always done the best I can to cast the vote that I think is best for the state and best for the country."

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Bennett's colorful past » A lifelong political junkie, Bennett got his start on his father's first campaign handing out leaflets. He became an active campaign adviser in 1962, which led to his first move to Washington and a quick succession of jobs in all facets of politics. Bennett started as the press secretary for one-term Rep. Sherm Lloyd, R-Utah, before jumping over to his father's Senate staff in 1964. He left to become a lobbyist for J.C. Penney, quipping: "I did it wrong. I did it in the days when lobbyists were paid less than [congressional] members."

Next, Bennett worked as the legislative liaison for the Transportation Department in the Nixon administration, before becoming president of the Robert Mullen Co., a public relations firm with ties to the Nixon campaign and the CIA.

It was in this post that he became entangled in the Watergate scandal, which cut short his political rise. Ex-CIA agent Howard Hunt, one of the Watergate masterminds, worked for Bennett and contacted him after the break-in. Bennett also met with G. Gordon Liddy at Hunt's request, leading to newspaper accounts about his involvement in the growing scandal. Bennett was also a source for The Washington Post's Bob Woodward, fueling later speculation that he could have been the famous Deep Throat.

Bennett sought refuge by working directly for eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes before trying his hand in some much lower-profile businesses. He ultimately found success as the CEO of Franklin Quest, building the business centered on day planners and amassing a fortune.

When his father's handpicked successor -- Sen. Jake Garn -- decided to retire in 1992, Bennett jumped into the race.

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Political re-emergence » It had been more than two decades since his father's name appeared on a ballot in Utah, but Bennett was hoping his family tie would give him the edge in a closely contested fight for the Republican nomination. His opponents attacked him on Watergate, yet he squeaked into a primary against Geneva Steel Chairman Joe Cannon, now the editor of the Deseret News .

That primary, loaded with lots of TV ads funded by millionaire candidates, ended with Bennett escaping with 51 percent of the vote. He cruised into his seat over Rep. Wayne Owens, a Democrat, in the general election.

The 1992 campaign cost $13 million combined, more than any other political race in the state's history. Bennett's father lived to see his son follow in his footsteps before dying in late 1993 at the age of 95.

As an ambitious freshman senator, Bennett realized that his campaign promises to reform tax policy and fix entitlement programs weren't exactly realistic.

"I had a hard time elbowing my way into these national issues," he said. "I realized they were all full."

Senators with decades of seniority were not about to let a newcomer steal their spotlight, so he focused on side issues, such as the privacy of medical records and an economic crisis in Mexico. His first big splash came when he co-chaired a special subcommittee to work on the feared Y2K computer problem. The fear was that a glitch in computer code would wreak havoc on the world as clocks ticked into Jan. 1, 2000. As it turns out, the new year rolled in as usual.

Bennett realized it was a politically dubious spot in which to place himself. Either the world collapsed and he took some of the blame or nothing happened and people asked why he made a big fuss about it.

But it did earn him the respect of his fellow senators, which he holds dear.

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A backroom operator » Bennett is not loud nor much of a credit taker. He isn't a media darling. And he didn't see the Senate as a stepping stone to something grander.

State politicians, former staffers and fellow senators describe Bennett as a well-liked, well-informed backroom operator, known for his ability to keep secrets and cut deals. One of his most high-profile partnerships involved Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden. The two created their own health reform plan, the anger at which contributed to his defeat.

Wyden called Bennett "among the brightest, most consistent and most decent members of the Senate I have ever known."

He also worried about the message Bennett's convention loss could send to other members of Congress

"Whether in the majority or minority in the Senate, he has attempted both to enact his conservative principles and to govern responsibly," Wyden said. "The Congress cannot and will not function properly if legislators are no longer allowed to govern responsibly and independently."

Bennett is also described by many as professorial, in part because of his speaking style but also because of his love for history. And that includes his family's past.

In many ways he modeled his Senate career after that of his father, who preached the importance of maintaining good relationships within his own party and with the Democrats. Like his father, Bennett gravitated to the banking committee and worked extensively on Utah water issues.

He even uses the same Senate desk once claimed by his dad.

Wallace Bennett became close friends with then Republican leader Everett Dirksen, just as Bob Bennett has become a confidant to current GOP leader Mitch McConnell.

Bennett said he can't name a policy difference between the two.

In the days before Saturday's vote, Bennett said he hoped people would remember him as a statesman, someone willing to take a politically unpopular vote to do what was right. He also has been thinking of the senatorial actions that define his tenure -- the legacy he leaves in the Senate and in Utah.

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An appropriator » Most of the accomplishments that Bennett touts are tied to his position on the appropriations committee, the powerful group whose members' hands hold the purse strings of Congress.

From this perch, he helped the Utah Transit Authority speed up development of light rail in the Salt Lake Valley, and landed security money and road funding in the run-up to the 2002 Winter Olympics. This led to his highest-profile dispute with a colleague, when Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., took issue with the Olympics-related earmarks.

Bennett refused to back down and is still one of the Senate's biggest defenders of the earmarking system, and so his relationship with McCain has remained rather frosty.

Bennett also touts the millions of dollars for research, programs and new buildings he has secured for Utah's universities, which includes funding for a new museum of natural history. "I defend every one of them because every one of them is richly deserved," he said.

Beyond funding, the senator said he is proud of the Washington County lands bill signed into law by President Barack Obama in January, marking a breakthrough in the long-running and acrimonious dispute between environmentalists and local leaders.

In farewell remarks, Bennett said he'd had a "great ride" and said that he wasn't going to disappear.

"I do think I still have a lot of juice in me. We'll see what the future brings, and when I have anything to announce about that," he said, pausing to look back at his family, "you'll be the second to know."

mcanham@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">mcanham@sltrib.com

Tribune reporter Thomas Burr contributed to this report.