Before a court decision overturned Wyoming’s same-sex marriage ban last year, Rep. Mark Baker (R-Rock Springs) told WyoFile that gay couples wanting to marry should consider moving to other states where it was legal.
Media coverage of comments like that, he said, have led his constituents to falsely brand him as a “shallow” lawmaker who is only interested in social issues.
“Whether it is guns in schools or same-sex marriage or marijuana, those seem to be the ones that get the coverage,” he said. “It creates this perspective that I’m a conservative on social issues, and that’s all I deal with, when the truth really is I put a lot of effort into other things.”
As a member of the Judiciary Committee, Baker has worked on issues ranging from electronic citations, to asset forfeiture, and sexual assault. He said his constituents are interested in child custody, transfer of public lands, and hunting license fees. He favors transfer of federal lands to the state, though many of his constituents oppose the idea, as reported by the Casper Star-Tribune.
Baker worked across the aisle with Rep. John Freeman (D-Green River) on a bill to allow students who earn a high school equivalency certificate to receive the Hathaway Scholarship, and Rep. JoAnn Dayton (D-Rock Springs) on reducing flood risk in the heart of Rock Springs.
Though two-term Rep. Baker belongs to the majority party that dominates the state Legislature, he’s outnumbered five to one by the Democrats in Sweetwater County’s delegation. In practice, that means he’s sometimes overlooked and not asked to participate in events.
“I think it is frustrating to be the only Republican,” Baker said. “Once the legislature ends we go our separate ways, and I don’t get a lot of involvement from the delegation.”
A majority of Sweetwater County registered voters belong to the Republican Party, but that’s a recent development. For generations the county has been a stronghold for Democrats, a legacy of union organizing at coal mines and railroads.
Baker initially came into office in 2013 after defeating incumbent Rep. Joe Barbuto (D-Rock Springs), despite Barbuto outspending him three-to-one.
“I felt like Rep. Barbuto wasn’t representing me, and [I expected] if I felt that way then other people did as well,” he said.
Originally from Pocatello, Idaho, Baker’s father moved the family to Rock Springs for a coal mine job. Baker attended high school in Rock Springs, then graduated from Western Wyoming Community College before earning a degree in criminal justice from the University of Wyoming.
Along the way Baker attended Haifa University in Israel during 2008 and 2009, where he studied Hebrew to supplement his prior training in Arabic. While there he visited Bethlehem and the West Bank, and rubbed shoulders with heavily armed Israelis and members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
As a result of that experience, Rep Baker sponsored a successful 2013 resolution in support of Israel. It earned 81 signatures from legislators and support from Gov. Matt Mead (R).
“I think that Israel should have the right to defend itself from outside and foreign enemies just like the United States does,” he said.
In Rock Springs, Baker has operated and sold four small businesses, including a landscaping company that he sold this spring. During the wintertime he’s supplemented his income by working as a substitute teacher and a truck driver hauling hazardous materials. Most recently he became a real estate agent for Coldwell Banker.
In the past year Baker has gotten involved with an ongoing effort to reengineer the Bitter Creek watershed in Rock Springs. Much of the town’s core is in a floodplain due to past efforts by the Union Pacific Railroad to shift Bitter Creek away from underground coal mines. The watershed is prone to flash floods that damage businesses and homes, most recently after a cloudburst this July.
Restoring Bitter Creek would cost more than $30 million to complete, but so far the Sweetwater County delegation has struggled to bring Abandoned Mine Lands funds or other money for the project. The town also has regular emergencies due to abandoned mine subsidence and underground coal and natural gas catching on fire, Baker said.
“Sweetwater County is responsible for initially setting the state up on its feet in coal or trona,” Baker said, “but oftentimes — for whatever reason — the county seems to be overlooked when it comes time to disperse the revenue from the profits of those resources.”