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Govt-and-politics
2018 races
Wyoming's 2018 races likely to be interesting -- governor, Senate and House all in play

An out-of-state mercenary and an evangelical Democrat are considering runs for Congress. A leading candidate for governor has been accused of sexual assault. And campaigns for the 2018 elections have yet to begin in earnest. With an open governor’s seat and a U.S House and Senate seat on the ballot, it is likely to be a year full of political mailers, stump speeches and — hopefully — some serious policy debates.

But before voters are able to make their selection, the races will have to shape up a little more.

Governor

So far, the biggest Republican names being floated for the race to replace Gov. Matt Mead have yet to make any announcements. Secretary of State Ed Murray, State Treasurer Mark Gordon and House Speaker Steve Harshman, a Casper Republican, have declined to say whether or not they will enter the race.

Murray and Gordon have suggested they have strong interest in running, through Murray may now be dogged by allegations made last month that he sexually assaulted a woman in the 1980s. Murray has denied the allegations.

The two men have high name recognition and experience campaigning across the Cowboy State. They are also likely to appeal to different segments of the Republican electorate. Murray is religious and quite conservative, touting his bonafides as a Cheyenne businessman. Gordon is more moderate. A former donor to Democratic politicians, Gordon is likely to point to his success generating strong returns on state investments after being appointed treasurer by Mead.

Another relative moderate, Harshman could compete with Gordon for votes but might be able to run slightly to Gordon’s right in the primary, given that Harshman does not have a history of supporting Democrats.

Harshman would also have the benefit of being from Casper, a major population center crucial to winning statewide office, where he’s successfully coached the Natrona County High School football team.

But with Murray, Gordon and Harshman all undecided — or at least yet to make a public announcement and start campaigning — the field belongs to the Democratic candidate Mary Throne, a former state lawmaker, and three political novices in the Republican field: Bill Dahlin, Harriet Hageman and Rex Rammell.

Dahlin is a Sheridan businessman without an obvious political base, whereas Hageman and Rammell are running as states rights conservatives concerned with the federal government’s impact on Wyoming. Rammell has run unsuccessfully for public office several times since the early aughts, whereas this is Hageman’s first campaign. The Cheyenne attorney has been plugged into the political scene in the state for years, though, serving as an adviser to U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney and working on some environmental lawsuits for the State of Wyoming.

Senate

The race for Republican U.S. Sen. John Barrasso’s seat appeared to heat up in the fall when two big — if odd — names emerged as potential challengers. First out-of-state resident Erik Prince, founder of the notorious private security contractor Blackwater, said he might challenge Barrasso due to the incumbent’s inadequate support of President Donald Trump. Then Jackson philanthropist and conservative Christian political donor Foster Friess said that he might run as well, despite Barrasso being a “hero” of his. Both Prince and Friess were recruited to run by former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, who is seeking to unseat sitting Republican senators.

But political observers in the state say that both men would have an uphill battle in a race against Barrasso, who remains popular in the state and has not done any of the things that make an incumbent politician vulnerable.

For his part, Barrasso has become more vocal about his support for Trump. Since November, little has been heard from either Prince or Friess about a run against Barrasso.

But last month, Democrat Gary Trauner — who came within about 1,000 votes of winning Wyoming’s House seat in 2006 — announced he’ll be running against Barrasso.

House

The House race is the quietest so far. Rep. Liz Cheney, a Republican, is running for reelection and no big names have come forward to challenge her in a primary. The only Democrat who has spoken about running is Jackson doctor and author Mary Neal, who the Star-Tribune first reported was considering a run several weeks ago.

Cheney remains controversial among some Wyoming conservatives due to her out-of-state roots. But she has been an active freshman legislator in Washington, D.C. and has made it back to Wyoming frequently, attending community events and engaging in the retail politics necessary in the state. Neal may have some cross-over appeal due to her status as a darling of conservative evangelicals following as a result of her writing about traveling to heaven following a near-death experience. But any Democrat will face a tough battle winning statewide office in Wyoming, and Neal has no political experience.

The state primaries are Aug. 21 and the general election is Nov. 6. Democrats and Republicans must file paperwork with the Secretary of State’s office by June 1 and independent candidates must file by Aug. 27.


Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune 

Nordic skiers take off from the starting line Friday during a freestyle semifinal heat of the Don Jacobson Memorial Invite on Casper Mountain. The high school races continue Saturday morning at the Casper Mountain Trails Center.


Education
Thermopolis teacher wins $25,000 national award

Shannon Hill’s face said it all. When she walked into Thermopolis Middle on Friday morning, she did not think she would come away with $25,000.

“She was frozen for a second,” said Greg Gallagher of the Milken Family Foundation, which presented the teacher with a surprise national teaching award and the money that came with it.

“I was completely shocked and overwhelmed all at the same time,” Hill said, still laughing incredulously, nearly two hours after she received the award. “I just couldn’t believe it was me.”

