Sometimes, if I’m going to chair this forum, it seems I have to say a few things myself. So here are some of my thoughts as we look back on this election season, prepare for a legislative session and, I propose, a serious discussion of what’s next for us as a state.
I was elected to the state Legislature decades ago, as a representative in the House. I was a total “greenhorn.” The senior member of the Sheridan County delegation was a senator, Dr. Fen Downing. He was a great mentor for me, and he always had a quick wit and a glint in his eye. On my first morning Fen took me into the House cloak room and introduced me to a group of legislators. And then he said, “Pete, what do you think we ought to do about the whiskey bill?” And, I said, “Well, if we owe it, we ought to pay it.” He never let me live that one down.
I had a hand in one of the battles of the 1970s and 80s — the defeat of the ETSI pipeline. That was the plan to divert water, perhaps from the Madison aquifer, to pump coal in a slurry to power plants in Nebraska and elsewhere. And, there were dedicated promoters for it — some of them friends of mine. But research ultimately exposed flaws and risks sufficient to defeat legislation for the project. That research was later vindicated with the failure of the Black Mesa project in Arizona where the high costs of mixing the slurry were amplified beyond forbearance by the unsupportable costs of drying the slurry and separating the coal to power plant specifications. Black Mesa eventually filed for bankruptcy.
Some time after, I was invited by then-Gov. Ed Herschler to attend a roast in his honor that was sponsored, as I remember, by the Wyoming Bar Association. Gerry Spence, a nationally known trial lawyer from Jackson, was the main event. And he rode Ed unmercifully on what he called Ed ‘s failure to understand the science and his disregard for the Nebraska environment which he saw as a casualty of what the pipeline promoters had dubbed “the smokestack industries.”
So, Ed, in his sort of Wyoming country boy, down-to-earth way, took off on Gerry … saying how much he had admired Gerry’s book, “Gunning for Justice,” and, how he was looking forward to the sequel, “Shot Down on Appeal.” He ended by saying, “and you gotta know, Gerry, pipelines don’t vote; railroads do!”
Let me get down to discussing some current issues
I developed a class some years back at the University of Wyoming that I’m also now teaching at some of the community colleges. It’s a class I’ve enjoyed and learned a lot from. It was initially a way to offer a Wyoming-specific upper division political science course — and provide a safe environment in which to civilly discuss important issues past and present that help to describe our political identity as a state in the Rocky Mountain West. That meant confronting our history, warts and all — the “Chinese Massacre” in Rock Springs, Japanese internment at Heart Mountain during World War II, the so-called “Black 14” incident with Wyoming football in 1969, and the death of Matthew Shepard in 1998. We discussed it all and we agreed that, while political correctness was out, civility was in and it worked in unexpectedly rewarding ways.
Now, you can imagine that discussions were energetic. My job often was just to keep the temperature down. I asked them all to write a paper defining their idea of Wyoming’s political identity. And, at the end, I wrote one too. It was only fair; because, as I said, I learned a lot.
I’d like to give you a brief summary. Or, as former Governor Nels Smith — who tended to murder the king’s English — one time said, “I’d like to give you a brief residue of my plan.” Well, here’s my brief “residue.”
First, some uncontested facts. Wyoming is the smallest state by population in the union and the fifth largest by size. We also have the cleanest air of any state. We are, as Al’s and my father once said, “the land of high altitude and low multitude.” And, he would often add, “where the canary bird sings bass.” For some, indeed, Wyoming is a model for what people think the West is. In one of my earlier classes in Laramie, we had a dandy discussion about just where the so-called West is. Is it the mountainous country? Is it sparsely populated rural areas? Arid regions? Where there are public lands, which, of course leaves Texas out, to the pleasure of several? Then, one student, a campus cop, raised his hand and said, “I think I know where the West is; it’s where all the cops belong to the NRA.” Think about it.
Well, despite differing interpretations, one thing we came to agree upon was that Wyoming always has had and continues to have a definite frontier quality in the sense that “frontier” is defined “as a place where people are unfettered, free, with open space to live in and broad, untroubled vistas to view.” That idea — that image — is still in American mythology and likely will never disappear. Patty Limerick, a great historian and a good friend, is the queen of the “new Western history” which contends with that mythology. But, as she said one time, for all her sparring with the so-called ‘frontier theory’ of American development, “she was never able to lay a glove on it, much less knock it out.”
Well, the class preferred that definition of Wyoming, too. In many ways, that’s what all America, at least east of the Mississippi and west of the Sierras, prefers to believe too. A good example was during the election of 1996 when a New York television crew came to Wyoming (Yoder, as I remember). They chose a rural precinct and filmed a pre-dawn scene of two cowboys riding in to vote before going out on a snowy morning to feed cattle. There were a rancher’s wife and her friend manning the voting place in a one room schoolhouse warmed by a pot-bellied stove. The two of them teased the boys good naturedly and then, after they voted, gave them a hot cup of coffee to brace them before they rode off through the snow into the advancing dawn.
