This May, Rep. JoAnn Dayton (D-Rock Springs) had a hand in making sure the abrupt closure of nursing homes in Saratoga and Rock Springs didn’t leave patients with nowhere to go. The shutdown of the Deseret Health Group facility in Rock Springs affected her directly, because a family member was a resident.
During the closure and temporary state takeover, Dayton regularly visited the nursing home to talk with clients and their families, and shared information with the Department of Health and her fellow lawmakers. Workers went without pay for several weeks so the nursing home would be more marketable to a new buyer. After two weeks EmpRes Healthcare Management from Washington purchased the Rock Springs facility and kept it open, and Health Management Services bought the home in Saratoga.
“It was just amazing how the citizens of Sweetwater County pulled together, and particularly the employees of the nursing home whose checks bounced, and they kept on working,” Dayton said. “It sort of restores your faith in your fellow human beings.”
A resident of Rock Springs for 26 years, Dayton ran twice to win the seat she holds in the Wyoming House.
The retired trona mine administrator was defeated by Republican Stephen Watt in 2012. Two years later, and just months after her husband of 30 years died, Dayton made the choice to run again — and won.
“I like being busy, and if you are doing good work, it is all well worth it,” Dayton said.
Before winning the House seat, she spent three years as a legislative aide to Sen. Bernadine Craft (D-Rock Springs). Craft is her close friend, and the priest at the Episcopal Church Dayton attends.
The two women are leaders in the Sweetwater County Democratic Party, which Dayton formerly chaired. The area has historically been a stronghold for Democrats, though Dayton says that is changing.
“We have lost ground over the years, and right now we have more registered Republicans than we do Democrats,” Dayton said, “but it comes back to a lot of our ancestors were immigrants that worked in the mines and the railroads, so we’re still a blue-collar community.”
Dayton was born in Everett, Washington, but her history in Wyoming goes back to 1971, when she moved to Cheyenne. She raised two children as a single mother, working in the Laramie County Sheriff’s office where she met her late husband Mike Dayton, a highway patrolman. They moved to Rock Springs in 1989.
For 21 years, Dayton rode a bus from her home in Rock Springs to the OCI trona mine north of Green River. “That’s about 80 miles, round trip, but really is it any different than people in California who spend just as much time in traffic jams?” Dayton said.
As executive assistant to the OCI site manager, she was involved in all administrative aspects of the underground mine and refinery. The company employs more than 400 workers, producing soda ash that is used around the world by manufacturers of glass, baking soda, and other products.
In Rock Springs Dayton serves on the Suicide Prevention Task Force for the Episcopal Diocese of Wyoming, and the board of the Young at Heart Senior Center. As a lawmaker, Dayton serves on the House Revenue Committee, the Labor, Health and Social Services Committee, and the Select Federal Natural Resource Committee.
This summer Dayton is working on the Labor Committee to see if Wyoming’s workplace safety grant program might need reforming. Her work in mining leads her to believe that training might be more effective at improving worker safety than having a company pay a fine after an accident.
“It’s kind of like closing the gate after the horse gets out,” Dayton said. “It might help a bit for future incidents, but it doesn’t help the person that is already injured.”