Something is terribly wrong. The people we have elected and paid to represent us are afraid to be in the same room with us.
That’s the situation much of the country finds itself in, but it’s particularly disturbing in Wyoming, a state where historically our officials have been ready to mix it up with voters who disagree with them.
I never thought the mere act of holding a town meeting was particularly brave for a politician. That’s what they’re supposed to do. When I began my reporting career, it seemed routine for people chosen to go to Washington, D.C., to come home to tell us what they think and get an earful from some of those who disagree. In good times and bad, Republicans like Al Simpson and Dick Cheney and Democrats like Gale McGee and Teno Roncalio stood in front of the electorate and participated in an exercise that’s long been a hallmark of democracy.
I never thought I’d see the day when all three members of Wyoming’s congressional delegation would be afraid to host or attend a town hall meeting, but that’s the situation facing the state today. It should be shameful and embarrassing to our current politicians, but that’s apparently not enough of a reason for U.S. Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso and U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney to show up and defend their views and learn what we think of their work.
It’s called doing their jobs. When it comes to elected officials standing in front of a crowd and hearing criticism about their support of a Republican healthcare plan, or whatever topic is on the table, constituents have a right to expect a chance to be heard. Our current crew in D.C. don’t respect the body politic enough to answer our concerns with anything besides form letters dismissing all views beyond the ones they hold.
The public should never have to beg officials to listen to them, but that’s where we’re at these days. It’s led to some strange moments, including roomfuls of people staring at empty chairs or cardboard likenesses of Enzi, Barrasso and Cheney — the real politicians had apparently found something better to do.
It’s particularly stinging and offensive when their preferred alternative is to spend their time raising money here or out of state so they can go back to Washington and ignore us some more. The Planet Jackson Hole newspaper reported in February that instead of attending a town meeting in Jackson, Barrasso was at a fundraiser in Teton Village with ticket prices ranging from $1,500 a head to $5,000 per political action committee.
There have been some valiant efforts by the voting public, including a “Day of Action” on June 2 when several groups around the state worked together to try and get our congressmen to attend a public meeting during their recess. Nothing has worked so far. Not even the storied Independence Day parade in Lander — long a de facto requisite for anyone in, or hoping to enter, Wyoming public office — could draw them out. Lander Mayor Del McOmie was the only politician in evidence this year.
But I admire the people demanding to be heard. Their cause may not be successful, but their efforts should not be lost on the rest of us.
Is it arrogance that keeps our delegation away? Is it the fact their political party is so powerful in Wyoming that they know they can insult and ignore us without consequence?
Yes, I think it is. It’s long been said that all anyone who seeks political office in Wyoming needs to do is have an “R” behind their name on the ballot. When Republicans hold all five elected state offices, the three congressional seats and 77 of the 90 state legislative positions, it’s not a surprise that some think all they have to do is show up (or, in the case of town halls, not show up) and still be assured of re-election.
Liz Hardwick of Lander is part of a loose-knit group of activists in Wyoming trying hard to keep democracy alive. When the three invitations to her town’s June 2 meeting were spurned, she held an informal session anyway. Approximately 50 participants wrote their questions about the GOP healthcare bills, and several other issues, then faxed them to the delegation.
They received no response.
Hardwick also filmed a video of the attendees talking directly to their representatives. The organizer is editing the footage and will send it to Enzi, Barrasso and Cheney. Don’t hold your breath waiting for one of them to hit “play.”
Hardwick said she’s always voted and been involved in community organizing, but that Donald Trump’s election has created a new sense of urgency for her.
“People are getting frustrated from writing letters, making phone calls and getting form letters in response,” she said. “In my recent stack of mail were three of the same form letters from Barrasso. … When we can’t get any other type of response, it undermines the democratic process.”
Hardwick said it should be easy to get the public schedules for the delegation members during their August recess, but she’s been stonewalled in that effort as well. She said Barrasso plans to be at some public meetings, but they will be limited to public lands issues.
“If they can’t come to town halls, they should at least share their schedules,” she said. “We should be able to know what they’re prioritizing. … If [the senators] are willing to draft a bill that’s going to hurt so many people, they should be willing to learn what people have to say about it.”
The officials have held some “tele-town halls,” where they have responded to pre-screened questions from around the state via telephone, but the process is laughable. “The questions are so curated,” Hardwick said. “People have shared experiences of getting on the line and asking a question, and when their question is not responded to they are closed off the line and they can’t follow up and ask anything else.”
I met Nancy Sindelar in January when she drove from Laramie to Cheyenne to participate in the “Women’s March” rally the day after Trump’s inauguration. After learning about her dedication to letting public officials know what people are thinking, I wasn’t surprised to read her comments in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle about the town hall the delegation ducked in the capital city in April.
“I’ve called in for the teleconferences these guys call town halls, and I keep pushing the button – yeah, I want to talk,” Sindelar told the newspaper. “And I’ve listened for, like, two-hour sessions on several of those things, and they never call on me. And I’ve listened to all their propaganda for all this time. I just hang up.”
Hardwick said if she could talk to the delegation about the Republican healthcare bills she would ask them how the House and Senate legislation would benefit Wyoming.
“The rhetoric is that rates have gone up and insurance companies aren’t willing to operate in Wyoming because it’s non-competitive,” she said. “To me it’s an ethics question: how do you draft a bill that leaves so many people uninsured, defunds Planned Parenthood and eliminates [healthcare] coverage for people with pre-existing conditions?”
Hardwick lamented that the debate over the healthcare bills is polarizing because the issue has gotten so partisan. But there has been resistance to the bill even in Wyoming’s small, rural communities, and she believes “it’s important that we give a voice to that resistance.”
Republicans and Democrats are definitely divided about healthcare issues, sometimes even within their own parties. But plans to enable more people to get better healthcare shouldn’t be only addressed at a partisan level or in a vacuum. It’s an American and Wyoming issue that calls for cooperation if any improvements are to be achieved.
If we let our elected officials avoid their responsibility to actually listen to what we have to say and don’t hold them accountable for not doing their jobs, we’re as much to blame as they are for the results.