Politics is a blood sport, and sharks will circle at the slightest sign of weakness. But John Barrasso isn’t weak, and the sharks seem to be swarming anyway.
LARAMIE — To Scotia Mullin, the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard is not an indictment of Wyoming.
“I think that it’s unfortunate that it’s a part of Wyoming’s past,” Mullin said. “But I think that if you dig into anywhere they will have an unfortunate past.”
Mullin is a sophomore diver at the University of Wyoming. He is the first Cowboy ever to earn two all-American honors in diving, the second to receive consecutive invites to the NCAA diving championships.
He is also openly gay.
He has been since he was 16 years old, and he was openly bisexual two years before that. Last month, though, he told his story to a larger audience when he wrote an essay for Outsports about his experience as an openly gay athlete in Laramie, the town that received national attention when Shepard, a college student there, was beaten and left to die. Shepard was gay, and his murder is considered one of the most infamous hate crimes of the era.
But Mullin’s experience in Laramie has been a positive one. In fact, he said there haven’t been “any negative aspects” to it. Considering the blemish Shepard’s death left on this town and the preconceived notions many have about tolerance in Wyoming, Mullin’s example offers a convenient counternarrative.
But Mullin isn’t interested in being reduced to a poster boy. He just wants to be himself.
You’ve got to run through a laundry list of traits that set Mullin apart as a student-athlete before ever getting to his sexuality. He was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and moved to Melbourne, Australia when he was 7. He is majoring in both anthropology and geography and hopes to one day work to eradicate HIV. He speaks with an enunciated elegance that would command attention even if it weren’t delivered in a thick accent. He is a two-time Western Athletic Conference Diver of the Year.
Mullin first entertained the idea of coming to Wyoming when a club teammate of his, Keely Bishop, departed Australia for the UW swimming and diving team.
“She left three years before me and was like, ‘Oh, I’ll see you in Wyoming,’” Mullin said. “We both laughed about it.”
Mullin turned Wyoming down at one point, but after Kyle Bogner was hired as the diving coach, Mullin had a change of heart, choosing Wyoming over Virginia and Grand Canyon.
“I felt like I really vibed with him,” Mullin said of Bogner. “We both had really similar goals, and we both had a really similar outlook on training and life. It was important that I had a coach that wanted me to flourish as an individual, as well as as an athlete, and that was one of the really big pull factors that brought me to Wyoming.”
Laramie offered the blue skies his friend Bishop had promised and the feet of snow she had failed to mention. Mullin thrived as a freshman, posting top-five marks in school history in the 1-meter, 3-meter and platform dives. He broke WAC records at the conference championship, won the 1-meter WAC title, finished 14th in the platform at the NCAA Championships and was named the male athlete of the year at Wyoming athletics’ annual WESPYS award show.
“He has an elite mentality,” said Bogner, now in his third year as head diving coach, “which I appreciate and makes it easier to work with.”
Mullin’s sophomore season handed him the added challenge of a back injury. About a year ago, he noticed some soreness that he didn’t give much thought to over the summer.
“And then I came back, and it got to the day before the competition, and I couldn’t jump,” Mullin said.
He had a stress reaction in his L5 vertebrae. He wouldn’t begin training and jumping again for another three months and yet was able to win two individual WAC titles, finish second once again at the NCAA Zone E Championships and take 16th at the NCAAs, making school history.
“That was a huge honor,” Mullin said. “And I think it’s a credit both to my ability as well as the athletic team managing me, and the doctors and our athletic trainer and my coach being able to identify what’s important and what we should prioritize for the season. So it was a lot more strategy than I thought. And that wasn’t really me. My job was to dive, and everybody else worked out the strategy. So it was really a team effort.”
In his essay, Mullin wanted to avoid the idea that his open sexuality is what has made him an all-American diver.
“I didn’t want it to be, ‘Oh, he’s so successful because he’s gay,’” he said of his piece on Outsports, an SB Nation website that focuses on LGBT issues in sports.
That sentiment is far from the truth, teammate Ryan Russi said.
“He puts in a lot of work,” Russi said. “He is very talented, and I think that’s the true reason why he’s been so successful — and with the family support that he has in all aspects of his life, just the support that everyone’s been giving him throughout the years, prior to and at Wyoming.”
