Don Benton has been a colorful and controversial fixture in southwest Washington politics since 1994, when he was first elected to the Washington State House of Representatives.
After two years in the House, 20 in the State Senate, three years as director of Environmental Services for Clark County and, during the 2016 presidential campaign, a role as Donald Trump’s Washington state campaign manager, Benton moved earlier this year to Washington, D.C., where he served briefly as senior White House advisor to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Last month, he was appointed as 13th director of the Selective Service System.
ClarkCountyToday.com recently asked Benton his thoughts on Donald Trump, Scott Pruitt, his new job at the Selective Service, and the politics around the prioritization of the I-5 Bridge replacement (answers edited for brevity and clarity).
Clark County Today (CCT): Donald Trump has been a very divisive figure, not just nationally, but within the Republican Party. What first sold you on him?
Benton: Well, look, what sold me on him is the fact that he’s been very successful in his personal life — he has a loving and successful family that loves him. And he’s a man of action. In business I’ve admired his negotiating skills — he talks straight, and he keeps his word.
And as I’ve gotten to know him I’ve really admired the fact that he demonstrates a leadership quality I’ve always thought was important — he listens to the advice of his ground commanders. He puts people he trusts in positions, and then he listens to their advice. I think that’s the sign of a very good leader.
And he’s a man of his word. He says what he means, he means what he says, and he follows through. I think the American people are seeing that now in the form of the executive orders he’s delivering. In politics, keeping your word is very, very important. And not just in politics but in life. Be a man of your word. I learned this from my dad. Give your word sparingly, but once you give it, keep it.
CCT: What’s your presidential report card looking like after the first 100 days?
Benton: It’s certainly not my place to give the president a grade. I did that once during the campaign, and he was OK with it, but I wouldn’t dare do that now. What I can say is that the president is working very hard to deliver on his campaign promises.
I believe, and if you look at the record, it backs up my belief, that President Trump has done more to protect American citizens, provide jobs and protect the economy, secure the Constitution and constitutional provisions and the Supreme Court’s independence, than any other president has ever accomplished. So I think he’s off to a great start. And I think, being a man of his word, that every promise will be kept.
Whether you like him or not is not the issue. The American people have lost faith in our government and in our leaders. And when you keep your word, it helps restore our faith in our leaders.
CCT: In February, you told OPB you were “very excited” about EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, and the beachhead transition team had “a very good relationship” with the staff. What happened?
Benton: Nothing. I’m still very excited, and the beachhead team still has a very good relationship. The EPA is a very, very big agency, with lots of important issues. I sat down at the beginning to transition the EPA from the previous administration to the new administration, and to have it ready for the new administrator when he was confirmed, and I was able to do that. I just got an email this morning from a staffer over there — how are you doing? — and saying they missed me. I made a lot of friends there, formed a lot of lasting relationships.
Most of the people there are very hardworking and very committed to protecting our environment. Some have different points of view, they embraced the vision of the previous administration, but they’re professionals, and they understand that the EPA is a department of the executive branch of government, and that the executive branch has a leader, and that leader is the president. When the new CEO tells you that the company is changing directions, true professionals may not like it, but they know their job is to implement the CEO’s vision. And there are a lot of true professionals at the EPA.
Some of the press have talked about tension between Scott Pruitt and me. There was zero tension. That was a fabrication of the fake news media. Republicans welcome vigorous and rigorous discussions about different approaches to solutions. And there were many rigorous discussions about this direction or that direction that we might take. We all understand that in the end the administrator is the boss and he gets to make the final decision. And that is the direction in which the staff will follow. But as a good leader he realizes that lots of rigorous discussions help the right decision. A lot of the press took that and formulated their own concepts about it and were like, gee whiz, there must be a lot of tension, because everyone doesn’t fall in line with the first idea. That was not the case.
CCT: You’re the first Selective Service Director who’s not a veteran.
Benton: That’s fake news reported by several pieces of media. That I didn’t serve in the military is inaccurate. As you know, my family has a strong military history and tradition. My father was a naval officer who helped prepare the Allied fleet for the largest invasion in history. My two brothers, one was in the Navy and one was in the Army. One was shot down in Viet Nam and on the ground for a number of hours before a Marine chopper came in and picked him up. The other one was awarded a Bronze Star with a V for valor with the 101st Airborne Division.
