GILLETTE — More than four decades ago, a 30-year-old shoe salesman named Mike Enzi was elected mayor of Gillette, kicking off a political career that would take him all the way to Washington D.C.
On Saturday, the senior senator from Wyoming announced the end of his political career from right where it began – Gillette City Hall.
In a press conference in the city council chambers, Enzi, 75, announced his term ending next fall will be his last, drawing a storied — if understated — career on Capitol Hill to a close.
“I have much to get done in the next year and a half,” he said. “I want to be able to focus on budget reform to get control of our national debt, to do several small business initiatives, to protect and diversify Wyoming’s jobs. I don’t want to be burdened by the distractions of another campaign. After this term, I’ll find other ways to serve.”
While not the longest-serving senator in the state’s history (that distinction belongs to Francis E. Warren, who served the Equality State in Washington for nearly four decades), Enzi has spent 22 years in office — among the longest tenures of any delegate from Wyoming.
Long-known as one of Washington’s more reserved statesman, Enzi is also one of the Senate’s more influential members, passing more than 100 bills since taking office in 1997, when he replaced former Sen. Al Simpson. During that time, Enzi led efforts in the Senate to pass the Republican tax cuts of 2017, and has served terms as both chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee and its Budget Committee, a position he has held since 2015.
At the press conference, which was attended by Enzi’s family, friends and a handful of journalists, Enzi noted that most of his successful bills passed with fewer than 15 votes in opposition, which is “considered very bipartisan,” he said.
“I didn’t get into the Senate for the fancy titles,” he said. “I like passing legislation.”
A strong fiscal conservative, Enzi in recent years has been highly outspoken about the nation’s looming fiscal crisis, and has introduced legislation intended to avert future shutdowns of the United States government and reduce the national debt.
Enzi told reporters he had also addressed roughly 14,000 individual constituent issues while in office.
“My biggest job, as it turns out, is to solve problems for the people of Wyoming,” he said.
Prior to his time in Washington, Enzi spent a decade as a member of the Wyoming Legislature, serving two terms in the House of Representatives and six years in the Senate.
With Enzi’s retirement, Wyoming will have its first open Senate seat in more than a decade. The most recent opening in Wyoming came in 2007, when Sen. John Barrasso was appointed to replace Craig Thomas, who died in office.
Barrasso lauded Enzi in a statement released shortly after Saturday’s announcement.
“Mike Enzi’s character, courage and credibility have made him a respected moral leader in the U.S. Senate,” Barrasso said. “In four terms in the Senate he has never wavered in his commitment to God, family or Wyoming. The Senate and Wyoming will miss the valued leadership of the trusted trail boss of our congressional delegation.”
The field to replace Enzi in 2020 could be large.
Recent candidates for Senate like Democrat Gary Trauner and David Dodson – a Republican who ran an unsuccessful bid against Barrasso last year – could potentially try another run for office, and other names floated have included statewide elected officials like Superintendent of Public Education Jillian Balow, who gave an open-ended answer when asked by the Casper Star-Tribune earlier this year whether she’d consider a run for Senate.
Cheyenne Mayor Marian Orr – who hinted at higher political aspirations last year – told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle in January she would not be running for the office.
Rep. Liz Cheney – who is currently the third-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives – could potentially mount a run for the Senate, having made an attempt to unseat Enzi in 2014. However, recent power struggles with members of party leadership could leave the door open for her to make a potential run at Speaker of the House in 2020, should the Republicans take back the House of Representatives in the upcoming elections.
In a statement released after Enzi’s announcement, Cheney said Wyoming’s senior senator never forgot where he came from.
“During his 20 years in Washington, he brought our state’s values to the nation’s capital, fighting for smaller, less obtrusive, and more efficient federal government that would allow people to grow and thrive,” she said.
Speaking to reporters after his announcement, Enzi — one of nine Republican candidates for office the last time an open seat became available with Sen. Al Simpson’s retirement in 1996 — declined to comment on future prospects for his seat.