However, Mullin does have the benefit of participating in a sport where, for better or worse, it’s not a huge surprise when a competitor is gay.
“Diving is one of those sports that unfortunately is stereotyped, and I mean it’s stereotyped correctly in a lot of places,” Mullin said. “There are a lot of gay athletes, and those gay athletes seem to be incredibly successful, which sometimes overshadows that there are other athletes that are straight.”
As Mullin wrote in his essay: “I credit coming out as a catalyst for making me a better athlete.”
He makes no attempts to hide who he is, and that extends to the diving board.
“I always have thrived on the fact that I’m different,” he said. ”I think that it’s good to be unique. It’s good to be able to express yourself, and diving was a way that I could express myself. And part of my femininity makes me a quite pretty diver, which is something that you don’t see from a lot of male athletes. A lot of them are very bulky and things like that, so I think that in my younger years, that helped me to win the pretty points rather than the pure strength, because I wasn’t built the same. I couldn’t jump the same way that they could jump.
“… I think being able to be myself and express myself as well as have confidence in myself has just emanated into my sport.”
Mullin is not an outlier on his team. He has a number of gay teammates at Wyoming, including Russi.
“A lot of people think when you come out, it’s like that’s what sets you to yourself,” Russi said. “All you are is just you’re just like ‘Ryan Russi, the gay kid’ or ‘Scotia, the gay kid.’ Versus when we came here, it’s just like, ‘Oh, Ryan’s a team member. He’s one of my best friends. He just happens to be gay.’
“So I think it’s just that kind of environment. A continued support in all aspects of life is what this team has kind of created for us. It’s like a big family, both the coaches and the athletes that are on this team.”
Bogner said that the sexuality of his divers has not been a point of discussion.
“We encourage everybody to be themselves and become the best version of themselves,” he said. “So, that’s how we approach it. I think you can talk to the other coaches, but that’s kind of how we all come from it. If we’re talking about personal issues, no matter what they do, and that’s what we’re talking about all the time on the pool deck, we’re not getting better at what we’re doing. That’s not a topic of conversation during practice.”
Mullin said the strong connection he had with Bogner during his recruitment has continued into his Wyoming career.
“He’s been incredibly supportive and accepting of my sexuality,” Mullin said. “I am very proud of being gay. I am at times very feminine, and there’s never been an issue with my personality. I’ve never been told to tone it down. I’ve never been told that I have to change anything about myself, and I think that that’s absolutely fantastic.
“I think that he supports me a lot emotionally, because I do get quite overwhelmed at competitions. He’s very good at stating the facts and making reasonable decisions and strategic decisions. It’s really been a big relationship on trust, and I’m really glad that I’ve found a coach that I can trust and that I do trust and that sees me for more than six dives.”
Mullin hasn’t been alone in finding success at UW, either. In February, Wyoming men’s swimming and diving won the WAC team championship in Houston, beating second-place UNLV by more than 70 points to win a conference title for the first time since taking the Mountain States Conference title in 1959. In addition to Mullin’s two individual titles and second WAC Diver of the Year honor, Wade Nelson won an individual championship in the 400 medley, Bogner earned his second straight WAC Diving Coach of the Year award, and UW head coach Dave Denniston was named WAC Coach of the Year.
“Every year since I’ve been here, it’s been like third place, second place, second place,” Russi said. “So this year, finally ending up on top and knowing that me, Scotia and the rest of the divers ... were able to contribute a lot of those points to end up winning was pretty, pretty exciting. Jumping in the pool at the end with the trophy was pretty awesome.”
The team had talked at the beginning of the year about what it would take to reach their goals by the end of the season. It took a team effort.
“That’s one that everybody showed up to,” Bogner said of the WAC Championship. “Really, honestly, the whole team did. Swimming won swimming, diving won diving, and we both won together.
“... Everybody showed up. And not just kind of. Everybody dove to their potential or better. That was the big story is they showed up as a team.”
When the UW men’s team made its victorious return from Texas, the women’s team, which competes in the Mountain West, welcomed them off the bus with signs congratulating each competitor. They arrived at a Wyoming that is not the same state that it was in 1998. Three years ago, gay marriage was legalized nationwide. That same year, the Laramie City Council passed the state’s first LGBT anti-discrimination ordinance. Earlier this year, the city council in Casper — where Shepard grew up — passed an anti-discrimination resolution in support of the LGBT community, and that same city’s pride celebration received national coverage from MTV News last year.
