A time-honored tradition in the Wyoming Legislature involves lawmakers taking a break from legislating to sing “Happy Birthday” to a colleague whose special day occurs during the session.
These light-hearted moments, generally highlighted by off-key singing and a few wisecracks, are welcome but fleeting diversions for lawmakers and others in the Capitol. One Senate celebration in 2015 won’t soon be forgotten, however.
Sen. Bernadine Craft, a Rock Springs Democrat, was presented a bouquet of roses while an all-male chorus of 29 stood and serenaded her. Yes, the Equality State Senate had just a single female member.
Women comprise 49% of Wyoming’s population, but now hold only 15.6% of its legislative seats. It ranks 48th out of 50 states, topping only West Virginia and Tennessee, for female representation in state legislatures. Nationally, 29% of state legislative seats are held by women.
Next Tuesday, though, Wyoming has a chance to elect more women to the House and Senate. Voters won’t end male dominance outright, but they have the opportunity to at least move the needle.
Anyone observing the proceedings from the galleries of the two chambers can readily see the gender gap. There are only eight women representatives in the 60-member House. The Senate now has six women members, a distinct gain compared to when Craft was in office, but still only 20% of the total seats.
Personally, I’m tired of seeing a Legislature where old bald guys like myself are way over-represented. Having too many of us around is sidelining female voices that should be heard. The “good ol’ boys” club needs to have its ranks trimmed, and there’s no time like the present to begin.
I’m particularly sick of hearing conservative male lawmakers lecture the women of Wyoming about what limits the state should impose on their reproductive lives. It’s outrageous and shouldn’t be tolerated by voters, especially since the men doing the preaching are generally a sanctimonious lot who otherwise rail about keeping government out of private lives.
No matter the issue, however, the legislative debate would be enriched by having more women involved in the conversation.
I think the longstanding effort by House Minority Leader Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie) to get the state to enact laws closing its huge gender wage gap would finally gain traction if more women lawmakers discussed how it has affected them and the lives of their mothers, daughters and constituents. At the very least, out-of-touch male lawmakers wouldn’t be able to keep claiming that the problem simply doesn’t exist in Wyoming.
A few years ago, the Legislature eliminated funding for a program that paid for nurses’ visits to provide essential prenatal care for low-income women. Several women who viewed it as a necessary budget reduction voted with the majority, but perhaps that vote would have been harder for some men to cast if more women were on the floor talking up the program’s tremendous health benefits to mothers and their babies.
Education is obviously an issue of concern for both male and female lawmakers. But the Legislature would benefit from the input of more women raising children, since they are on the front lines of what’s happening in our schools. Many have sacrificed their careers during the coronavirus pandemic to stay home and help provide distance learning for their kids.
These women are the ones I especially want to hear from when decisions are made about education funding, teacher accountability, school safety and a host of other issues.
How likely is it that the Legislature will have several more women serving next year? I’d say the chances are good, especially in the House, where five of the female incumbents — four Republicans and Connolly — are running unopposed.
Women will lose a seat with the retirement of Rep. JoAnn Dayton-Selman (D-Rock Springs). Her HD 17 seat will be filled by fellow Democrat Chad Banks, who is unopposed.
But four other seats are guaranteed to flip from male to female.
GOP newcomer Pepper Ottman doesn’t face a challenger in House District 34, which had been held by Rep. Tim Salazar (R-Riverton), who is now a Senate candidate.
In HD 44, Rep. Charles Pelkey (D-Laramie) is retiring, leaving his position to be filled by either Democrat Karlee Provenza or Republican Roxie Halsey.
The HD 55 seat now held by Rep. David Miller (R-Riverton), who didn’t seek re-election, will go to either Republican Ember Oakley or Libertarian Bethany Baldes.
Rep. David Northrup (R-Powell) is also retiring, and the HD 50 contest is between Republican Rachel Rodriguez-Williams and Independent Cindy Johnson Bennett.
That means eight women will definitely be in the House when it convenes in January. But there are many more House races with female candidates.
Two freshman female Democratic House incumbents have opponents: Rep. Sara Burlingame of Cheyenne and Rep. Andi Clifford of Riverton. Burlingame faces Republican John Romero-Martinez, while Clifford squares off against the GOP’s Valaira Whiteman and Independent Clinton Wagon.
Meanwhile, seven incumbent GOP representatives will go head-to-head against female opponents: Bob Nicholas of Cheyenne (Democrat Marcie Kindred), Jared Olsen of Cheyenne (Democrat Amy Spieker), Donald Burkhart of Rawlins (Democrat Jacquelin Wells), Tim Hallinan of Gillette (Democrat Lynne Huskinson), Bill Henderson of Cheyenne (Democrat Rebecca Fields), Jerry Paxton of Encampment (Libertarian Lela Konecny), and Chuck Gray of Casper (Democrat Jane Ifland).
HD 60 represents the final chance for women to pick up a House seat, with Democrat Lindsey Travis of Green River facing former Republican House member Mark Baker of Rock Springs. The position is now held by Rep. John Freeman (D-Green River).
There are fewer opportunities for women in the Senate. Sen. Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne) is unopposed. Three others aren’t up for re-election: Sens. Lynn Hutchings of Cheyenne, Wendy Schuler of Evanston and Cheri Steinmetz of Lingle.
Sen. Affie Ellis (R-Cheyenne) faces former Democratic representative Jim Byrd. Sen. Liisa Anselmi-Dalton (D-Rock Springs has a GOP opponent, John Kolb. Anselmi-Dalton succeeded veteran female lawmaker Craft, who retired in 2016 after a decade in the Legislature.
Two male incumbents have women opponents. Democrat Britney Wallesch hopes to oust freshman Sen. Anthony Bouchard of Cheyenne, while Libertarian Wendy DeGroot faces the most uphill challenge of all. She’s attempting to upset Wyoming’s longest serving legislator, Sen. Charles Scott of Casper, who was first elected to the House in 1978.
I don’t know how well it will work against Scott, but DeGroot has a slogan that many men and women running for office could likely get behind. “Aren’t you all tired of the same old political BS?” she asks on her Facebook campaign page. “I know I am.”
Two other Senate seats are in play for women: SD 10 in Laramie, where Democrat Jackie Grimes squares off against current GOP House member Daniel Furphy, and SD 20, pitting Democrat Theresa Livingston of Worland against Republican Ed Cooper of Ten Sleep.
It’s extremely difficult to beat incumbents, but I think a few will fall on Election Day. My prediction is women will win 13 House seats, a net gain of five, while adding one to the six now held by women in the Senate. Twenty seats would represent 22% of the 90-member Legislature.
It would be significant progress, made possible by women candidates willing to go the extra mile to represent their communities. I applaud each for her public service, but give extra kudos to newcomers undaunted by the considerable challenge of going head-to-head with sitting legislators.
When there is a female majority in the Wyoming Legislature one day — something I firmly believe will happen — the women of 2020 will have helped pave the way.
CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to reflect the election status of several female state senators.