“Typically, when it’s an open seat, the delegation doesn’t take sides, it’d be an unfair advantage,” said Enzi. “The voters get to decide, and I’ve thought they’ve done a good job for 22 years.”
As mayor of Gillette during its first oil boom, Enzi helmed the ship at a time where a new era of prosperity was being ushered into what locals consider to be the “Energy Capital of the Nation.” During his eight-year tenure, the city’s population doubled in size, new municipal buildings were constructed and the city’s profile began to grow.
Enzi’s administration laid down a foundation for the future, he said, building a system to provide water for 30,000 people, striking a deal with the county for a local landfill, developing a street plan for the future and constructing a number of new parks in town.
“I never intended to get into politics,” said Enzi, who was urged to run by Simpson when the former senator was in state office. “But I was mayor eight years during the first boom. I got to work with some amazing people who didn’t know what couldn’t be done — so we did it.”
In 1996, while recovering from open-heart surgery, Enzi was urged by local leaders to try and run for Simpson’s seat, despite Enzi’s wishes to take some time to hunt and fish. Relaxation didn’t seem to be in the cards, however. In his speech, Enzi remembered leaving his church in tears, after hearing some higher power telling him “I didn’t keep you alive to hunt and fish.”
The career that followed saw many successes. The first bill he ever sponsored — which preserved property rights for Campbell County residents caught up in a coal-bed methane dispute with the federal government — passed unanimously. He enjoyed a high legislative success rate thanks, in part, to what he called his “80 percent rule,” where you work across the aisle to come to terms on the 80 percent of a bill the two parties agree on and ignore the 20 percent where they don’t.
A legislative workhorse, Enzi was also known as an effective vote counter, and has long advocated for a slow, methodical approach toward passing legislation, working his fellow lawmakers one at a time, over a long period of time, in order to affect incremental change.
“I sold shoes for 28 years,” said Enzi. “That’s the best training for being in Washington. You have to know who your customer is, you have to know what they want and you have to see how it matches up with your inventory. It’s the same thing in Washington.
“That’s why you don’t see me on the floor as much,” he added. “I’m talking to customers and my inventory is the bills.”
In an era where Washington seems more polarized than ever, Enzi told reporters that this method is still effective, but has often gone unrecognized — citing a career and technical education bill he recently passed that got little attention.
“I asked reporters about that,” he said. “And they responded, ‘it passed unanimously, it must have been easy.’ That was seven years of my life.”
“They’re not looking for what gets done,” he said. “They’re looking for good fights they can report on, that people get excited over. We can come out of a meeting where we’ve just accomplished something, and they don’t want to know what we’ve just accomplished — they want to know what this person has just said about that person which, in my opinion, is starting a fight because they couldn’t find one. That’s not journalism. Getting the word out on what’s being done is journalism. People might not be as excited about that.”
Most recently, Enzi has placed most of his focus on addressing the national deficit and the nation’s looming fiscal crises. Earlier in the week, Enzi gave an impassioned speech on the Senate floor warning of the imminent insolvency of the nation’s Social Security and Medicare programs. As chairman of the budget committee, Enzi has been central to conversations around that issue in recent years, and has worked several pieces of legislation intended to address it, including a five-year plan he announced earlier this spring intended to fight the national debt.
Though those conversations will soon be in someone else’s hands, Enzi said he was not done yet.
“I’ve got a year-and-a-half yet, so don’t write me off,” said Enzi. “We’ve had some success with it before, but we just weren’t able to get it across the finish line. So we should be able to do what we’ve done before and move it along. I’ll be able to concentrate on that this year instead of a campaign, which is a very complicated thing and getting even more complicated all the time. So now, I can devote myself to this for the next year-and-a-half, and I will.”
Enzi also mentioned he would be continuing his work on ambitious proposals in health care and economic development over the next 18 months. But — on a trip home in a job that keeps him in Washington for four days a week — Enzi’s Saturday plans in Gillette were more simple:
First lunch, then fishing.
Follow politics reporter Nick Reynolds on Twitter @IAmNickReynolds