Mullin didn’t have many expectations for Laramie when he committed to the Cowboys, other than the fact he would be living in a much smaller town than Melbourne.
“But it’s been really good,” he said. “I have a lot of close LGBT friends. I’m in a fraternity, which is completely accepting, and I have a boyfriend, and things are going very, very well. I think that it’s not as small as I thought it was going to be, and that’s really exciting. That’s something that I think is really important. There are people in this town that have similar emotions or similar intellect or similar interests or things like that, which is really, really good.”
However, anti-gay beliefs do persist in the Equality State. Just recently, a Riverton radio host criticized a high school there for “promoting” what he called the “very destructive lifestyle” of homosexuality. Two years ago, a Gillette man died by apparent suicide after having been harassed and assaulted for being gay.
That hasn’t been Mullin’s experience, though, and that is why he chose to write his essay when Outsports reached out to him.
“I think that it’s really important that people see the aspect that Wyoming is accepting no matter what,” Mullin said. “I mean, we have black individuals on our team. We have individuals who are Asian. We have individuals who are gay. We have individuals who are bisexual. Right across all of the sports. We have people who are in the closet and people who are out of the closet, and it’s totally embraced, and I think that that’s fantastic.
“I think that a lot of people will hold opinions just because Wyoming is so red, and I think that that’s really, really unfortunate, but it does take a long time for opinions to change. And hopefully this is the start of some sort of change. But I think that there’s a lot more to do. I think there’s a lot more openness to do. I think there’s a lot more other issues that need to be addressed as well, within the Wyoming psyche and within the American society.”
Russi, his openly gay teammate, said that coming out stories like Mullin’s are “what needs to happen” for acceptance to become more prevalent.
“I think creating visibility right now in all aspects of media is important, to create that sense of normalcy with other people,” he said. “Because someone’s going to be able to identify with you. There could be another athlete in the middle of Australia that’s wanting to come to the United States that could be struggling with this. And seeing something exactly like Scotia could be the driving force to him or her feeling comfortable with themselves.”
Mullin admits that some might find motivation in his example.
“I think that if there’s people out there that see it and read it and can resonate with it and assimilate with it and identify with it, then that’s really important,” he said. “I have no problems with that.”
But, true to his sport, he’s not necessarily trying to make a splash.
“I think that it’s really important I don’t have the notion or the idea of being a role model or being a pin-up boy, because that’s not what it’s about,” Mullin said. “I think that there are a lot of other people that are more suited to the role. And I certainly don’t want to be placed on a podium, just because I’m gay.”
Considering his first two seasons at UW, he is bound to be there for other reasons.
Foster Friess became something of a tease for Wyoming politicos starting last fall.Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, freshly ousted from his White House post, was on the prowl for incumbent Republican senators who had failed to demonstrate adequate fealty to President Donald Trump. Wyoming’s U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, a member of the Senate’s leadership, fell into his crosshairs.
Bannon settled on two prospects to take on Barrasso: Erik Prince, founder of notorious private security contractor Blackwater, and Friess, a successful hedge fund manager based in Jackson. Both told national media outlets they were considering runs, but political observers here gave them terrible odds against Barrasso, who showed no signs vulnerability.
Politics is a blood sport, and sharks will circle at the slightest sign of weakness. But John Barrasso isn’t weak, and the sharks seem to be swarming anyway.
Barrasso is wildly popular by Congressional standards — his 61 percent approval rating is fifth-best in the nation — and Bannon’s Cowboy State rolodex didn’t seem very deep. Friess had little statewide presence in Wyoming. Prince lived in Virginia.
Still, both men could have poured some of their considerable wealth into what would no doubt have become a brutal GOP primary battle. But the speculation died down by winter. Prince became embroiled in the federal investigation into Russian interference during the 2016 presidential campaign. And Friess, whose status as a megadonor to national Republican causes has earned him a regular presence on cable news shows, mostly stopped discussing his possible Senate bid as well.
Yet Friess had one last trick up his sleeve. In late February, with all eyes on the Wyoming Legislature, Friess donated $10,000 to the Wyoming Republican Party and arranged to sponsor a lunch at the state convention two months later.
