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In Wyoming's gubernatorial election, the oil and gas vote up for grabs

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Republican Gubernatorial Debate

Republican governor candidates Mark Gordon, Taylor Haynes and Sam Galeotos wait in the green room before an Aug. 1 debate at Casper College. Six GOP hopefuls are competing in the Aug. 21 primary election.

The head of one of Casper’s most well-known oil and gas firms strongly endorsed Sam Galeotos for governor in a recent letter to the editor published in the Cody Enterprise.

Galeotos has the business experience and Wyoming roots, and has thus far run a positive campaign, wrote Cary Brus, senior vice president of Casper-based Nerd Gas – part of the McMurry Group.

Though Brus resides in the inner circle of the Wyoming oil and gas community, his support for Galeotos is not reflected evenly across the industry.

Galeotos, a businessman who grew up in Cheyenne, has his supporters in the Republican primary. Front-runners like Wyoming Treasurer Mark Gordon and natural resource lawyer Harriet Hageman have theirs.

The candidates to replace Gov. Matt Mead have nearly tripped over themselves during debates and campaign events to prove how much they value the mineral riches of Wyoming. But though the oil and gas industry generates many jobs and a huge portion of the state’s revenue, its influence doesn’t appear to flow in one direction in the primaries.

“Frankly, I don’t know that any one candidate has a dominance in the oil and gas industry,” said Peter Wold of Wold Oil Properties.

The businessman

 

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Sam Galeotos

Sam Galeotos, a Republican candidate for Wyoming governor, speaks during a campaign stop Thursday, May 24 at Yellowstone Garage in Casper.

Galeotos has made a strong pitch for being pro oil and gas, but is largely banking on his business successes to propel him into the governor’s mansion. The Cheyenne native left Wyoming for 20 years, moving up the ladder in tourism technology. He was the CEO of Cheap Tickets Inc., later overseeing a 5,000-employee division of Cendant when it bought the company. Galeotos has been back in Wyoming for 15 years, he said at a debate Thursday.

“He has the experience and understands the role technology increasingly plays in Wyoming’s economy,” wrote Brus of Nerd Gas in a letter to the editor running in Sunday’s edition of the Star-Tribune. “He is the right man, at the right time, for the right job.”

Wold, another member of the Casper-oil fraternity, is firmly behind Gordon.

“I think they are trying to portray that Galeotos is more of a friend of the oil industry than any other candidates, but I don’t buy that at all,” Wold said. “He has no record of any kind. He’s come back to Wyoming with a bag of money and (is) trying to buy the election. That’s the same thing that Foster Friess is doing.”

It’s a common criticism of Friess, a Jackson multimillionaire and GOP megadonor. Friess’ wealth appears to offend the sensibilities of some in Wyoming, where financial prowess is sometimes downplayed. The Jackson investor has made no secret of his business successes or his cash. For his part, Friess says it means he “can’t be bought.”

Governing oil and gas

It wasn’t until Dave Freudenthal’s tenure that a Wyoming governor waded into the nuts and bolts of industry development by attending regulatory meetings before the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Those monthly hearings offer a window into the push and pull, the fights and compromises of hundreds of operators in the state. The governor has a seat at the table, but previous leaders, like Mike Sullivan, only showed up for hearings that promised fireworks or a significant impact on Wyoming.

When Freudenthal, a Democrat, was elected despite a lack of support from the oil and gas industry, he started to show up at the hearings. Industry wasn’t sure what would come of it.

“Everyone was scared to death of Freudenthal in the industry,” said Jimmy Goolsby, a geologist who’s been working in the Wyoming oil industry for decades. He had supported current state senator, Eli Bebout, in that election against Freudenthal. Most of industry did.

“[Freudenthal] came to those meetings and I think what that did was to familiarize him a little bit with the industry itself and with the people in the industry,” Goolsby said. That, in turn, built trust and familiarity between the governor’s office and the men and women of oil and gas.

Industry wants a candidate that hears its concerns and knows a bit about what they do, Goolsby said.

During his campaign to follow Freudenthal, Gov. Matt Mead pledged to attend the hearings as well, and by and large, he has. Mead has overseen boom and bust years in Wyoming, but he hasn’t received credit for snatching major wins for the industry. He hasn’t hurt them either, industry says.

