Sen. Robert Bennett (R)
Elected: 1992, term expires 2010, 3rd term.
Born: Sept. 18, 1933, Salt Lake City .
Home: Salt Lake City.
Education: U. of UT, B.S. 1957.
Family: Married (Joyce); 6 children.
Military career: Chaplain, Army Natl. Guard, 1957–60.
Professional Career: Staff aide, U.S. Rep. Sherm Lloyd, 1962; Staff aide, U.S. Sen. Wallace F. Bennett, 1963; Cong. liaison, U.S. Dept. of Transp., 1969–70; Pres., Robert Mullen P.R., 1970–74; P.R. dir., Summa Corp., 1974–78; Pres., Osmond Communications, 1978–79; Chmn., American Computers Corp., 1979–81; Pres., Microsonics Corp., 1981–84; CEO, Franklin Quest Co., 1984–91; Chmn., UT Educ. Strategic Plng. Comm., 1988.
Bob Bennett, Utah’s junior senator, is a Republican who was first elected in 1992. He grew up in Salt Lake City, the grandchild of a president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon Church). He was 17 when his father, Wallace Bennett, was elected in 1950 to the first of four terms in the Senate. He graduated from the University of Utah, worked as a congressional staffer, and then was the Transportation Department’s chief lobbyist during the Nixon administration. He also headed the public relations firm that employed Watergate burglar Howard Hunt but was involved in no wrongdoing himself. Some Watergate buffs wrongly believed that Bennett was Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward’s source known as “Deep Throat.” Later, Bennett headed Microsonics, which makes audio discs for talking toys, and then became head of Franklin Quest, which produces the Franklin day planners and organizers, building the company from four to 700 employees and sales of $80 million a year. He sold his interest in the company in 1991 for a reported $25 million. He headed a commission that produced Utah’s Strategic Plan for Education and wrote Gaining Control, a book about how to control your daily life.
|Robert Bennett (R)||626,640||(69%)||($2,649,234)|
|Paul Van Dam (D)||258,955||(28%)|
|Robert Bennett (R)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 1998 (64%), 1992 (55%)
In 1992, when Republican Jake Garn retired from the Senate, Bennett ran for the seat his father once held. He was not the only multi-millionaire in the race. The initial favorite was Republican Joseph Cannon, who had taken over the old Geneva Steel plant and made it profitable, and who spent $5 million of his own money. But Bennett spent $1.4 million of his own, effectively attacked Geneva’s environmental record and won the primary 51%-49%. The Democratic nominee, U.S. Rep. Wayne Owens, was a familiar face, with a voting record that was moderate but evidently too liberal for Utah. Bennett won 55%-40%.
Bennett has had a moderate-to-conservative voting record and became the Republican chief deputy whip in 2003. A close advisor to GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, he gave up his deputy whip position to become McConnell’s official counsel when McConnell became minority leader in 2007. This gave Bennett a seat at the leadership table. Their friendship began when Bennett joined McConnell to oppose fellow Utah Republican Orrin Hatch’s constitutional amendment to bar desecration of the flag, out of First Amendment concerns. Later, for the same reason, they united in opposition to campaign finance reform. Bennett has gained another Senate insider post as ranking Republican on the Rules and Administration Committee. He also has an interest in high-tech issues, and chaired the special Senate committee that was responsible for steps to avoid problems in the year 2000 computer switch. He has embraced some new technology himself. In 2001, he became the first member of Congress to own a hybrid vehicle and in 2006, he pushed for tax breaks for purchasers of fuel-efficient vehicles. He has favored sales taxes on Internet transactions. In his mail order business, he said, he charged customers sales tax in every state and no one protested.
Despite generally supporting the Bush administration, in 2001 he voted against the president’s centerpiece education bill, No Child Left Behind, which later became unpopular in Utah. As chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, he called for rewriting the nation’s tax laws, starting from scratch. During the debate over possible changes in Social Security in 2005, he advocated progressively cutting future benefits and establishing personal retirement accounts. “You can not solve the financial problems with personal accounts. But you can not solve the long-term demographic problem without personal accounts,” he said. In 2006, he caused an uproar when he suggested that parts of Katrina-ravaged New Orleans not be rebuilt. “I’m happy to appropriate money to help people who are in trouble,” he said. “Building a city 10 feet below sea level does not strike me as, inherently, basically a good idea.” The New Orleans Times-Picayune editorialized against his “poor grasp of physics” and called him a “lunkhead.” Four months later, he visited the city and concluded, “My instinct is to bulldoze [abandoned housing] and start over again.” Bennett again displayed his knack for frank assessments after a trip to Afghanistan in 2007, when he noted that it might be necessary for U.S. troops to remain in the country for several decades.
Bennett has pressed for land exchanges between Utah and the federal government to eliminate the checkerboard pattern of land ownership that prevents Utah from producing revenue for education from mining on state lands. As a member of the Appropriations Committee and the ranking Republican on the Energy and Water Development Subcommittee, he is an aggressive advocate for federal funding for Utah. In recent years, he has secured $9 million for a 44-mile commuter rail project between Salt Lake City and Ogden and $4 million for statewide bus facilities. Citizens Against Government Waste has criticized Bennett for several projects, including $300,000 for a think tank started by former Republican Gov. Mike Leavitt, $1 million for an education initiative for Western Governors University, and $750,000 for the Range Creek ranch. Bennett has said that he is proud of the money that he directs to Utah in the face of the increasing controversy in recent years over so-called earmarks, which critics denounce as wasteful government spending. In the past, Bennett has refused to release the names of companies that would potentially benefit from earmarks he adds to appropriations bill, but in October 2008, he announced that he would begin to make the information available to the public.
In 2007, Bennett joined Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., in introducing the bipartisan Healthy Americans Act, which seeks to eliminate the bond between health insurance and employment by giving Americans tax breaks to purchase insurance from a group of government-approved private companies. After reviewing the legislation, the Congressional Budget Office said the bill could be budget-neutral by 2014, meaning it would not run a deficit, and might even deliver budget surpluses in years to come. It has not been voted on, but could be in the mix of proposals as Congress tackles the health care issue, a priority of the Obama administration.
As the country’s financial crisis worsened in the fall of 2008, Bennett emerged as a lead negotiator for Senate Republicans. He attended a series of meetings intended to craft legislation to give the U.S. Treasury Department the money and authority to purchase the troubled assets of financial institutions. After one such meeting, Bennett told reporters that Democrats and Republicans had brokered an agreement suitable to both parties, but after that agreement fell through, Republican leaders replaced Bennett with Senate Budget Committee ranking member Judd Gregg of New Hampshire. Gregg credited Bennett for his role in the negotiations after the Troubled Assets Relief Program passed both the Senate and the House in early October 2008.
When he was first elected, Bennett said he would serve for only two Senate terms. But in 1998, he said he would not rule out running again. He was re-elected 64%-33% that year. In 2004, his Democratic opponent was former Attorney General Paul Van Dam, who rode around the state with his wife on a tandem bicycle. Bennett’s campaign put up a series of humorous billboards without using his name, but describing him in ways voters might recognize: “Big Heart. Big Ideas. Big Ears,” read one. “Better Looking than Abraham Lincoln (Just Barely),” read another. He outspent Van Dam $2.6 million to $117,000 and won 69%-28%. Bennett’s 2010 re-election campaign could be more difficult. His recent support of issues opposed by bedrock conservatives, such as the government rescue of the financial services industry, could make it difficult for him to withstand a primary challenge from a conservative.