By DAVID AMMONS
OLYMPIA — Washington’s Republican Party is moving its headquarters from the Seattle area to Olympia, a $365,000 move that has spawned intense internal bickering.
Members of the state GOP executive board have accused Chairman Don Benton of violating party bylaws by acquiring a new headquarters without their permission, The News Tribune of Tacoma reported today.
In addition, the newspaper said, state and national Republican leaders say Benton failed to spend as much as $1 million in donations on tight races this fall, including Sen. Slade Gorton’s unsuccessful re-election bid.
State GOP executive board members are trying to block the purchase and may try to prevent Benton from signing any more checks on state party accounts, board members told the paper Monday.
Benton, a newly re-elected state senator from Vancouver, was grilled by the 18-member board at a weekend meeting in Tukwila.
"The party exists to find good candidates and to get them elected," said Ken Seal, a board member from Bellevue. "It’s not our policy to have a lot of money in the bank at the end of an election unless we are terribly successful, and I don’t think we were this time."
Besides Gorton’s 2,229-vote loss to Democrat Maria Cantwell, the Republicans lost a U.S. House seat in the 2nd District and lost a legislative race by 134 votes in Kent, missing a chance to break a 49-49 tie in the state House.
The GOP did gain two state Senate seats, cutting the Democratic edge to 25-24, and gained one statewide office, commissioner of public lands.
Benton said election bills were still being paid, so the comptroller couldn’t yet provide the information the board was seeking.
Board members said an uproar arose when Benton then announced the purchase of the building in Olympia and cancellation of the lease on the current party headquarters in Tukwila.
The board voted to rescind the Olympia deal, members said. When pressed for details on the purchase, Benton pounded the gavel on the meeting and left without saying who sold the building or the exact location, said Beth Jensen, a board member from Tacoma.
Late Monday, the state’s two representatives on the Republican National Committee met with the party vice chairwoman to examine election transactions, including a recent letter in which committee Chairman Jim Nicholson asked Benton to return unspent money.
Benton told The News Tribune the state party spent the maximum allowed under state law on most local candidates and the most federal law allowed on Gorton’s race.
He said hundreds of thousands of dollars was left from donations that arrived too late to be spent on "issue" advertising that is unregulated under state and federal laws. All available television time had been purchased, and campaign consultants weren’t accepting new contracts for candidate mailings, he said.
"We tried to spend more, believe me," Benton said.
He added that he planned to meet with Nicholson on Wednesday and described the letter from the national party chief as a form letter that was sent to all state party chiefs.
Benton also said he received legal counsel and permission from the party’s controller to close the deal in Olympia. He added that he had been raising donations for the building for a month before closing on the purchase Thursday.
"It wasn’t like I was sneaking around trying to do something," he said.
Democrats have occasionally considered moving to Olympia but always decided to maintain their longtime roots in heavily Democratic Seattle, although state Democratic Party Chairman Paul Berendt lives in Olympia and often spends part of each week at the Capitol.
When Benton ran for the Republican chairmanship last summer, he signaled his intent to move the party’s main office to the capital city, saying the primary reason was to forge stronger ties between the party and the Legislature and state policy.
"Olympia is the political center of our state," Benton said in a statement Monday. "It’s where the major decisions of government are determined. … It only makes sense to centralize the political party headquarters with the city where politics are most active.
Rep. Tom Mielke, R-Battle Ground, applauded the move.
"Republicans have wondered how we have passed conservative statewide initiatives, yet we lose statewide races. The answer, in part, is that we haven’t had a year-round war-room mentality. Locating at the seat of battle will give the Republican Party greater focus."
Benton said the mortgage on the party’s new office building would be retired in a few years, using the $60,000 the GOP has been paying annually for leased space near Southcenter.
Opposition is likely when he faces re-election Jan. 27 for the party job, which pays $70,000 a year and also provides a $14,000 annual car allowance, said Reed Davis, King County GOP chairman.
Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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