A wash



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Republican Gubernatorial Debate

Candidates Harriet Hageman and Foster Friess shake hands following the Aug. 1 Republican gubernatorial debate at Casper College's Wheeler Hall.

There might be a reason that the industry hasn’t lined up behind one candidate. Some observers say that none of the GOP front-runners look dangerous for oil and gas.

“Whoever comes will be fine,” said Steve Kirkwood, of Kirkwood Oil and Gas, a small independent based in Casper. “They are all conservative. They are all pro-industry.”

Kirkwood is not endorsing a candidate, but said he’d probably lean towards Galeotos.

What he wants is a governor who understands oil and gas’ tax contribution to the state. From Hageman — who’s campaigned hard against federal regulations that hamper development — to Gordon — who currently runs the state treasurer — they all seem to get it, Kirkwood said.

Galeotos said he thinks the oil and gas supporters in his camp are responding to his understanding of how policy or regulations affect business.

“They are businessmen and they understand that. They know I understand that,” he said. “My premise is that the economy of Wyoming — we need to focus on the private sector.”

Of course, there are other candidates who flash their business credentials as proof they can run the state. Friess often notes that his financial success has allowed him to retire from business and put all of his energy into Wyoming.

But Friess’ wealth largely comes from investment decisions.

Galeotos, who like the majority of candidates, has avoided negative campaigning, pushed back on Friess’ record. There is a distinction between an operator of business — like Galeotos — and an investor, he said.

Mudslinging

Negative campaigning has irritated a number of industry men. Brus of Nerd said in his letter that one of the reasons he supports Galeotos is because the candidate has run a civil campaign, hinting at a rebuke of Hageman, who launched a website that hits at Gordon and Friess in particular.

“There is too much of that in politics today,” he wrote. “It is not how we conduct ourselves in Wyoming.”

Not all complaints point directly to Hageman for bucking civility, but she has thrown the most punches in this election cycle, criticizing Friess for being a wealthy outsider and Gordon for his political donations to the campaign of Democrat John Kerry when Kerry ran against President George W. Bush.

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Republican Gubernatorial Debate

Harriet Hageman, a Republican candidate for governor, grins during an Aug. 1 debate at Casper College. Hageman is receiving some support from the oil and gas industry, but so are some of her competitors, including Wyoming Treasurer Mark Gordon and businessman Sam Galeotos.

Wold, a second-generation oilman from Casper, said attacking Gordon is bunk. The secretary donated to environmental groups because he was a young rancher. There’s nothing wrong with a rancher caring about environmental issues, or an oil and gas man for that matter, Wold said.

As for Gordon’s political contributions to Kerry, the treasurer defended himself from Hageman’s criticism during the Casper debate. He supported Kerry because the Bush administration was mishandling the budget, he said.

“I support that,” said Wold, who is invested in Gordon because the treasurer is the only Republican candidate with a proven track record in Wyoming public service.

Hageman has defended her campaign approach, arguing that her comments about other candidates do not sink to the level of character assassination. They are honest criticisms, she told the Star-Tribune in a recent interview.

Political clout

Wold’s support for Gordon may carry weight given the family’s political history, said Diemer True, whose family has also had a long and diverse history in the Wyoming oil business and state politics.

Wold’s father, John, was a prominent voice in the state’s Republican Party and served in the U.S. Congress.

For the most part, oil and gas support for candidates just shows how the money is distributed, True said.

It’s harder to gauge how one oilman’s support for a candidate compares to another, or whether the oil and gas industry’s support can move a candidate, he said.

“We have a very independent electorate in Wyoming,” True said. “You’ve got the coal miners in Gillette and Sweetwater County. You’ve got Teton County. They are polars apart in how they view the world. That’s even within the smallest of the population states.”

The state has a record of flipping from Democrat to Republican in gubernatorial elections, and it’s been decades since one Republican was followed by another, True said. If True has his druthers, this year will break that record.

As the current finance chairman of the Wyoming GOP, True is not endorsing a candidate, but his support will be pledged soon enough to the Republican.

“If anyone of them comes out ahead , they will have my unconditional support in the general.”

Follow energy reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner

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Energy Reporter

Heather Richards writes about energy and the environment. A native of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, she moved to Wyoming in 2015 to cover natural resources and government in Buffalo. Heather joined the Star Tribune later that year.

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