I enlisted in the U.S Army right out of high school and received an honorable discharge. But I’ve chosen not to publicize my service in my political career. I’ve chosen not to wave that as a reason to vote for me. I felt my brothers and father happened to serve in combat and were much more deserving of that attention. I ran on the basis of my business experience, not my military experience. And nobody ever asked me about my military service. They just didn’t see it in my dossier and went with that.
CCT: How long were you in?
Benton: I joined right after graduating from high school in 1975. I went in under the Guaranteed (Training) Enlistment Program (which guarantees training and initial assignment in a specific job skill). I finished basic training at Fort Ord (in California), but the school I had signed up for wouldn’t be available for six weeks. They wanted me to change my MOS, and change my guaranteed enlistment contract. They had oversold the program, is what happened. And I told them, “If you can’t give me the school I wanted, I’m going to go back to college and get the training there.” And they gave me an honorable discharge.
CCT: Why are you the right person to head the Selective Service System? What strengths do you bring to the job?
Benton: I think the president saw in me what my constituents see in me. I’m an efficiency guy. I like to do more with less. I’m able to do more with less. I did this in the State Senate. I did this in my three-year tenure at the county. I’m always able to deliver a better product in a more efficient manner. I’m good at managing people, at managing a budget. I think this is something the president saw in me and thought I could bring to bear here.
Another reason is that I’m a hard worker. I always work very hard. And I’m loyal. Loyal to my constituents, loyal to the president, loyal to my military family and background. He knew that I would stand for and behind the armed services in this position.
I’m a strategic planner. I’ve built and sold three companies. I know how to get from A to Z and how to do it on a very limited budget, which certainly we have here. I will try to complete our mission without costing the taxpayers any more money.
Also, I’m an innovator. I’ve never been a person who believes we should continue to do A and B because that’s how we’ve always done it. It’s time for innovation and modernization in the government. Let’s bring back the innovation we used to have — new ideas, new ways of doing things. That’s how you’re successful when you’re starting companies. There’s always a better way to build a mousetrap. Let’s take a new look, and an innovative approach to how we’ve been doing things.
CCT: What are your goals at the Selective Service?
Benton: We have really two things that we’re charged with — registration and readiness. From those stem all the other things this agency does. We have to make sure we register every 18-year-old man for the Selective Service, and we have to make sure we’re ready in case of a national emergency.
On the registration side this means outreach, and education. The law requires every 18-year-old man to register. And we give them seven years to get that done. But when you turn 26 the door closes permanently on their opportunity to register. You can’t register after that date.
And a number of opportunities are no longer available to you. You can’t work for the federal government, can’t work for the postal system, can’t get government-backed loans, can’t get grants for school, can’t get federal job training. And a number of states and municipalities have agreements that mean you can’t get things things there, either. For non-citizens — they are also required to register, and it may affect their ability to obtain citizenship.
I don’t want any young man to ever experience the sadness of hearing, “I’m sorry, but you don’t qualify because you didn’t register for the Selective Service.” Forty-five seconds on our website at www.sss.gov can save you 45 years of headaches and heartaches. So we’re going to be focused on education and outreach so that every American man who reaches 18 understand that it’s the law, it’s required, and if they don’t do it they’re giving up a bunch of potential opportunities in going forward in their lives.
On the readiness side, you know, when you buy a computer it’s out-of-date three months from now. All of the government is a little bit behind the curve in terms of some of our information systems. So I’m focusing on updating the IT systems. Today only eight percent of our registrations are via mail. So a lot of our infrastructure is IT that needs to be updated on a pretty regular basis. So I’m focusing on updating, on bringing us into the 21st century, so we can stand up a reserve force faster in the event of a national emergency.
CCT: You have a $22.7 million budget. What does the Selective Service do to spend $22.7 million dollars when there’s no draft and hasn’t been for decades?
Benton: Well, I have to say that’s about the same budget we had, relatively the same, as in 1970. Fortunately, through technology we’ve been able to keep up with our assignment here with the same amount of dollars, even though inflation has eaten away at that significantly. And the Selective Service is the cheapest insurance policy this nation has against national emergency.
