When it comes to running for statewide office in Wyoming, hailing from tony Teton County can be a voter turnoff.
Just ask Jackson Hole Democrat Gary Trauner, who was crushed by Cheyenne Republican Cynthia Lummis in the fall race for the state’s sole U.S. House seat.
But if you are looking to lead a Wyoming political party — any party –, Teton County residence looks pretty good.
On April 18 in Casper, the Wyoming Democratic State Central Committee elected retired realtor Leslie Petersen of Wilson in Teton County as the party’s state chair, replacing Cheyenne ophthalmologist Dr. John Millin.
Millin was in the position for only two years after replacing former Teton County Commissioner and Jackson town councilman Mike Gierau, who served from 2003 until he was derailed by a DUI arrest in 2007.
At its central committee meeting in Casper on May 1 and 2, the Wyoming Republican Party is expected to re-elect Jackson resident Diana Vaughan as its party chairman.
“At this point she is unopposed,” Wyoming GOP political director Bill Novotny said on April 21. Novotny praised Vaughan for her fundraising skills, noting that the party’s federal and state treasuries are both brimming with cash despite the drain of the fall election in which all three Wyoming congressional seats were up for grabs.
Vaughan, a University of Denver graduate and owner of a Jackson Hole synthetic oil distributorship, has been a leader in Teton County GOP politics for the past two decades, starting with her election as chairman of the Teton County Republican party in 1997.
Nationally, in January Teton Village resident and Dick Cheney neighbor Jan Larimer was elected co-chairman of the Republican National Committee, the number two spot in the party.
Meanwhile, Democratic state Rep. Pete Jorgensen of Jackson, who once participated in an anti-war demonstration outside Cheney’s Teton Pines home, is a Democratic national committeeman and served as a super delegate to the Denver convention where President Obama was nominated.
Both parties view Teton county as a great recruiting ground and essential for fundraising. “Jackson has been fertile ground for us,” said Novotny.
For the Democrats, Teton County is one of the few strongholds in a state where Republicans hold a two-to-one voter registration advantage. Teton County, along with Albany County, were the only two counties in the state that Barack Obama carried in the November election.
New state Democratic chair Petersen, a former Teton County commissioner who lost a 1982 race for secretary of state, said she knows GOP chairman Vaughan “only slightly.”
The two party leaders will square off in the state’s next big race, the 2010 gubernatorial contest.
That race is somewhat in limbo for both parties as popular incumbent Gov. Dave Freudenthal is said to be considering seeking a third term. To do that, he would have to overturn the state’s term limit laws.
“There are probably a lot of people waiting to see what the governor does,” Petersen said in a telephone interview with WyoFile. “But we are seriously going to work now on candidate recruitment across the state. We know we need to build a bench. We don’t have many dems in courthouses and in the county commissions. At the same time we are going to be looking for really well-qualified candidates for statewide office.”
In this, University of Wyoming political science professor Jim King says the new Democratic Party chair has a daunting task ahead of her.
“Petersen faces the challenges any party leader does in a state dominated by the other political party,” King said.
“There’s a need to build the party from the grassroots, identifying candidates for local offices and the state legislature. There were 26 state house districts [in 2008] that didn’t have a Democratic challenger (compared to 11 districts without a Republican challenger).”
But King said that despite Obama’s dismal showing in the state (Wyoming gave him the lowest percentage of votes, 33 percent, of all states), there is still some room for hope among Democrats, especially in elections for governor and statewide office.
“Despite the attention showered on presidential campaigns,” King said, “the map of gubernatorial election results provides a better guide for building the party than does the map of presidential election results. Governor Freudenthal’s two victories, especially in 2002, indicated traditionally Republican areas of the state where a Democrat can be competitive.”
Despite her Teton County address, Petersen, who attended the University of Wyoming and is a former member of that school’s rodeo team, brings established state credentials into the political arena. She is well known in Cheyenne where she worked as legislative liaison for former Wyoming Gov. Ed Herschler.
Her husband, Jackson attorney Hank Phibbs, is chairman of the Teton County Commission.
“What they say about Wyoming being a small town with really long streets is really true,” Petersen said. “I can walk down any street in Wyoming and know a bunch of people. My father was founder of the Wyoming Outfitters Association and my mother was once Wyoming Snowmobiler of the Year.”