Wyoming Republican Party chairman W. Frank Eathorne said he spoke to Friess about the lunch in January and was led to believe that Friess would be speaking as a donor.
Then on the evening before the April 20 lunch, his assistant in Arizona, where Friess lives for part of the year, sent out a cryptic email to members of the media.
“Foster will be making an announcement regarding his involvement in the 2018 Republican primary at the convention,” the brief email read.
“The email was a clue,” Eathorne said. But he still didn’t know what was coming.
Moments before Friess took the stage at the University of Wyoming ballroom where the lunch was being held, Washington, D.C., news outlet Politico published an article stating that he was going to run, not for Senate, but for Wyoming governor.
“It is pretty unusual in any governor’s race to announce it in D.C. first,” said Liz Brimmer, a GOP consultant in Wyoming.
Not only did Friess not tip off local media, in the end he also didn’t announce his governor run to the room of assembled convention delegates.
“I just found out five minutes ago that it’d be inappropriate for me to make any announcement, because other candidates didn’t have the opportunity to sponsor the lunch,” Friess said. “I’m sorry I have to be a little bit vague right now.”
Friess had initially told Eathorne he wanted to talk about his philanthropic work for Rachel’s Challenge, an organization that seeks to prevent school shootings, and promote his message of increasing civility in politics.
“My understanding was he was coming as a sponsor and a speaker on those topics,” Eathorne said. “His announcement came as a surprise.”
And, Eathorne said, to Friess’s credit, he agreed not to make any political announcements during the event.
Instead, Friess told jokes. One about how he had signed a contract as the “before” image for a fitness advertisement. That one he told twice. He told another about a blind horse that would only pull a stuck car if it heard other horses’s names called first.
“If he thought he was the only one pulling, he wouldn’t give a damn!” Friess said. That one got a big laugh.
Friess would later make headlines on some liberal websites and on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert for another comment he made that appeared to suggest President Barack Obama had sent millions of dollars meant for climate change mitigation to relatives in the fictional country of “Zoowanatou.”
Wyoming governor candidate and GOP megadonor Foster Friess clarified remarks he made during an April speech in which he appeared to suggest President Barack Obama had sent funds to family members in the country of “Zoowanatou.”
(Friess subsequently clarified that he was referring to the island nation of Vanuatu and meant that the president of Vanuatu, not Obama, had sent the money to relatives.)
But the audience got antsy, many having read the Politico story. Friess told the crowd to just follow him outside the ballroom after lunch. Once the speech ended, Friess walked through the crowd with a coy grin and deflected questions, insisting that he needed to be outside the room before saying anything. Friess, towering over the crowd in his tassled leather coat, cowboy hat in hand, kept his word.
So it was that the wealthiest entrant into a GOP primary field, which already included six candidates, announced his intention to be the state’s next governor. That announcement came in a response to a question from a reporter, while surrounded by no more than a couple dozen hallway spectators.
He also took the opportunity to defend perhaps his most controversial comments to date, a statement he made about birth control during an appearance on MSNBC six years ago.
“For you who don’t know it ... Andrea Mitchell, she asked me some question about contraception,” Friess recalled. “I said, in my day the grandmothers told their teenage daughters to use as birth control an aspirin, to put it between their knees.”
Friess broke out in laughter.
“First of all, we have to help the left get a sense of humor,” he said. “I’m fully in favor of humor.”
Friess fielded questions for 20 minutes before an insistent aide finally pulled him away.
“He’s got to go do Cavuto on the East Coast,” the aide said, referring to Neil, the Fox News anchor.
“Cavuto!?” Friess replied jovially. “That guy bugs me all the time. Why doesn’t he leave me alone?”
Friess went to do his live hit. The convention went on without him.
Friess’s entrance to the race came too late for a regular speaking slot the next day at the convention, when Republican candidates were awarded a few minutes to lay out a vision for the office they were seeking.
It also came too late, it seemed, for any of his opponents in the race for the seat being vacated by Gov. Matt Mead to reference him directly or even indirectly. Instead, campaign staffers dropped by the row of seats where a handful of reporters were dutifully covering convention floor debates and sought to put a positive spin on what Friess’s candidacy meant for their candidates.
