From his too-late mask mandate to his refusal to denounce President Donald Trump’s attempted theft of the presidential election, Gov. Mark Gordon has proven he simply can’t buck the far-right fringe element of his party.
Wyoming needs common-sense governance to avoid derailing entirely during these unprecedented times. Though Gordon has shown an occasional willingness to pump the brakes, he has kept the train on track for crazy town.
Let’s start with the governor’s coronavirus response and his Dec. 9 orders, which include a mask mandate and restrictions on late-night bar and restaurant hours. State Health Officer Alexia Harrist signed the emergency health order nine months after Wyoming’s first confirmed COVID-19 case.
Through mid summer, the state’s low number of new infections seemed to justify Gordon’s position against mandatory stay-at-home orders as too harmful to businesses. He was proud that he never “closed” Wyoming’s economy, and I can’t fault him for turning his attention to how the state would spend federal CARES Act funds.
But by September, COVID-19 infections were surging across the state. In the ensuing months, patients began filling hospitals and deaths spiked.. Decisive action was needed to protect the public’s health and safety, but Gordon simply kept repeating his mantra: people should recognize their “personal responsibility” to protect themselves and others from the disease. State action was unnecessary.
President Donald Trump’s insistent pressure on Republican governors to keep businesses open — a medically indefensible position that’s been dutifully parroted by Wyoming’s right-wing extremists — seemed to keep Gordon from pulling the trigger on further restrictions. Wyoming was the 38th state to mandate masks indoors, and the move only came after 16 of 23 counties had passed their own orders.
Even after he became exasperated by many residents’ refusal to act responsibly — memorably calling them “knuckleheads” at a Nov. 13 press conference — he didn’t mandate masks. His inaction was immortalized in a Daily Beast headline: “Wyoming Guv Admits Policy Has Failed, Sticks With It.”
Two weeks later Gordon tested positive for COVID-19. His wife, Jennie, also contracted the virus. Was that personal experience a factor in his final decision to issue a mandatory mask order, or was it the result of a political calculation that the issue had reached an acceptable tipping point to protect him from political flak?
Predictably, Gordon took heat from the far right. The Wyoming Republican Party’s central committee unbelievably asked him to rescind his state of emergency declaration in mid-November as COVID-19 cases surged. Gordon meekly responded by calling the demand “unfortunate.”
In the wake of the new orders, some branded him a dictator, as if closing restaurants and bars for in-person service from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. made him the next Fidel Castro. Mike Lundgren, chairman of the Lincoln County Republican Party, even announced a petition drive to impeach Gordon.
The state’s failure to act sooner exposed local health officials to unnecessary problems, including their employment. The Washakie County Commission fired the county’s public health officer for having the temerity to implement a mask order, even though it was part of his job.
In Natrona County, hecklers shut down a county commissioners’ meeting about the pandemic by hurling insults at health officials. In a particularly obnoxious claim, someone accused physicians of being paid to count deaths as COVID-related.
A timely state mask order coming from the governor would have put the public on notice that the danger of spreading the virus supersedes one’s right to act selfishly and put others at risk. Gordon’s decision to not pull the trigger on the issue earlier only empowered those who claim, even after 300,000 American deaths, that the coronavirus is a hoax and no worse than the flu.
While some health officials diplomatically said the mandate was “better late than never” and a step in the right direction, we’ll never be able to fully gauge how many lives might have been saved by decisive leadership.
Nearly as frustrating to watch as his treatment of the health crisis was Gordon’s hand-wringing response to a laughable Texas lawsuit last week. The suit asked the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate votes for Joe Biden in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia and Michigan and overturn the election.
A group of 32 Wyoming GOP lawmakers and legislators-elect signed a letter to Gordon asking him to join the lawsuit, which repeated dozens of false, disproven and just plain crazy allegations of voter fraud and illegal mail-in balloting that had even been tossed out by lower-court judges Trump had appointed.
Gordon should have thrown the letter in the trash and told the group he wouldn’t remotely consider being part of any lawsuit that attempted to tell another state how to run its elections. Wouldn’t that be the Wyoming way?
He should have reminded them that it’s hypocritical to preach about states’ rights and suddenly contend that the federal government they rail against should intervene and decide a presidential election on the basis of phony claims.
When presented with a bad idea, why on Earth can’t Gordon stop equivocating and just tell people no? It’s called leadership.
Instead, Gordon kicked the idea over to Attorney General Bridget Hill to seriously consider. After receiving her recommendation against action, Gordon released a statement that sidestepped by saying Texas had not asked Wyoming to join the lawsuit. “There was inadequate time to properly consider the ramifications of joining the motion specifically, or to thoughtfully consider joining the supporting states’ brief before it was filed,” he wrote.
Even though he wouldn’t join the litigation, Gordon said he strongly supported the Supreme Court hearing the case.
The governor did eventually get around to addressing state sovereignty, acknowledging that the Texas case “could have unintended consequences relating to a principle that the state of Wyoming holds dear.” In journalism lingo, Gordon kind of buried the lead there.
The other maddening aspect of Gordon’s presidential election response is that he refuses to admit the reality that Biden duly won and will take office Jan. 20. He tweeted that “when a result is confirmed congratulations for the winner will be in order.”
Gordon clearly doesn’t want any part of being on the incumbent’s hit list of people who have betrayed him, even as he’s on his way out of power.
The governor has two paths he can take as he sorts out how he will react to Biden’s presidency, and the honorable one won’t involve tip-toeing through a far-right quagmire trying to placate aggrieved legislators.
As the leader of a state that cast 70% of its vote for Trump, the least Gordon should do is stand up for the sanctity of American elections and loudly confirm that Biden’s victory is legitimate. It would go a long way toward demonstrating that Wyoming supports the peaceful transfer of power and honors the rule of law.
Gordon will have to deal with the Biden administration on myriad federal issues. He doesn’t have to like the new president or ever treat him as an ally, but Gordon should show him the respect his office deserves.
As a nation we’re standing on the most politically charged and divisive moment of the past century. I’d like to see Wyoming’s governor lead boldly from a principled stance, not parse and and equivocate for fear of offending extremists.
Inevitably, a wild-eyed Wyoming legislator will call for the Cowboy State to secede from the union. I’d prefer not to read a tactfully worded statement from Gordon that it’s worth considering, but the timing might not be right.