As one of my colleagues down in Laramie who’d watched that on television said, “The east probably needs us more than we need them. They need to think there are places like this still in this country.” But, is that picture one that gets us anywhere? Or, is it a mythology that holds us back?
What about that cowboy image?
The venerable T. A. Larson, historian laureate of Wyoming, wrote the History of Wyoming that is still the definitive work on our origins and development up through the 1970’s. Larson, more than almost anybody since, has described how Wyoming’s development relates to how we have come to think of ourselves. When the buffalo were gone and the gold petered out and the railroad crews left, the only people attracted to Wyoming were the cowboys and they came not only to work but they came to stay. To paraphrase Larson, “we’ve loved them ever since.” Hence, we are the “cowboy state,” pure and simple. We represent the rugged independence, the proud individualism, the gallantry and the resourcefulness of the American cowboy.
Now, that is not exactly the historical cowboy of our origins. Historians are quick to point out that the cowboy of history was an itinerant laborer often of spotty character and, as Gretel Ehrlich described him, “He was like a pile of rocks. He got snowed on, rained on, baked in the sun, kicked around and generally misused by the animals he cared for.” Not exactly the romantic myth we’ve incorporated from the movies and the work of Owen Wister and others — the cowboy we try to promote for tourists and visitors.
We don’t only promote that myth, but we subscribe to it in very specific ways. Most notably, for example, is the fact that we all get behind the wheel and drive a car with a cowboy on a bucking bronco emblazoned on our license plates. Try to take that away! I’ve had some class members nearly go to the mat over that one.
But, are we really the “cowboy state?” All agriculture including agribusiness in Wyoming is a distant third on the list of economic providers — well behind tourism and the mineral industry which occupies the top rung. And, are we all that rural? Family-owned ranches, by census, have decreased from 19,000 in the 1950’s to just under 7,000 today. If we talk about the “cowboy state” in political terms, there are only 13 self-identified ranchers among the 90 legislators in Cheyenne.
But the cowboy myth is a cross-cultural formulation that constructs a sort of umbrella that blurs ethnic, economic and racial distinction and fuses them into an indigenous common heritage shared by all of us. For instance, women fit into the “cowboy way” if you can say “she rides like a man.” Or, outsiders can be forgiven if they buy the Wyoming self image. Then, a native can say “it ain’t his/her fault he/she wasn’t born here.”
Paradoxes of all kinds
Now, to add more confusion to what I’ve already provided you, we are confronted with our official motto, “the Equality State.” Again, we have a paradox. As Larson notes, “lightening struck once in 1869;” but, Wyoming has actually been behind other states in electing women to the Legislature. As of last week’s election, there will be 10 women in the new Legislature — three in the Senate and seven in the House. All told, that’s two fewer than the current Legislature. We have had one woman governor and now two congresswomen — and we’ve never elected a woman to the U.S. Senate. Wyoming’s wage gap is the highest in the country — and further, the rate of female business ownership is lowest.
I can’t help but recount a story here. Al’s and my dad, Milward, served in the US Senate with Gale McGee, a great orator and former UW professor. During their terms together, Jacques Sidi, a junior high school teacher from Casper, sent both Gale and dad one of the essays he got pursuant to an assignment to write an essay on “Wyoming, the Equality State.” The little girl’s essay read: “Wyoming is the equality state because it’s the only state in the union with two women senators, Gale McGee and Mildred Simpson.”
Now, if we inject politics into this mix, the paradoxes abound: As independent denizens of the cowboy state we’re unswervingly anti-federal government. No campaign in Wyoming can be otherwise if the candidate wants to be favored. Yet, we accept federal largesse as our due. Last time I looked, Wyoming receives $1.28 from the federal government for every $1 we disburse to the feds.
I invited Sam Western to class to talk about these things and that was an intense session. Sam took us to task for everything from the Equality State motto to the cowboy license plate. But his main point was that Wyoming is held back by our “tied to the earth” and “live and let live” independent cowboy mythology which tends to curb development, reduce cooperation, particularly with the feds, and discourages innovation and economic diversification.
