Why do I love following Wyoming politics? Look no further than the embarrassing flap between Gov. Mark Gordon and Cheyenne Mayor Marian Orr over a planned visit to the capital city by the president of Taiwan.
This dust-up has something for everyone: mudslinging, gender inequity, state v. local and state v. federal power struggles and even an embarrassing international incident.
One of many things I don’t understand about this closed-door but now highly publicized confrontation between two prominent Republican officials: How can a state’s male chief executive drop the “f-bomb” on a female mayor and then claim he was “deeply offended” by her response?
This is the famed Wyoming “Good Ol’ Boys Club” turned on its head and spun around until its many members are dizzy thinking about how the times really are a-changing in the so-called Equality State.
A female official calling out the state’s leader for totally inappropriate behavior? Highly unlikely, until now. But it was justified, despite criticism of Orr from some quarters for making the exchange public through the media.
In case you missed it, the governor and the mayor were meeting to discuss a visit to Cheyenne Frontier Days by Tsai Ing-wen, the first female leader of the Republic of China. Orr is the first woman elected Cheyenne’s mayor.
According to Orr, Taiwanese officials wanted to visit Wyoming during the 150th anniversary of women’s suffrage. Getting their president, and Cheyenne’s mayor — each an important election “first” — together for the event seemed like a great way to commemorate the women’s rights milestone. But what should have been a simple feel-good story quickly went south when Gordon expressed strong reservations about the trip because it could offend China, a much bigger national trade partner.
Orr told the Casper Star-Tribune reporter Nick Reynolds that she wasn’t expecting Gordon’s interference. “I said, ‘Governor, if you’re so concerned about your appearance to the Chinese to this policy decision, I am fine to go it alone and not include you, your office, and your residents in the Capitol. We can have this be about the capital city and Frontier Days.”
Those were apparently fighting words to Gordon. Orr said the governor, who is much taller than her, slammed his fists on the table, got in her face and shouted, “F— you, Mayor.”
Gordon hasn’t denied using the language that Orr claimed he did. In fact, in a press release produced by his office after the mayor called him out publicly, the governor said he had called her up to apologize and that she accepted.
But Gordon’s statement also noted, “I am deeply offended by the mischaracterization represented in the mayor’s description of our meeting.” He denied standing up and using intimidating body language.
“The notion that I have anything but the utmost respect for women is simply not true,” Gordon said. “I stand by my record on that point.”
After reading those words from the governor, Orr told Wyoming Tribune-Eagle reporter Ramsey Scott that Gordon wasn’t truthful about the incident and she could no longer accept his apology.
What are we to glean from this back-and-forth? That the governor didn’t yell profane language at the mayor because she’s a woman, but because she’s just a city official who disagreed with him? Is that supposed to be a comfort to her or anyone else who was offended by his remarks?
Some observers, though, blamed the mayor for embarrassing Gordon.
“Come on Sister!” Beth Clingman wrote to Orr on the Star-Tribune’s website. “Women who threaten and cry when they don’t get their way and follow up playing the ‘victim’ make me cringe! Put on your Big Girl panties and accept ‘No’ for an answer.”
Gordon’s supporters who have weighed in on social media and commented on news accounts may be trying to sell what happened as some type of warped gender equality, but I’m not buying it.
For the record, in my brief contacts with and observations of Gordon during his unsuccessful 2008 congressional campaign, his stint as state treasurer and in his new role as Wyoming’s governor, this incident seems highly out of character for him.
Several people I talked to who know him well were surprised and described the outburst as an aberration to his normal behavior. I hope they’re right.
Then again, I’ve never been in a closed-door meeting with the man. Nor do I have any way of knowing exactly how a female officeholder would feel having an expletive yelled at her in front of a governor’s staff. But I bet it was intimidating and it took some courage to stay in the room and keep talking after the insulting language. Many of us would have walked out.
What I do know is that what Gordon admitted saying is inexcusable, especially for someone holding the state’s highest office. He needed to apologize and did so, but with a caveat that made it sound like he was being victimized by the person he yelled “f— you” to. That’s simply bizarre.
Admittedly, part of my fascination with this story is the titillation factor: usually such private conflicts go unreported. I can’t think of a single other news story where a Wyoming governor was accused of swearing at anyone, much less someone who endorsed him in his most recent campaign.
And that’s one of the most interesting elements here, because it points to a strange fact about the state’s political environment: Republicans so dominate state and federal government here that they generally have only themselves to battle.
Democratic officeholders in this deeply red state are so few and far between, that no GOP member except the most far-right ideologues (which doesn’t describe Gordon) need bother to pick fights with them. Seeking an opponent with so little power is unnecessary. Democrats who Republicans agree with serve a more useful purpose as examples of how the all-powerful can benevolently reach across the aisle and make peace.
But some Republicans aren’t afraid to get down in the mud and swing at each other. In the 2018 GOP gubernatorial primary, conservative candidates Foster Friess and Harriet Hageman ganged up on Gordon and pointedly attacked him for not being right-wing enough. It might have worked if they hadn’t split the conservative votes.
Here’s a bit of armchair political psychiatry for you: Maybe after he won the primary and breezed to a general election victory, Gordon has decided to flex his muscles a bit and not take no for an answer from either friend or foe.
Lost in this mess is the unique relationship Cheyenne has with Taiwan. It has a sister city, Taichung, and they have exchanged many pleasant official visits over the years. A delegation of state lawmakers and the business community traveled to Taiwan last year as part of a trade mission.
Many officials from other countries visit Cheyenne for Frontier Days each year, and the city and Wyoming always welcome them with open arms. Taiwan is of particular interest to the state because of the beef it imports from Wyoming.
China, too, is a primary target of Wyoming businesses; the coal industry has been trying for years to develop a better route to export its product — demand for which is waning in the U.S. — to the huge Asian market.
Gordon is likely feeling tremendous pressure from the Trump administration not to offend China, which is already upset by the president’s trade war. It’s an understandable political concern, but it’s not something that merits throwing Cheyenne’s Taiwanese friends under the bus to achieve.
Gordon has cited security costs and complicated logistics as a reason to tell the Taiwan president to stay away, but that’s just a smokescreen. The governor clearly wants to make nice with the feds.
Which raises the question: Why now? Wyoming officials continually whine about federal interference, and the state sues them on a regular basis over a variety of issues such as environmental regulations.
I don’t think welcoming Taiwanese trade partners and having a few photos taken of Tsai Ing-wen wearing a cowboy hat would have been even a blip on the radar of Chinese officials. But the governor has literally made it an international incident that insulted Taiwan and now deserves public scrutiny both at home and abroad.
It wasn’t a smart move by our freshman governor.