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Sunday, January 28, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Vance replaces Benton as GOP chief

Seattle Times political reporter

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KENNEWICK - The state Republican Party chose Metropolitan King County Councilman Chris Vance yesterday as its new chairman, ending Don Benton's short and troubled tenure.

The choice of Vance from among four candidates at a state committee meeting here also means a new member of the county council.

Vance said he will resign after seven years representing South King County to work full time as head of the political party he's been associated with his entire professional career.

Vance said he will stay on the council until his replacement is appointed. The new member must also be a Republican, but face election to a full term in the fall.

Republican precinct committee officers from Vance's district will review potential candidates and select three names as possible replacements. The county council, though, will make the final selection with a vote for one of the three nominees.

The council is controlled by Republicans, who hold seven of 13 seats.

In Olympia yesterday, Democratic Party Chairman Paul Berendt faced no opposition and was re-elected by acclamation, as were other party leaders.

Both parties also voted yesterday to continue pressing lawmakers to end the state's "blanket primary," which allows voters to pick candidates from all parties on the same ballot.

Benton's clashes with party leaders in his eight months opened the way for an unusually public race for party chairman. He has been criticized for not spending enough money on candidates in the fall campaigns, and for buying a building in Olympia and announcing the party would move there from Tukwila without getting approval of the party's executive board.

The board asked Benton, a state senator from Vancouver, to resign last month but he refused.

Diane Tebelius, GOP national committeewoman, said after the vote that the state party still has "substantial problems" with the Republican National Committee because of how Benton managed campaign money.

When Benton took over the party last year he angered some members by firing the staff and changing the locks on the party headquarters. Vance said last night he hasn't fired anyone, but most key positions are vacant.

Along with Vance and Benton, the candidates included former state Rep. John Koster and King County Party Chairman Reed Davis.

Despite the well-publicized controversies, there was very little talk about Benton during yesterday's meeting of the Republican State Committee.

Koster finished a close third to Benton and Davis was a distant fourth.

"My pledge to you is that I will never forget that I work for you," Vance told the 77 state committee members gathered in a Kennewick hotel room.

Vance lives in Auburn with his wife and two children. He has had a career in Republican politics, as staff to former Congressman Rod Chandler and a state Senate aide and serving a term and a half in the state House before being elected to the county council in 1993.

In November he lost a congressional race to Rep. Adam Smith, D-Tacoma, getting about 35 percent of the vote. In 1996 he came in third in an 11-person race for Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Benton said after the vote that his only misgiving about his tenure was that he did not consult party leaders before buying the Olympia building.

After he lost, Benton asked the Republicans not to put Vance through the sort of public drubbing he feels he has had to endure from critics in the party.

"Take your disagreements with him behind closed doors and when you walk out walk arm-in-arm," Benton said in a concession speech. "That must be the way we operate if we are ever to win in Washington state."

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