My own view
Personally I both agree and disagree with that assessment. But, that’s what made me try to encapsulate my own impression in as concise a way as I could. Actually, I’m still working on that — but here’s my summary:
Wyoming’s political identity is made up of a fiercely patriotic, often parochial, always cautious constituency that prizes leaders who are plain spoken, folksy and accessible. We value tolerance of others, even those from outside, so long as they accede to deep-seated Wyoming values and are accepting of Wyoming’s self image. We prize amateurism in politics and despise bureaucracy. As the founding fathers intended, our representatives in the political realm live with the people they represent and live with the laws they make. And, because of that they are more amenable to compromise and political accommodation for the good of the state as a whole. We overcome a certain nagging inferiority complex with an almost perverse, patriotic pride in being able to live in and appreciate the rugged, often hostile environment of which we are a part. We don’t like to be thought of as mean-spirited, only conservative. And, our self image, for all of our protestations, is the mythical cowboy rooted in our history, our landscape and typical of what we feel to be our special nature as a somehow freer, more independent human being than those consigned to the rest of the globe.
I might end on that note. But, recent political developments in our state need to be addressed. I wrote the above summary a scant year ago and I didn’t include a worrying comment made by former Gov. Dave Freudenthal, when he mentioned legislative opposition to the expansion of Medicaid during the past session. That decision, by all measurements, is costing the state approximately $310,000 per day and leaving 20,000 working poor without insurance. Opposing arguments were based primarily on fears of the federal government leaving Wyoming on the hook if the dollars came up short — i.e., in not keeping its promise — a perfectly traditional Wyoming argument. But, couched in that argument were remarks about the distasteful aura of “Obamacare” and the “liberal” policies of this administration. In other words ideology trumped practicality. Freudenthal referred to that as a new “nationalization” of Wyoming politics and a retreat from the engaged, pragmatic approach that has always been so much a part of Wyoming’s political identity.
Further, I’m sorry to say, that longstanding political identity is being challenged by outside forces. In this case it is not alleged federal intrusions, but outside dollars funneled through large PACs and 501(c)(4) social-welfare, dark-money organizations. Republic Free Choice, an offshoot of the Wyoming Liberty Group, the Brophy PACs and others are among these. People elected last week have benefited from that funding.
Old-time legislators like former House Speaker, Tom Lubnau, worry that increased funding from unaccounted sources and more expensive, fiercer campaigns have produced a decline in civility and in accommodation and compromise. In a recent WyoFile series, veteran lawmaker Michael Von Flatern (R, SD-24, Gillette) observed that successful politics is the art of compromise, something less appreciated by groups with ideological agendas.
Lastly, as one old legislative friend of mine from Sublette County observed, the Hitching Post Inn is gone. That was where you bonded together and hashed things out at the bar over dinner, or worked through log jams in informal caucuses in your opponent’s room or in the hallway. So, the glue has come apart.
That need not be the future. And, that’s where the people of the state come in, with their own hard work, and their organizations tracking issues they know and care about. I originally wrote this piece as a talk for the Powder River Basin Resource Council, which celebrates its 44th anniversary this year. A group of ranchers, teachers, people from various walks of life, PRBRC does what Ed Herschler said it did three decades ago: “The PRBRC makes a major contribution toward the betterment of our state.” It is grassroots, task-specific review of projects and policies, the kind of work PRBRC does (and did on the ETSI project) that makes a difference for Wyoming.
I’m convinced that the Wyoming way will transcend outside pressures intent on shaping Wyoming to the image held by outside big donors and well-heeled influence peddlers. But, we need to be wary. In short we need to be smart, watchful border collies protecting the herd and pointing out where the dangers are and marshaling our defenses to overcome them.
But, who among us are going to be the visionaries? Who of us are going to help break the century-plus long boom-and-bust cycle and plan boldly for a future that’s better than the one we should have seen coming all of 20 years ago?
Sam Western one time said we’ve become complacent. The mineral industry has paved the roads, built the schools and paid a large chunk of the costs for us, making our tax load for all these services among the lowest in the nation. He was mean enough to suggest that from a tax standpoint, we don’t have a stake in our society. He didn’t go so far as to suggest that an income tax might sober us up, but it’s becoming clear that we are going to have to make some painful choices about what exactly we want our definition of “quality of life” to include. Will it be bigger class sizes in schools?. Will it be less public health care and more home cures and personal attention to prevention — not a bad idea really? Will it be a pared-down University and community college curriculum and fewer majors? Will it be reduced city and county services?
Whatever it is, we need both virtuous and far-sighted leadership — like an eagle soaring over the land and scanning the horizon. So, we have to have, and we have to be flying border collies. I wish I had a better metaphor but let’s stick with it. We have to draw upon our local, longstanding grassroots organizations that have shown their mettle and reliability over the years. We have to look for institutional integrity, for reliable voices, and peer with care and thought into our common future. The great cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris had a scrawled parchment on the door in the twelfth century that read, “the world tomorrow will belong to those who bring it the greatest hope.” We need to find among ourselves the bringers of hope, who can draw upon our past to give us a future we can be proud of.