That said, about half of it goes to personnel compensation, give or take. In most organizations you can count on 75-80 percent going to employees. It was certainly that way at the county. We do much better here than about any organization I’ve ever worked with. When I was the chair of the F&O (Facilities and Operations) Committee (in the Washington State Senate), 70 percent plus went to personnel compensation.
The next biggest chunk is contract services — keeping up with information systems, IT contracts. The next biggest chunk goes to training. We have a very large staff, most of which are unpaid. We have a huge force all over the country, in 50 states and four territories, and reserve force officers. Every state has a state director, and there are citizen boards in every county. And they’re mostly all volunteers. Nevertheless, they all require training. So a big chunk goes to training. We make sure 10,000 unpaid employees are properly trained and up to speed on the latest changes in case they’re needed.
And then you’re really just down to miscellaneous. The postage budget — if an 18-year-old doesn’t sign up, he gets a letter from us. And that costs a lot of money. And rent. I’m going to try to reduce that. I’m a big believer that we can do it for less and still do it better.
CCT: We’ve operated with an all-volunteer force for decades, and in a war with regular deployment cycles and a high ops tempo, for 15 years now. Why do we need the Selective Service?
Benton: In fact we’ve done very well with an all-volunteer military. But going back to what I said earlier, should a national emergency occur, we need to be prepared. I’ve been a Scoutmaster for over 10 years, my sons are both Eagle Scouts, and the Boy Scout motto is Be Prepared. I think that’s a great motto for everybody.
In the Northwest we say be prepared for the Big One, the big earthquake. And someone says, “We haven’t had an earthquake for 100 years. Why do we need to store water? We have a well.” We need it in case. We need it to be prepared. We need to be ready to stand behind our all-volunteer military. And we do it for such a miniscule amount of money in the overall scheme it would be irresponsible not to do it. Based on the cost to this nation — in business I’ve always used a cost/benefit ratio. What are the costs, what are the benefits? Does it warrant the expense? I can guarantee that no agency in all the federal government provides a better cost/benefit ratio.
CCT: A 10-month-old New York Times story has recently enjoyed a new lease on life, leading many people to believe that the Senate has just passed a bill extending the draft to women. Although it’s not true now, the issue is bound to continue to resurface. Where do you stand on requiring women to register?
Benton: That’s not my choice. If I was still an elected official, I would give you my opinion, because the voters have a right to know. But I’m not an elected official. I work for the president. What the president thinks on that subject is the most important question. My job is to not have an opinion on that. My job is to implement the will of the president and the Congress. I will tell you this — if the president and Congress decide to go that direction they’ll have to give us a little more money.
CCT: You told Clark County Today in March, regarding prioritizing the I-5 bridge replacement, “If you take all the political interests out of it, it makes no sense, none! Politicians aren’t always necessarily trying to solve the problem. They will tell you they are, but that doesn’t mean they really are. There’s some other type of motivation most of the time.’’ What do you think the motivation of Sens. Annette Cleveland, Ann Rivers, and Lynda Wilson, and Reps. Paul Harris, Monica Stonier, Brandon Vick and Sharon Wylie are in pursuing the I-5 bridge replacement?
Benton: You might want to ask them that question. I’m sure they’ll have some pat answer. I will tell you this. People ask me why I support Tim Eyman and the initiative process. And I tell them it’s because I put my trust in the citizens. I think they’re smart enough to make decisions for themselves.
The citizens of southwest Washington have voted three times not to bring light rail to Vancouver. And I think they’re onto something there. Far be it from me or any other elected official to tell citizens they don’t know what they’re talking about. You’re taking a big risk at your own peril to fly in the face of the citizens you’re supposed to be representing. The citizens have said, 70 percent of them, that we need a third river crossing. We don’t need to replace one of the existing two.
Especially when the corridor is unchanged. Even if a bridge has 10 lanes on it, it’s not going to make any difference as long as it’s met on both sides by three lanes. It’s beyond comprehension, for someone who uses a cost/benefit ratio, to spend hundreds of millions or billions of dollars for a new bridge with no plans to increase traffic capacity in the corridor. We should be spending all our talents, all our resources, all our money in identifying and developing and building a third river crossing.
Now, I need to make clear I’m not telling you that as director of the Selective Service. I’m telling you that as a citizen of Clark County who has been very involved in that issue, and who understands that issue very well. I’m perplexed that any official would support pouring more money down that rathole.