By Jim Brunner
Two longtime Republican state legislators from Washington state have been tapped by President Trump to help reshape the Environmental Protection Agency.
Former state Sen. Don Benton, of Vancouver, and state Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, are among 10 officials who joined the EPA over the weekend as part of a transition effort.
Benton, who recently declined to seek re-election after two decades in the Legislature, was named senior White House adviser supervising the EPA transition. Ericksen will act as communications director for the agency transition.
They are part of a "beachhead team" at the agency, preparing the way for permanent leadership in a new administration that is expected to vastly pare back environmental regulations.
The hires rewarded the loyalty of two of Trump's earliest backers in Washington state, where many prominent GOP politicians shied away. Benton was Trump's state campaign director, while Ericksen was deputy director.
Reached by phone Monday, Ericksen said he does not intend to resign his state Senate seat -- but instead will fly back and forth to do both jobs.
"I am be racking up frequent-flier miles like you won't believe," he said, adding he has conferred with lawyers who say his temporary dual role is legal.
If Ericksen were to quit, it would leave the state Senate at least temporarily in a tie -- a Republican led caucus now holds a 25-24 majority.
While Ericksen and Benton's new roles are temporary -- lasting up to a few months -- they could transition to permanent jobs in the agency.
Ericksen said he doesn't want to live in Washington, D.C., but is interested in a local role, such as administrator for the EPA's Region 10, which includes Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska.
Trump has nominated Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma's attorney general, as EPA administrator, a sharp critic of the EPA under the Obama administration who is expected to make major changes in an agency with wide-ranging responsibilities for enforcing clean water, clean air, pesticide and other major environmental regulations.
A climate-change skeptic and an ally of the oil and gas industry, Pruitt joined a multistate lawsuit challenging the Obama administration's plans to limit emissions from coal-fired power plants.
Likewise, Ericksen and Benton, who helped lead Trump's campaign in Washington state, have been vocal critics of environmental regulations they see as overreaching -- including clean-air rules aimed at combating global warming.
As the top Republican on the state Senate's environmental committee, Ericksen has strongly opposed Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee's initiatives to cut greenhouse-gas emissions. He has shrugged off the scientistic consensus on human-caused global warming, with statements like "climate change will always happen."
In a statement released by the EPA Monday, Benton said he looked forward to working with career EPA employees "to make this transition work as well as possible, and to carry out the Agency's mission to protect public health and the environment."
National environmental groups oppose Pruitt's nomination, and the local Sierra Club also expressed dismay at the hiring of Benton and Ericksen.
"It's hard to imagine two lawmakers less qualified to be put in charge of environmental protection in the Pacific Northwest," said Cesia Kearns, deputy regional director for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign.
Benton chaired Trump's Washington state campaign and reportedly gained Trump's confidence as an adviser, with Washington, D.C., political newspaper The Hill, reporting in June that Benton had Trump's ear "to an unusual degree."
Their relationship grew last spring when Benton flew with Trump between rallies in Spokane and Lynden, Whatcom County, sharing a McDonald's lunch. "I had a Filet-O-Fish and he had a Big Mac," Benton said at the time.
By the Republican National Convention last summer, Benton was part of Trump's team, helping to enforce discipline on the convention floor.
Known as a fierce, anti-tax conservative, Benton declined to seek re-election last year after more than two decades in the Legislature.
He also had been hired in 2013 as Clark County's director of environmental services. His hiring for the six-figure job, orchestrated by two Republican county council members, drew accusations of cronyism.
Benton's job was eliminated last year in a reorganization. He recently filed a $2 million lawsuit against the county, alleging he'd faced mistreatment, according to The Columbian newspaper.
Some other members of the EPA transition announced Monday previously had been reported, including David Kreutzer, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, and George Sugiyama, a former attorney for U.S. Senate Republicans who worked for the EPA during the George W. Bush administration.
Also part of the new transition effort are others who, like Benton and Ericksen, led Trump's campaign efforts in Western states. They include: Patrick Davis, of Colorado; Layne Bangerter, of Idaho; and Charles Munoz, of Nevada.
(c)2017 The Seattle Times