As a conservative Christian, he would pull votes from Cheyenne attorney Harriet Hageman, who has built a base among rural voters. Or, as a rich man, he would help Hageman stand out from a field that appears to be led by State Treasurer Mark Gordon and Cheyenne businessman Sam Galeotos. Or, as another political outsider who made his hay in the private sector, he would hurt Galeotos and help Gordon. Or, as a generic conservative with relatively high name recognition, he would hurt Gordon’s advantage as the best-known candidate in the race.
This year’s race for Wyoming governor was supposed to be different. Last spring, it looked as though three major candidates were gearing up to run in the GOP primary: Secretary of State Ed Murray, recently retired Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis and State Treasurer Mark Gordon. All had high name recognition, statewide popularity and deep enough pockets to fund what was expected to be a costly fight.
But in a race that was already something of a toss-up, the only thing that people seemed to truly agree upon, once the spin was turned off, was that nobody knows what impact Friess will have.
“It’s so early,” said University of Wyoming political science professor Jim King. “The candidates really haven’t had a chance to shake out.”
Many members of Wyoming’s political class, most of whom are formally or informally backing one of the governors candidates, are reluctant to speak candidly about Friess on-the-record for fear of drawing the ire of a candidate with enough firepower to aggressively attack opponents.
Off-the-record, though, one question that comes up repeatedly is whether Friess is for real: Is the campaign a vanity project for a dilettante bored with pouring millions into political races without ever appearing on the ballot himself?
State Rep. Mike Gireau, a Jackson Democrat, said what he’s heard from Friess so far — in his convention speech, for example, Friess touched on support for Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq — didn’t seem connected to Wyoming, or the topics other candidates were addressing.
LARAMIE — Wyoming GOP members rallied behind a message of unity at the party’s biannual convention over three days at the University of Wyoming campus. With a slew of elected officials on both the state and federal level demonstrating the dominance of Republicans in Wyoming, the banner above the main stage declaring that “our path to victory starts here” seemed almost superfluous. But the most senior speakers at the convention cautioned that Cowboy State conservatives should not take anything for granted.
“He’s just like talking a different language,” Gireau said.
“Every other candidate, I could give you a reason why I think they’re running for governor,” he added. “But that’s the mystifying thing about this guy. Why? Is it just the prize? Is that it?”
Friess hasn’t done much to dissuade this line of thinking. Speaking to the press during his campaign announcement, he name dropped Republican governors that he was friendly with.
“Butch Otter and his wife — a governor friend — they do team roping together,” Friess said, referring to the Idaho governor. “It’s kind of cool.”
Then there was his absence at the convention that Saturday, when the campaign speeches are given, candidates work the crowd, set up booths to hand out merchandise and ensure they are visible to the die-hard party activists that make the trek to the biannual event.
I have to write this before the convention is truly over, but my guess is that the oddest moment of the convention will go down as the Friday afternoon luncheon with Foster Friess. Apparently Friess, the Jackson-based GOP megadonor, had offered to sponsor the meal months ago. Friess was flirting with a Senate run against John Barrasso at the time, but most in the state Republican establishment didn’t find the odds of a such a run very likely. In any case, he sponsored it as a donor — not a candidate.
Even without a speaking slot, other candidates, like Kristi Racines, who is running for state auditor, showed up to gladhand and make one-on-one pitches. Friess was nowhere to be seen.
Nor could Friess say whether he had an in-state political team lined up. He jokingly offered the position of campaign manager to a reporter who asked who was heading the effort.
Finally, Friess did not seem well-versed in Wyoming issues. He didn’t have an opinion on the Legislature’s solution to the state’s school funding crisis. He wasn’t sure whether Mead’s Endow economic diversification initiative was a good idea. He said he didn’t really keep up with statewide news because the Jackson Hole News&Guide, his hometown paper, was too liberal.
That all begged the question of whether Friess could win without engaging in the style of politics that Wyoming lore says is essential to winning statewide races — the long drives from small town to slightly smaller town, the appearances at bars and diners and parades, the walks down main streets and the knocks on doors, the dozens of local events that ensure candidates get face time with enough voters and hear about the minutiae that drives their political decisions.