In a video of the ceremony, state Superintendent Jillian Balow stands at a lectern and asks the assembled students for a drum roll. The entire assembly was a ruse: The students and staff gathered in the gym thinking they were going to receive a schoolwide award. The winner was a secret, known to few in Wyoming.

Then the gathered students and staff were told it was a teaching award for someone in the room. The drum roll began. Being middle schoolers, the students didn’t miss the opportunity to make some noise.

As the human drum roll rose, Balow announced Hill’s name.

Hill slowly stood from the bleachers, cupped her hands over her mouth, and then, almost in a smiling stupor, she made her way down to the gym floor, where Balow and other educators waited for her, grinning and holding a jumbo-sized check.

The award had been completely secret: The Hot Springs School District superintendent, Dustin Hunt, found out Hill had won in September, and he was sworn to secrecy. Hill’s husband didn’t know until she called him Friday. He was proud of his wife, she said, and then she told him how much the check was for.

As staff and students looked on, the prize was first announced as a $250 check. Then officials added a zero. Finally, it was announced that the real prize was $25,000.

Then the drum roll, and Hill’s name rang out.

“I thought it would be our eighth-grade math teacher,” Hill said afterward, laughing again.

She’s in her sixth year at the middle school, where she teaches health and physical education. She was Wyoming’s first winner of the Milken Educator Award in some time, Balow said, and was one of 44 winners nationwide.

In addition to her check, Hill won a trip to Washington, D.C., and inclusion in an exclusive club of past Milken winners.

The award was a needed bit of good news in Wyoming’s education community, which has grappled with cuts amid a funding crisis. A number of legislators, including Senate President Eli Bebout, have criticized districts and said the state isn’t receiving an acceptable return on its substantial education spending.

But Hill’s award was a pushback on that, she said.

“The work that teachers are doing day in and day out, before school, after school, we don’t do it for recognition. We don’t do it for the big checks,” she said. “Teachers work so hard, just with that mindset of bettering each student, making sure students are successful and living the best life that they can.”

She praised her colleagues repeatedly and said she couldn’t do her job without their daily support.

Hill was surprised she won partially because her area of teaching doesn’t have a way to really measure success. There aren’t statewide tests that can be tracked, results that she can point to as tangible evidence that she’s doing well.

That those stats don’t exist and Hill won anyway is a testament to her ability, Hunt, the superintendent, said.

“You can’t really put a graph on what she does in a school,” he said, adding that she was a pillar of the Thermopolis community. “But she’s a leader and exudes excellence.”

Hill works hard to keep students active during and after school, even into the summer. Still, she’s trying to figure out why she won.

“That’s what I keep asking myself,” she said. “I know the work that I do. ... You know, my colleagues, they work just as hard as I do. I’m trying to implement our PE program into summer programs. I have a summer program where I take kids hiking and biking.”

But how did Milken, a national organization, hear about a PE teacher in Thermopolis, Wyoming? How did a teacher serving a school district of less than 700 students become a winner, especially when the organization doesn’t accept recommendations or applications?

Balow said she’d spoken with the Milken people and that one of her goals since taking office was to produce a Wyoming winner. Gallagher said the organization worked with a “blue ribbon panel” to help identify possible educators. Finalists are found, and a panel of educators and others helps decide.

Balow hopes that Hill’s win will mean more Milken awards will come to Wyoming in the coming years.

“Please take a look at Wyoming,” she remembers telling Milken officials. “Wyoming has just not been on their radar.”

But she says she worked hard to re-establish a relationship with the organization and hopes that Wyoming has blipped back into their minds.

As for Hill, she was still in shock. “Overwhelmed” was a frequent word.

Then, of course, is the question of what she’s going to do with the money.

“That’s what my daughter keeps asking me,” she said. Her daughter is a fifth-grader who was in attendance when her mom won. “My first thought was just to give back to the school and see what we can do.”

She paused.

“Obviously I won’t spend it all on the school,” she continued. “I just feel overwhelmed. The amount of money is nothing I would ever imagine.”


Casper
Casper swears in new leaders; mayor promises improved communication with residents

Casper’s new mayor pledged to improve communication between the Council and the community after he took the reins this week.

Mayor Ray Pacheco and Vice-Mayor Charlie Powell were sworn in at Tuesday night’s Casper City Council meeting. Both men were informally selected for the positions at a work session last month.

“I have made a lot of mistakes in the last three years, so I can’t promise I won’t make a few as mayor, but what I can promise is that I will work hard to earn your respect,” said Pacheco.

The new mayor said he plans to encourage dialogue between the Council and the community by visiting schools, holding a youth day at city hall and arranging more public meetings. He also intends to fully utilize social media to help citizens stay informed about local government.

