Re-Election Not a Shoo-In for Gov. Benson in New Hampshire
By Norma Love, Special to Stateline
Gov. Craig Benson is a Republican in a Republican state, a multimillionaire able to finance a re-election campaign by writing a check and a freshman in a state that has never turned out a governor seeking a second two-year term.
The odds favor him as an easy pick for re-election. But Benson's take-no-prisoners style of management plus scandals in his administration make him vulnerable in the Nov. 2 election.
Among 11 governors' races in the nation this year, Benson is one of six incumbents running for re-election. His prospects are garnering special interest because New Hampshire is considered a presidential battleground state that narrowly went for George W. Bush in 2000.
The governor's Democratic rival, millionaire businessman John Lynch, hopes to persuade voters that Benson's management style and ethical scrapes merit a change in leadership.
In his two years in office, Benson, 49, has had several appointees step down for alleged ethical lapses and has alienated legislators, including fellow Republicans, in budget dealings that left the GOP-controlled Legislature in deadlock for a time. A co-founder of a technology company, the former Cabletron Systems, Inc., he is notorious for holding meetings in the governor's office around a waist-high table that requires participants to stand, in part to ease an aching back and in part to reduce chitchat.
Lynch argues that Benson needlessly alienated legislators and others rather than working cooperatively to get results.
He criticizes Benson for tapping friends and associates for jobs they weren't qualified to fill. As an example, Lynch points to Benson making his personal assistant his liaison on homeland security issues until she resigned to become treasurer of his Political Action Committee.
Among appointees who stepped down amid allegations of ethical problems during Benson's first term are a "volunteer" who collected $187,000 in fees for steering a state insurance contract and a health commissioner who was trying to launch a health insurance company and sat on the board of a national lobbying group for ambulatory surgery centers.
Most recently, Benson and the state's safety commissioner were accused by a county attorney of improperly meddling in his investigation into the attorney general's behavior. The attorney general resigned before the investigation was completed.
In his successful run two years ago, Benson, who is worth an estimated $400 million, personally financed most of the record $11 million spent on the campaign. He ran for office promising to shake up the status quo, streamline government and tightly control spending without tax increases.
He shook up the status quo and blocked tax hikes -- but not without political costs.
Despite overwhelming GOP majorities in the House and Senate, Benson hit a budget impasse with lawmakers that threatened to shut down state government. He vetoed one budget as too high, and barely mustered enough votes to block an override. But he did not have support to pass anything else.
Two months later, he signed a budget that spent slightly more than the plan he vetoed and that counted on what Lynch and others say were "phony" savings that have not materialized. Projections at the time were the state would end this fiscal year with $70 million in savings. The latest estimate projects a $24 million deficit if the state's savings account is drained.
Lynch, 51, argues he could do a better job running government and points to his experience in saving Pennsylvania-based furniture maker Knoll Inc.
So far, Benson has sidestepped Lynch's criticisms, calling them ineffective and off-topic. Instead, he accuses Lynch of promoting a school aid plan that Benson says would force the state to adopt an income tax.
Both Benson and Lynch have pledged to veto an income tax, but Benson argues Lynch would break that promise.
Pledging to veto broad-based income and sales taxes in a state that charges neither was a prerequisite for candidates running for governor for 30 years until Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen won a third term in 2000 despite refusing to make the promise.
Two years ago, Benson easily defeated Democrat Mark Fernald, who ran on an income tax platform while Benson pledged to block all new taxes.
The candidates' focus on ethics and taxes could overshadow other issues in the race, such as Benson's push to make it easier for residents to buy medicine from Canada and Lynch's opposition to allowing health insurers to use demographic information in setting rates for small businesses.
It's unclear whether Benson's troubles might spill over into President Bush's effort to recapture New Hampshire this fall. Bush beat Democrat Al Gore in 2000 by a slim 7,211 votes. New Hampshire's four electoral votes proved to be the winning margin, with Bush claiming 271 electoral votes to Gore's 267.
Republicans hold the edge in voter registration: 34 percent of New Hampshire's 714,119 registered voters are Republicans, while 28 percent are Democrats. But a growing bloc, 38 percent of voters, is undeclared and less likely to stick with either political party.
Norma Love covers the New Hampshire Statehouse for The Associated Press.