Former Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett, face of 2020 election review, runs for state Senate

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Corrections & Clarifications: Ken Bennett lost a race for the Arizona House of Representatives in 1996. A previous version of the article had incorrect information. A previous version also had incorrect information about Steve Zipperman's political volunteer work.

Former lawmaker and Secretary of State Ken Bennett, who worked as a liaison for the state Senate's partisan audit of the 2020 election in Maricopa County, hopes to lead on election issues if voters return him to the Legislature.

Bennett turned in 1,714 qualifying signatures to the Secretary of State's Office on Monday, about 1,000 more than he needed to run for the Senate seat representing Yavapai County. He had filed only in the past week after Senate President Karen Fann called to ask him to run, he told KCYA-FM radio in Prescott on April 2.

"There are just a lot of people who want an additional choice to the other two, and just really asked me to consider throwing my hat in the ring," he told the station.

Fann, who ordered the Senate's audit after baseless concerns from Republicans that Donald Trump lost the election because of fraud, had previously announced she would not seek another term in office.

Bennett's decision came a week after another candidate for the open seat, Anne Marie Ward, a frequent commenter on the conservative news station Newsmax, dropped out of the race because of an illness in her family.

In an interview with The Arizona Republic Tuesday, Bennett, 62, criticized how the audit was run, including the hiring of the Florida firm Cyber Ninjas.

But he maintains that the issues of fair elections and alleged problems with the 2020 election are still "hugely important" to Arizona voters.

"Election integrity is about saving the country," he said.

'Eyes and ears' of Senate for audit

Former Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett, acting as Senate liaison for the Maricopa County election review, speaks with a reporter as Maricopa County ballots from the 2020 general election are examined and recounted by contractors at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix on May 4, 2021.
Former Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett, acting as Senate liaison for the Maricopa County election review, speaks with a reporter as Maricopa County ballots from the 2020 general election are examined and recounted by contractors at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix on May 4, 2021.

A former Prescott councilman, he ran unsuccessfully for state representative for the Prescott area in 1996, then voters elected him state senator from 1998 to 2008. He served as Senate president for four years.

Bennett was appointed to lead the Secretary of State's Office in 2009 after former Gov. Janet Napolitano took a job as Homeland Security secretary, which raised then-Secretary of State Jan Brewer to the Governor's Office. Voters granted him a four-year term in 2010. Barred by term limits from running again, he began a series of unsuccessful runs for governor and Congress.

Bennett was considered a moderate conservative until he ran for higher office, then began making statements signaling a turn to the right. He became known nationally as someone who doubted former President Barack Obama was born in the United States and said publicly he might keep Obama's name off the ballot if Hawaii didn't verify the president's birthplace. He later apologized for the threat after receiving confirmation from Hawaii.

Critics accused him in 2018 of insensitivity after he vowed not to appoint Cindy McCain to her late husband's Senate seat if elected governor.

Fann, with the support of her Senate GOP colleagues, ordered the audit that would become a national symbol of the "Stop the Steal" movement by Trump supporters who believed the fraud conspiracy. To conduct the audit, the Senate hired as its main contractor the Florida firm Cyber Ninjas, whose CEO, Doug Logan, had made public statements that he believed Trump lost the election due to widespread fraud.

Fann tapped Bennett to be the audit's liaison, which he said was not a supervisory or oversight role.

He was hired to "be the eyes and the ears" for the Senate on audit matters. Bennett, who said he received no pay for the job, worked alongside the volunteers at the State Fairgrounds as they counted 2.1 million county ballots.

Cyber Ninjas announced its main finding in September: Its count was only about 350 votes off the official tally by Maricopa County that showed Biden won. The company also found no concrete evidence of fraud, but its findings and other 2020 election data were turned over to the Arizona Attorney General's Office, which hasn't yet announced the result of its investigation.

Voting machines audit: The findings are now in

Bennett said if he could do it again, he would have preferred more responsibility on how the audit was conducted.

He was temporarily banned from the audit in July after turning over some of Cyber Ninjas work to an outside firm for verification.