Would Foster Friess, who is known well in Teton County and almost nowhere else in the state, show up in Lusk? In Meeteetse? Afton? Hulett?
And if not, would it matter?
Would the mythology that Wyoming voters need to get to know their candidates hold true, or could blanketing the state with slick advertising and pursuing a Trump-esque strategy of running as the unconventional but charismatic outsider, ready to disrupt Cheyenne, rally enough primary voters to Friess’s cause?
Brimmer, the consultant, said that Trump’s ability to easily carry Wyoming and maintain high approval ratings in the state did not suggest that the importance of maintaining a traditional style of politics — one that Trump bucked in his presidential campaign — had vanished from races for statewide office.
“It’s like comparing cherry blossoms and sugar beets — it’s just different,” Brimmer said of parallels between presidential and governor candidates in the Cowboy State. “The governor’s race in Wyoming is a much more familiar and intimate office to most Wyoming people.”
And, from a more tangible perspective, it seems unlikely that big spending alone will be enough to land a candidate in the governor’s mansion.
Bill Novotny, a longtime Republican operative in Wyoming, cited Gordon’s 2008 run for Wyoming’s U.S. House seat, during which he sank significant resources into well-produced television advertisements but was still handily defeated by Cynthia Lummis. Lummis, Novotny said, had a better ground game.
“If Foster has any hope of being a factor in this race, he’s got to put together a 23-county team,” Novotny said.
Good news for Friess’s odds, then, that he appears to be laying the foundation for a serious Wyoming campaign.
“I was pleasantly surprised, actually, to receive a phone call from Foster after the convention wanting to visit with me about counties and the issues we’re facing,” said Novotny, who is active in the Wyoming County Commissioners Association.
Friess also made an appearance in Bar Nunn last week for a Natrona County Republican Party fundraiser that was also attended by Barrasso, Gordon and Galeotos, along with a smattering of legislators and party bigwigs. On Friday, he announced a four-stop tour of Wyoming, through Cheyenne, Wheatland, Casper and Gillette.
Laramie County Republican Party chair Darin Smith, one of Friess’s most prominent supporters in the state, said that Friess had called him and other party officials across the state.
“I had a ton of advice for him,” said Smith, who said he had not formally joined Friess’s campaign. “I told him he started late and he had an uphill battle.”
Friess, who was unavailable to be interviewed for this article, is often described as a billionaire, though he chafed at the description during the 2012 presidential race.
“My wife came to me and said, ‘Have you been holding out on me?’” Friess told the Washington Post at the time. “People asked, ‘So what are you — a multimillionaire?’ I like to say a billionaire wanna-be.”
Research firm Wealth-X pegged Friess’s fortune at $530 million that year, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Friess made his money as an investment manager and oversaw Friess Associates, which operates the Brandywine funds. He moved to Jackson in the early 1990s, according to Wyofile, an online news outlet.
The Jackson businessman has long been a major donor to national Republican candidates. Friess likes his candidates Christian and conservative, bankrolling Rick Santorum’s presidential bid in 2012. He has also dipped his toe into the culture wars, helping found conservative digital news website the Daily Caller and propping up Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, a Republican, during a recall bid launched after Walker sought to gut public sector unions in the state.
“Undoubtedly he’s going to reach out to the business community, to social conservatives, to national security voters,” Novotny said. “His number one obstacle in the race is proving that he’s Wyoming authentic.”
Smith, the Laramie County party chair, argued that not only is Friess authentic to Wyoming, but that he is unique among public figures in the state.
“People who have moved the dial in the state — in the nation — it’s a short list, like Gerry Spence, Dick Cheney, Al Simpson,” Smith said. “You’ve got to put Foster Friess in that group as well.”
Friess’s money will no doubt have an effect on what is already expected to be one of the most expensive races for governor in state history. Friess is the only candidate whose wealth is measured by national firms and publicized, but other top contenders also have enough personal funds to bankroll a pricey campaign.
“Money is hugely, hugely important in politics and we all know that (Foster) can blanket it,” said a longtime Republican leader in Wyoming, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “You can buy an election in this state. It’s really sad.”
But, the source added, even those hoping to buy a race cannot rely on dollars alone.
“You have to do enough so that people believe you are engaged and want the job and trying,” the source said. “You have to do both.”
