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State Sen. Mike Bennett turns eyes toward D.C.

State Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, spent two years in the Florida House and nine years in the state Senate. He has filed papers to run against Rep. Kathy Castor.

Photo by COLIN HACKLEY (2010)

State Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, spent two years in the Florida House and nine years in the state Senate. He has filed papers to run against Rep. Kathy Castor.

Mike Bennett successfully pushed to make voters work harder to get to the polls. But in the past the 66-year-old state senator sometimes skipped the trip himself.

Bennett led the charge to repeal Florida's 25-year-old growth management rules, contending the only way to revive the economy was by cutting government control over the real estate industry. But his next big real estate sale may be to the government.

Bennett, a Bradenton developer, has spent the past 11 years in the Legislature — two in the House, nine in the Senate, climbing to the upper ranks of the Republican leadership. Now, having hit his term limit in Tallahassee, he has filed papers to run for Congress against U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa.

But first Bennett is hoping that during redistricting his friends in the Legislature will change the boundaries of Castor's district so he won't have to move from his $1 million waterfront home.

Bennett will present voters with several paradoxes: He's a longtime conservative who recently was praised by Planned Parenthood for his stance on abortion-related bills. He's a pro-business Republican who dislikes federal subsidies to what he calls "Big Oil, Big Sugar and Big Ag." He's a canny political survivor who is known for shooting from the lip — and hitting himself in the foot.

In a recent interview, he struggled to explain one of his gaffes. He had told his colleagues that he was backing the voting bill because people in Africa walk 300 miles to vote. Politifact Florida, which found the distance to be no more than three miles, labeled Bennett's statement as "Pants on Fire."

"What do you call it — it's not an analogy, but it's when you purposely exaggerate something when you're trying to prove a point?" he said. "I was trying to emphasize a point."

• • •

Bennett has a Popeye-like squint, a crooked grin and a wry sense of humor. Ask how he's doing and he'll say, "Well, they didn't impeach me last week."

He has a collection of sayings he calls "Bennettisms." For instance, he claims the Sierra Club recognizes only two land-use categories: "Can't Build Here and Can't Build There Either." He's popular among his fellow lawmakers, even when they disagree. Lakeland Sen. Paula Dockery, who saw him defect from her push for high-speed rail, says his sense of humor wins everyone over.

He says he enjoys politics because he relishes the give-and-take. But sometimes in the give-and-take, Bennett has made arguments at odds with facts.

This spring, for instance, Bennett repeatedly asserted that Florida's environmental permitting was hurting the economy, citing as an example the exodus of boat manufacturers in 2008.

"We lost the boating industry out of Sarasota-Manatee counties simply because they couldn't get building permits," he told one TV reporter. "They couldn't expand their plants.'"

Actually, when boatmakers Donzi, Wellcraft and Chris Craft moved to North Carolina, their departure had nothing to do with permits. Just ask Bennett — circa 2008.

"Those have to do with taxes and insurance," Bennett told the Bradenton Herald then. "Some of these states are literally luring our companies away because . . . a tax structure that makes sense, an insurance industry that makes sense."

According to Peter Straw, executive director of the Sarasota Manatee Area Manufacturers Association, what drove the boatmakers away was taxes — specifically state taxes on manufacturing equipment — and the Legislature has not fixed that problem.

Bennett has been equally adamant that revamping the growth management law will spur job creation by reviving the building industry. But, as is the case throughout the state, former senior Manatee planner Norm Luppino says Bennett's home county has already approved enough development to keep pace with projected growth for the next 20 years.

"There's no need for new development," Luppino said. "We're overbuilt."

Bennett, whose developments have never needed approval from the soon-to-be-abolished state Department of Community Affairs, contends, "You cannot change the growth management bill . . . and expect it to create jobs immediately."

• • •

Bennett grew up the son of a hunting and fishing guide in Minnesota. They moved to Florida when Bennett was 10, and his father became an electrical contractor.

Bennett graduated from running wild in the woods to running wild in the streets. After one too many scrapes a judge urged him to join the military. He says that changed his life.

When Bennett was introduced at the Sarasota Tiger Bay Club meeting last week, the moderator noted that the senator "served four tours of duty in Vietnam," a line straight from Bennett's Senate website.

But later, when questioned by a reporter, Bennett said that wasn't as noble as it sounded. He spent four years in the Navy assigned to search and rescue helicopter duty. No one ever shot at him, he said: "I was going back to the ship every night to a nice comfortable bed, I ate good food and I played a lot of poker."

When he transferred to California he met his wife, an Iowa teacher who enjoyed dancing. They had their first dance on a Thursday, and by Saturday he had proposed. They have celebrated more than 40 anniversaries but have no children.

As a civilian, Bennett tried a variety of jobs — police officer, teacher, vending machine salesman. He earned a master's. He saved his money. When the couple moved from Iowa to Florida in 1985, he bought the electrical contracting company where his father once worked.

His concerns about workers' comp insurance led to him working with a legislator, and that whetted his appetite for politics. In 2000, he ran for a state House seat against a friend named Ron Reagan. Reagan — now a ranking House member — noted that Bennett by then was developing a gated subdivision called Hawk's Harbor and urged voters not to put growth management "in the hands of a land developer."

Bennett won anyway, and two years later beat a fellow Republican for a state Senate seat. He hasn't faced an opponent since.

• • •

In 2002 the Bradenton Herald examined the voting records of 17 candidates in Manatee County primaries. Bennett had skipped half of the 18 elections in which he could have voted. Since that story, he hasn't missed.

"Voting in our country is a right and a privilege," he told the Tiger Bay audience, then complained about voters who move and don't know where to cast their ballots, something he targeted in his bill.

The crowd applauded — but Bennett is not universally loved.

"I really think he's done more harm than good for Manatee County," said County Commissioner Joe McClash, a fellow Republican. More than once Bennett has blindsided county officials by proposing bills that would limit their authority and benefit his developments, he said.

Bennett "gets involved in county elections all the time," McClash said, pointing to Bennett's use of soft-money groups with names like Citizens for Housing and Urban Growth to raise thousands to back — or attack — candidates. Michael Gallen, a Democrat who successfully challenged an incumbent commissioner, said he was attacked in four fliers and "Bennett provided the outlet for that."

Bennett said the money came mostly from developers he knew, and he also used it to back state legislative candidates. He said that was all "part of the game." Because he's running for Congress, he said he has shut down all his soft-money groups.

Bennett's own finances are not in great shape. Worth nearly $16 million in 2007, he listed his net worth last year as $3 million. The drop shows how many of his assets are in real estate. It didn't help when he and a partner defaulted on a $1.6 million loan that was supposed to finance construction of an office park.

Now Bennett's hoping to sell one of his biggest losers, the Linger Lodge restaurant and RV park on the Braden River. Once worth $1.75 million, the value has dropped to $100,000. County officials have talked of buying it and restoring the land to its natural state.

Bennett said he's letting his partner handle the negotiations so no one can accuse him of manipulating the process. Still, if they were able to dump it, "I wouldn't cry."

Correction: Paula Dockery is a state senator from Lakeland. An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect last name.

State Sen. Mike Bennett turns eyes toward D.C. 06/06/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 7, 2011 9:23am]
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