Ultimately, he said, the audit "fell way short" of re-establishing public trust in elections. He thought Cyber Ninjas should have spent more time showing the public how tens of thousands of Republicans had voted for Republican candidates even as they voted against Trump or left the presidential race field blank.

The Senate shouldn't have hired Cyber Ninjas, either, he said, because of Logan's bias, including promotion of election conspiracy theories.

Election ideas take form in bill

After the audit, Bennett embarked on a statewide town hall series with Look Ahead America, a group run by election conspiracy theorist Matt Braynard, who organized the September "Justice for J6" rally in Washington, D.C., to help Trump supporters who face prosecution for their role in the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol riot.

As Republican lawmakers started coming up with ideas that manifested in more than 100 election-related bills this legislative session, Bennett developed a four-point plan that became House Bill 2780. The bill, which passed the House on a party-line vote of 31-26, with three not voting, awaits a vote by the full Senate.

The bill would mandate that, 10 days before an election, counties release the names of everyone eligible to vote. After the election, officials would publish another list of everyone who voted, with some personal identifying information redacted. Then, the state would publish all ballot images and voting records, with voter names and identification hidden.

Former Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett testifies during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing to examine a Republican-led Arizona audit of the 2020 presidential election results in Arizona's most populous county, Maricopa, on Capitol Hill in Washington on Oct. 7, 2021.
Former Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett testifies during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing to examine a Republican-led Arizona audit of the 2020 presidential election results in Arizona's most populous county, Maricopa, on Capitol Hill in Washington on Oct. 7, 2021.

The system would give voters "transparency, trackability, and (would allow) the election data to be publicly verified," he said.

Adding that he wants to be "leading the pack" on election issues, Bennett said many of the current proposals by lawmakers aren't needed.

However, he acknowledged that House Bill 2780 doesn't address some concerns, like that of noncitizen voters. Gov. Doug Ducey on Wednesday signed House Bill 2492, which tightens up proof-of-citizenship requirements when registering to vote.

Bennett said he's also interested in tackling some of the state's financial issues, like underfunding of the state retirement plan and reducing debt load.

GOP primary competition for seat

Bennett has two Republican competitors running for the Aug. 2 state Senate primary in Legislative District 1, including a fellow former lawmaker recently investigated by Prescott police after a report from his wife that he assaulted her.

Noel Campbell, who served in the Legislature from 2014 until 2021, is a retired naval pilot and customs officer who owns the Chapel Inn in Prescott.

In December 2020, Campbell's wife, Mary Beth Hrin, accused him of domestic violence, as detailed in a police report published by Prescott News. Hrin said that during an argument, he pushed her to the ground and hit her in the neck and face, leaving bruises, the report said. She told investigators Campbell, who's 80, may be in the "beginning stages of dementia," the report said.

He was not charged. His wife said she didn't want to cooperate with the investigation, the report stated.

Contacted Tuesday, Campbell said he apologized to his wife for his behavior and that "I was wrong."

They're still together and she's helping him run the campaign, he said, adding that the idea he has dementia is "ridiculous." He urged The Arizona Republic to call her.

Hrin, when reached, declined to answer specific questions about the encounter. But she told The Republic that the family was going through an extraordinarily stressful time in dealing with the mental health of one of Campbell's sons.

"I know the situation that we were in as a family," she said. "I cannot isolate one night of my husband's life."

The public should judge Campbell by his life's work, which includes helping many people as a lawmaker and public servant, she said.

Steve Zipperman, a real estate broker and former California lawyer, is the third Republican candidate running for the office. Zipperman is a strong proponent of what he calls "God given rights." When a Black Lives Matter protest came to Prescott in 2020, Zipperman and his wife stood watch on Whiskey Row with their rifles.

One Democrat, educator Mike Fogel, also is running in the Republican-heavy district.

It's still not certain which names voters will see on their ballots: The petition signatures of candidates can be challenged until April 28.

Reach the reporter at rstern@arizonarepublic.com or 480-276-3237. Follow him on Twitter @raystern.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Ken Bennett to run for Karen Fann's seat in Arizona Senate