Pacheco, who served as the Council’s vice mayor last year, is the regional director for Gear Up, a program at Casper College that helps students successfully transition to college life. He previously told the Star-Tribune that he ran for public office because he wanted to empower adolescents.

Although national politics often lack civility, the new vice mayor said Tuesday that he’s proud all members on the City Council respect one another. Discussions are sometimes heated, but that’s only because council members are passionate about their beliefs, he explained.

“That is not a sign that we cannot get along or work together, it is simply the process,” said Powell.

The mayor and vice mayor positions are appointed for a year each. They are chosen from among the nine-member council in a work session and then approved formally after the first of the year.

Former Mayor Kenyne Humphrey congratulated the new leaders Tuesday night and said she was confident they would make the city proud. Humphrey also thanked council members for supporting her while she served.

“This was a tough year,” she said.

Three major positions changed hands in the city last year, and former council member Todd Murphy left because of personal reasons in April.

Former Police Chief Jim Wetzel was dismissed in May after problems within the police department became public. Officials have repeatedly refused to provide a direct reason for Wetzel’s departure. The city appointed Keith McPheeters as the new chief last month.

City Manager Carter Napier began his tenure with the city in June, after V.H. McDonald abruptly retired from the position.

Former Fire Chief Kenneth King announced in October 2016 that he would retire on Jan. 2, 2018. The announcement came hours after King apologized for an email he sent asking a fire investigator to delete “bad parts” from video evidence of the Cole Creek Fire.

But he moved his retirement date up to Dec. 1 after after multiple firefighters received flash drives in the mail in November that contained copies of King’s sexually explicit work emails.

“We had a lot of personnel changes and a lot of things going on and there were was lot of times when I wanted to give up,” Humphrey said of the past year. “But you guys stood behind me, and you kept me going with your kind words and your encouragement.”


Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune 

Casper's new mayor, Ray Pacheco, listens during an April Casper City Council meeting.


State-and-regional
With at least 3 flu-related deaths, Natrona County having 'tough year'

At least three people have died from influenza-related conditions in Natrona County so far this flu season, an infectious disease expert said Friday.

Dr. Mark Dowell, who is also the county health officer, said he didn’t know the exact number because determining what is “flu-related” can be difficult. For instance, a deceased patient may have had the flu but died from another illness. But Dowell said the number is at least three.

He couldn’t comment on specific cases.

“What I’m finding, having been here 25 years, this is a rate for us that is above average,” he said. “It’s not as aggressive as H1N1 was back around 2009, but it’s more aggressive” than usual.

State health officials warned last month that they were seeing an uptick in flu activity. A season typically lasts from October to May. The peak is in the mid-winter.

Last year, there were 15 flu-related deaths in Wyoming, according to the state Department of Health.

Dowell and state epidemiologist Reggie McClinton said the dominant strain this year is H3, which typically signals a more severe season. Still, H3 dominance is not unusual, McClinton said. It was the most common last year, for instance.

McClinton said the state won’t have a hard number on total deaths until after the season ends, when the health department will gather that data from death certificates.

Dowell said there have been many hospitalizations from the flu, along with a large amount of people going to the emergency room with acute influenza. He said serious flu cases will usually end up at Wyoming Medical Center but said the condition has not spread from the hospital. He said that more than 99 percent of the facility’s employees are vaccinated, which he said was the highest rate in the state.

There are a number of factors that come into play for especially severe flu seasons, Dowell said. One is the condition of the population. The elderly and the immuno-suppressed, like cancer patients or people with autoimmune diseases, are especially at risk, for instance. The percentage of the population that’s immunized also matters, as does the aggressiveness of the particular strain of influenza.

He added that the Northern Hemisphere typically takes its vaccine cues from nations like Australia, where the flu typically presents first. But Australia had a bad season this year, as the strand of flu that the vaccine was supposed to protect against mutated.

Because the U.S. had already settled on using a similar vaccine, the mutation also affects Americans.

“So both Australia and the Northern Hemisphere are having a pretty tough year,” Dowell said.

Still, being vaccinated can make any influenza infection less severe in some cases, he said. An immunized person may still get sick, but there’s a chance it won’t be as serious.

Dowell recounted a story of a young woman coming into the ER with severe back pain, which was a rare way that her flu infection presented. She was not immunized, telling him that she didn’t believe in the shot.

“Do you believe in them now?” he remembers asking her.

“Maybe,” she replied.

Dowell said the flu shot was “far from perfect” but was one of the best ways to prevent the flu, if not the best. He noted hand-washing as another critical factor. It’s especially critical for the elderly and chronically ill to be vaccinated.

Because the flu is a viral infection, it’s difficult to treat. If a patient is seen within 48 hours of becoming sick, then doctors can prescribe Tamiflu to treat it. After that, “you’re wasting your time,” Dowell said. At that point, the illness is best treated symptomatically, like using cough medicine.

“But you can’t really do anything else,” he said.