Amy Choate-Nielsen: Leaving Washington: After 18 years in office, Bob Bennett looks to the future

Published: Saturday, Dec. 18 2010 11:00 p.m. MST

Today, Bennett defends the votes that turned the election against him. They are the result, he says, of his willingness to work beyond his party lines.

"I've tried to be a team player," Bennett says on a recent November afternoon at his Salt Lake office. "That is one of the things that got me in trouble with these people who voted against me. They hate the team. And the fact that I played on the team."

Years earlier, in his heyday of popularity, Bennett was loved by Utahns who respected his stability and resolve to stick by his principles. In 2004, he had no primary challengers and won almost 70 percent of the vote.

As a ranking member of the appropriations committee, Bennett was in a key position to angle for federal funds for Utah, and he brought the state billions. Utah's light rail and commuter rail projects were mostly funded through those dollars. In 2009 alone Bennett received approval for $75 million for Utah projects — including some at Utah State University and the University of Utah. By comparison his counterpart, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, was involved in drafting one bill that brought home money — a $3 million appropriation to the U. for energy grants.

Bennett also garnered funding for projects in smaller counties across the state, consistently angled for money for the state's public and higher education system and bolstered Hill Air Force Base.

He believed that more was accomplished in Washington through working on committees and one-on-one interaction among senators than grandstanding before a camera or making a vote on the Senate floor.

"Nothing happened that he wasn't part of," said Mike Leavitt, Bennett's friend, former Utah governor and secretary of Health and Human Services. "People don't know that, and it wasn't all that important to Bob to make sure they knew it. In retrospect, you might say maybe it would have been better for them to know, but what was important to him was to do the best job he could, and he did that."

Bennett approached his goals to strengthen Utah strategically, though his methods were not embraced by all of his colleagues and he drew criticism for it.

"This is a people business, and you'd better be prepared to get along, not necessarily compromising your principles, but understanding the difference between a solid principle which you will never compromise and a deal which can be made if you're willing to act in good faith with someone who happens to disagree with you," Bennett said in his last radio address as a senator. "That personal quality is, I think, one thing that distinguishes an effective senator from one who's not effective."

As more senators like Bennett leave office, some worry what will happen if the voices that advocate moderation diminish. This last election, Rep. Mike Castle, R-Delaware, in Congress since 1993 and known for his moderate stance, lost in his state's primary to a more conservative candidate. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, in office since 2002, lost her state's primary to a tea party candidate, then won re-election as a write-in candidate, and Sen. Judd Gregg, R-New Hampshire, a moderate Republican in office since 1993, is retiring. The changes have remaining moderate representatives worried they will be next.

"There is a concern going forward, that if you lose people like Senator Bennett, then we will have even more polarization in Congress and at the federal level and they won't be able to accomplish anything," says political analyst LaVarr Webb. "Any time you lose a senator with that much seniority and respect, I think it will hurt, but those transitions do happen and they have to happen."

It's election night, about a month before his farewell speech to the Senate, and Bennett is walking into a television studio with a hurried, long-legged stride about a minute before he goes on the air.

Dressed in a dark suit, his height makes him seem intimidating, but he has an approachability that is quickly endearing and disarming.

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