Former Arizona secretary of state Ken Bennett, who is mounting a challenge to incumbent governor Doug Ducey in the Republican gubernatorial primary this year, has attempted to paint himself as the sole fiscal conservative in the race, despite a record to the contrary.
Bennett, a long-term fixture in Arizona politics, surprised many in April by making a last-minute entrance into the governor's race. The crux of Bennett's argument for why Arizona voters should back him, instead of Ducey, as the state's chief executive rests primarily on the issue of who would make a better steward for the state's finances.
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Bennett, who served as secretary of state from 2009 to 2015 and as president of the Arizona State Senate from 2003 to 2007, has lambasted Ducey for balancing the state's budget using "gimmicks." He has also accused Ducey of folding under political pressure and agreeing to raise teacher pay by 20 percent after statewide protests by educators.
Bennett's pitch was on display recently while courting Republican voters in Pima County.
"I decided to run for governor because I want to balance the budget," Bennett told the crowd, according to Tucson Weekly. "I proved that I can do it with a Democratic governor, and I know that we can do it again."
Official documents obtained by the Washington Free Beacon, however, bring into question just how deep Bennett's commitment to fiscal conservatism runs.
Over his 13 years in public office, Bennett charged Arizona taxpayers over $80,000 in travel expenses. This was in addition to the over $89,000 in per diem expenses that Bennett claimed during his tenure in office, bringing the total amount covered by taxpayers to over $171,000—approximately $12,000 a year.
Bennett racked up these expenses, consistently toward the top of his peers in the state senate and among statewide officeholders, even though his residence was located only two hours from the capital, well within commuting time.
It remains unclear if Bennett used his per diem expenses to cover the cost of housing or if it went solely for travel. The candidate's campaign did not return requests for comment.
Documents also show that not all of the trips Bennett expensed to taxpayers were for official duties related to his elected position. At least five of the trips were denoted as personal business and another 105 were political in nature, such as costs associated with attending local GOP functions across the state.
Apart from having taxpayers foot the bill for his travel, Bennett also used his capacity as president of the Arizona state senate to push for legislation that would benefit Bennett Oil, his family's energy company.
In 2004, Bennett, the recently installed leader of the state senate, cosponsored legislation requiring the state to reimburse oil companies, such as the one owned and operated by his family, for clean-up costs associated with underground fuel leaks. The legislation, which would have changed existing regulations to assure Arizona taxpayers footed the bill for clean-ups even when an oil company's insurance provider covered the cost, would have directly benefited firms like the one owned by Bennett.
When the Arizona Republic pointed out the conflict of interest in newspaper pages, Bennett demurred. When pushed further, the candidate admitted he sponsored the legislation after state regulators had refused to reimburse his company for clean-up costs. Bennett defended his position by asserting if the legislation were enacted, his family oil company would not benefit "anymore or less than anyone else" who operates "gasoline storage tanks."
Even prior to the ethical lapses coming to light, the candidate was considered something of a long shot against Ducey. The incumbent governor, a former CEO of Coldstone Creamery, has amassed a war chest of nearly $3 million to boost his reelection bid and has secured strong backing from Arizona's business community. Bennett, who waited until the last minute to enter the race, has not reported raising any money to date and intends to run with public financing, meaning he is likely to lag behind Ducey in fundraising.
Bennett's situation has not been helped by the fact that he's developed a reputation as a perennial candidate for office, albeit an unsuccessful one. The notion first emerged after Bennett came in "well behind" Ducey, garnering the fourth spot in a six-person field, for the Republican nomination for governor in 2014. The stereotype was only reinforced in 2016 when Bennett made a run for the U.S. House of Representatives from Arizona's First Congressional District. Although he led the race in endorsements, Bennett failed to make inroads with voters and floundered to rise above fourth place in the Republican primary.
Facing an uphill battle against the incumbent, Bennett has sought to reinvent himself from someone with a "reputation for working well" with those across the political aisle to a conservative outsider. In order to bolster this new image, Bennett has staked out positions to Ducey's right on government spending and school safety.
Bennett has also courted controversy for preemptively refusing to appoint Cindy McCain to the U.S. Senate seat held by her husband, Republican senator John McCain, should it become vacant. The remarks, which were made as Sen. McCain is struggling with brain cancer, sparked rebuke from across the political spectrum.