Utah's Bob Bennett on the Tea Party, wilderness and life after Congress

  • Utah Sen. Bob Bennett points at the paintings in the newly renovated House chambers before speaking to the House of Representatives during a 2008 session. He later lost his seat in a Republican primary to a Tea Party candidate.

    Chris Detrick/Salt Lake Tribune

Bob Bennett, 79, served as a U.S. senator for Utah from 1992 until 2010, when he lost the 2010 Republican primary to Tea Party candidate Mike Lee. "I was really upset for the first 48 hours," Bennett says. "Then it was like, 'I'm free at last, free at last!' "

Bennett, now a political consultant, says he spends "two-thirds of my time in Washington, D.C., and one-third in Utah, though I hope to reverse that soon." HCN Executive Director Paul Larmer ran into the sharp-witted Bennett at a conference in Boulder, Colo., and later talked by phone, discussing conservative politics today and life after Congress.

High Country News Utah's Tea Party instigated a "take back federal lands" campaign when it pushed you from office. Why did it take this tack?

Bob Bennett The rise of the Tea Party was based on the idea that "we hate the federal government." Anything connected to it is bad, including Sen. Bob Bennett, so get rid of it. And they did.

My young replacement came up with the strategy of turning all the federal lands in Utah over to the state. (After the Utah Legislature passed a bill demanding the turnover of federal lands) every one of Gov. Gary Herbert's lawyers told him to veto the bill. But the governor was looking at what the Tea Party did to me and thought, "I don't want them to do that to me." So he signed the bill. The sound and fury will fade, but it will be back sometime, because "we hate the government" is a proud Western tradition.

HCN On the campaign trail, Mitt Romney said, "I don't know what the purpose is," referring to public lands. Will he adopt the Tea Party public-land philosophy if elected president?

Bennett There are some issues where Mitt Romney sounds and believes like a Tea Party type. But Mitt is a problem-solver -- it's the one thing that has characterized his entire career. At Bain Capital, he analyzed companies and decided how best to make them more successful. Mitt will look at Western lands the same way. He'll ask what makes the most sense. Congress won't give the federal lands away, and Mitt won't fall on his sword for the ideological types who want to do this.

HCN How did you get folks to come to the table in Washington County to create new wilderness and sell federal land to the county?

Bennett I sat down with Bill Meadows, the head of The Wilderness Society. I told him I was sick of the standoff between counties and environmentalists, that I was political not ideological, and that I wanted to make a deal. It took four years, but in 2009, the Washington County land bill was passed by a Democratic Congress.

Both sides wanted certainty. Washington County said, "We've got to know what acres are available for expanding our community and what acres aren't." The conservation community used to think time was on their side and they didn't need to come to the table. But then some started to think, "Time is not on our side. The invention of the ATV is changing the landscape." Then I realized that we had the basis for a deal.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance's board was split 7-7 over the bill. So they took no position, which effectively let it move forward.

HCN What's the focus of your work these days?

Bennett A little over a year ago, The Wilderness Society retained my firm to replicate what we did in Washington County in several other Utah counties. That's raised some eyebrows; I had a League of Conservation Voters voting score of less than 5 percent. But the Utah Legislature has indicated its support for what we are doing, the governor is behind it, and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has said publicly that the Obama administration's views on public lands will follow the Bennett pattern.

I think (lawmakers) will be more receptive to land bills in the next Congress no matter what party is in charge. In the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the two potential chairs are Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden and Alaska Independent Lisa Murkowski. The two of them get along very well. I think you'll see cooperation in the committee.

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