Novotny agreed. He said that at least three candidates would be able to compete with one another in terms of sheer dollars spent, though that was unlikely to decide the race on its own.
“Foster and Mark Gordon and Sam Galeotos will probably have all the resources they need to get up on TV,” said Novotny, who is affiliated with Gordon’s campaign. “But at the end of the day, ads — whether they’re on the radio, internet, television or radio — can only get you so far.”
Novotny said that beyond spending big, it is important to cultivate a combination of paid staff and volunteers across the state who can help build grassroots support and keep candidates plugged into, for example, which local events are important to attend.
As for Friess’s viability in the race if he does the things that experts agree are necessary — travel the state, properly staff a campaign, convince voters he’s serious — his status as a Jackson Hole denizen, foreign to the political establishment in the state and with a penchant for eyebrow-raising comments, may not be disqualifying.
A staffer working for a different gubernatorial candidate acknowledged as much, warning that Friess’s presence in the race ought to be taken seriously.
“He says a lot of wild things, but he’s a self-made hundred-millionaire,” the staffer added. “People should not underestimate him.”
When Tom Solberg was less than a year old, his family visited western Wyoming. A 7.2 magnitude earthquake shook him out of bed, his parents later told him.
On Monday, Solberg took over as leader of Casper Fire-EMS, a department that has been shaken over the past few years in a series of high-profile email controversies.
Days before his swearing in, Solberg told the Star-Tribune he hopes to lead an upstanding and accountable agency. He declined to comment directly on emails sent by former Chief Kenneth King, who retired following the publication of his messages disparaging women and asking an investigator to delete the “bad parts” of video footage showing a massive fire in Cole Creek.
King has said the Cole Creek fire comment was a joke and his retirement was unrelated to the emails.
Whatever the reason for King’s departure, City Manager Carter Napier is ready for new leadership. He commended the tenure of interim Chief Jason Speiser and said he hopes Solberg will lead the department into a new era.
“If that type of perspective or behavior still exists,” Napier said in reference to the leaked emails. “We need to root that out.”
Solberg is the person to do that, Napier said. The city manager said he expects Solberg will reach out to Casper citizens and connect the department to the people it serves — a goal markedly similar to one he set for police Chief Keith McPheeters when he took over this winter.
Solberg, like McPheeters, is a transplant. The fire chief arrived in Casper with a full trailer about a week ago. He moved into a home on April 28.
Since Monday, the new fire chief has been meeting with Speiser and learning about the department. He said he was unsure what changes he’d expect in the department but has three primary questions he’d like answered: How does the department move forward, is the department functioning in a sustainable fashion and how does the department need to change as Casper grows?
Solberg didn’t have answers to those questions before he was sworn in, and he declined to comment directly on King’s missteps, saying he wasn’t thoroughly familiar with the issue.
“The worst thing anybody can do ... is come in and make assumptions,” Solberg said.
He acknowledged that firefighters and ordinary citizens would likely compare him to his predecessor. He said he aims to bring integrity and ethics to the position.
“I want people to know who I am, what I’m about,” Solberg said. “As the fire chief, I expect to be held accountable. I expect that.”
Napier has some additional expectations for Solberg. The city manager said the agency is full of young leaders whom he expects to climb the ranks quickly. One of them will likely be promoted into Solberg’s position when the chief retires in six years, Napier said.
Speiser, the former interim chief, is among that group, but he’s not alone.
“Jason is an example of the kind of young talent and developing leaders that we have in the department,” Napier said.
Solberg, 59, has served as the top firefighter at three agencies. He’s also helped nurture his replacements in his previous stops, he said. He ran the department in his hometown of Lee’s Summit, Missouri, as well as those in Pleasant Hill, Iowa, and Peoria, Arizona. Solberg has said he plans to groom his replacement and retire in Casper.
Napier said his new chief’s track record was what made him stand out during the hiring process.
“When you’ve got a department situation that was as difficult as we had, that’s hard to ignore,” Napier said.
Solberg, meanwhile, said nothing he’s done before will necessarily be applicable in Casper — leading a fire agency is as much an art as a science. He’ll make changes after he knows what’s needed by Casper Fire-EMS. Not before.
As far as earthquakes go, he doesn’t imbue too much significance to the one in ‘59, either.
“I think it’s a good story,” he said.