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Updated Aug 4, 2012 - 9:23 am

Election dustups could ruffle Bennett’s ambitions

PHOENIX -— Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett holds an
office normally associated with dry-as-dust election
matters. But Bennett’s handling of some of those matters
produced notable political dustups for the former
legislative leader who may run for governor in 2014.

Bennett first raised eyebrows last spring even among some
fellow Republicans by suggesting that questions about
President Barack Obama’s birthplace might somehow keep him
off the Arizona ballot. That despite repeated declarations
by Hawaii officials that Obama was born there.

“Frankly, the birth certificate issue, with all due
respect to Donald Trump, is such a fringe issue that even
the more conservative members of the party are just
scratching their heads saying enough is enough,” said
Jason Rose, a Republican political consultant.

Bennett then drew the ire of backers of a proposed tax
increase for schools, transportation and other public
services by trying to keep it off the November ballot
because of a paperwork error, though more than 290,000
voters signed petitions without the error.

“By doing the bidding of anti-education forces, he is
hurting not only schoolchildren but damaging public trust
in the democratic process,” said Ann-Eve Pedersen, leader
of the initiative campaign.

Bennett says he acted in good faith — to serve
constituents who requested action on the birth certificate
issue and to defend the integrity of the initiative
process.

However, some political operatives say Bennett’s course
opens the door, if he runs for governor, to attacks based
on questions about his motivation and judgment.

Mario Diaz, a Democratic political consultant who managed
Janet Napolitano’s 2002 successful campaign for governor,
said the two decisions raise questions about Bennett’s
priorities.

“The first impression from Bennett as a potential
gubernatorial caudate is talking about birth certificates
and denying the right of 300,000 Arizona voters doesn’t
make sense to me,” Diaz said. “It’s not a very good start
for Secretary Bennett.”

Diaz said Democrats could use the issues to attack Bennett
in the 2014 campaign if he’s the Republican nominee.

Those attacks would come earlier than the 2014 general
election campaign if voters this fall approve a proposal
to scramble Arizona’s primary election system so that only
the top two finishers advance to the general election,
Diaz said.

And it’s not as though Bennett has a clear path to the
governor’s office upon the departure of the term-limited
Jan Brewer, a fellow Republican. She appointed Bennett to
replace herself as secretary of state in 2009, and he won
a four-year term of his own in 2010.

State Treasurer Doug Ducey and Mesa Mayor Scott Smith are
among Republicans mentioned as possible 2014 candidates
for governor, while Democrats who could run include House
Minority Leader Chad Campbell and former Board of Regents
President Fred Duval.

Rose, the GOP consultant, said Bennett’s actions on
Obama’s birth certificate and the sales tax initiative
either were mistakes or “clearly calculated moves to
appeal to the right wing of the Republican Party.”

But the birth certificate issue is a fringe issue for most
Republicans and even those hand-liners who care about it
likely won’t ever line up behind Bennett, Rose said.

Bennett was appointed to the state Board of Education by a
Republican governor, and the former petroleum products
company owner had a record as a fiscal and social
conservative during his eight years in the Legislature.

But as Senate president, Bennett had to cut deals with
Napolitano when she was governor, Rose noted. “He’s never
going to be the darling of the right.”

There’s more political logic to Bennett trying to block
the sales tax initiative because anti-tax sentiment is a
core value for many Republicans, Rose said.

Bennett said his decision to declare the initiative
petitions invalid — and to appeal a judge’s ruling to the
Arizona Supreme Court — was based on concern for the
initiative process, not politics.

“I made my decision based on what is right and this is
what I think is right,” Bennett said during a recent
interview.

Bennett has said he sought a new declaration from Hawaii
that Obama was born there to respond to a request by
constituents who were among many tea party activists who
Bennett said were flooding his office with demands that he
do something.

While Democrats accused Bennett of pandering to Obama
critics to help himself and Republican Mitt Romney’s
presidential campaign by pressing the birth issue, Bennett
said he was trying to put the issue to rest.

“I didn’t seek any publicity on this. All I was doing was
do what a constituent asked me to do,” Bennett said during
a May interview. He received official verification from
Hawaii’s state registrar in June.

Rose said it is possible that Bennett’s decisions weren’t
politically motivated, but the consultant expressed doubt.

“You’d like to believe that about most people in office,
but political calculation is inevitable whether you’re
running for justice of the piece or if you’re running for
governor,” he said.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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