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Wrangling wiring

Electricians service a lighted sign at The Wrangler in downtown Cheyenne. Republican Paul Johnson and Democrat Sara Burlingame are facing off over the open Wyoming House seat that covers central Cheyenne, including the western wear store.

A competitive State House seat is up for grabs in Cheyenne, and Republicans are hoping to pick up a rare Democratic district this November. House District 44 is being vacated by Rep. Jim Byrd, a Democrat who is running for secretary of state.

While Byrd has held the seat, which covers central Cheyenne, since 2009, there have been several relatively close elections. Byrd won his last election in 2016 with just 50.3 percent of the vote.

Now Cheyenne physician and Republican Paul Johnson is hoping to strip Democrats of one of their just nine House seats. Seeking to defend the district will be Democrat Sara Burlingame, executive director of LGBT rights organization Wyoming Equality.

While more candidates are free to enter the primary before June, so far Johnson and Burlingame are the only two candidates running.

Laramie County GOP chairman Darin Smith said House District 44 was the most exciting race in the state and noted that it was the only seat in the county that Republicans had lost in 2016.

“It’s a Democratic stronghold,” Smith said. But he believed Byrd’s incumbency helped him win elections and is hoping that with an open seat, Johnson will be able to score a victory.

Smith acknowledged that Republicans did not necessarily need to add to their House majority, but said that Johnson was best suited to serve in the Legislature.

“He’s solid, well-rounded, he’s a well-respected member of the community,” Smith said. “I just think that’s what we want — it’s not a matter of: ‘We have to win another seat.”

Johnson said that the seat being open is simply a bonus, and that he’s been planning a run for some time.

“I’ve always been interested in public service,” he said. “It was fortuitous that Byrd was stepping down — honestly I would have run against him anyway.”

The ear, nose and throat doctor said that improving healthcare in Wyoming is one of his top campaign priorities. Johnson said that in addition to seeking additional insurance providers to join Wyoming’s marketplace, he is open to expanding the federal Medicaid program in Cheyenne.

The Legislature has repeatedly rejected such an expansion despite support by Gov. Matt Mead, a Republican.

“It’s something I would really like to put back on the table,” Johnson said. “We have an opportunity to receive $135 million in federal money.”

He said that would be a boon to hospitals across the state, which are often major parts of local economies. Johnson also said that the Trump administration’s recent decision to allow state officials to set their own rules about who is allowed to qualify for Medicaid could make an expansion more palatable for Wyoming.

Burlingame said she supported Medicaid expansion “without qualification, as do the overwhelmingly majority of Wyomingites.”

Education funding is Burlingame’s top priority. With two children in public school, she said she wants to ensure that their teachers are not worried about the state’s budget woes.

“I want them worrying about my kid’s book report,” she said. “I don’t want them worrying about whether the budget is going to recognize their hard work.”

Johnson said that he was a fiscal conservative and opposed the creation of an income tax or increasing the sales tax, though is open to spending some of Wyoming’s savings if needed to cover budget deficits.

“We need to make responsible cuts,” Johnson said. “But at the end of the day, if we have savings available, my preference would be to use our savings rather than increase taxes.”

He also supports efforts to diversify Wyoming’s economy and cited Cheyenne LEADS, a local economic development group. Johnson said he supports Mead’s economic diversification effort Endow.

Burlingame said economic development is also a priority of hers and that while she supported Endow as a first step, she said the state needs to go further.

“I can see a future where Wyoming is prosperous and understood to be a great state to raise your family, a great state to bring your business,” she said. “But we don’t get there without changing some fundamental things.”

Burlingame specifically cited the need for a statewide anti-discrimination law and more funding for Hispanic arts and culture.

On the social front, Johnson said he is a practicing Catholic and opposed to abortion. He said he is also opposed to “discrimination of any form.”

“It’s hard to divide my religious self from my political self,” Johnson said. “That being said, I think I try to keep religious views out of government if possible.”

Wyoming Democratic Party chairman Joe Barbuto said that holding House District 44 was a priority and that the party would make resources available to Burlingame or whoever ends up as the nominee after the August primary.

“Every race is important to us and in particular we want to make sure that in addition to electing new Democrats, we want to hold the seats we have,” he said.

Barbuto is confident the seat will remain in Democratic hands.

Byrd did not respond to a request for comment. He has not spoken to the Star-Tribune since an article was published last fall about an opioid control bill that he was backing.

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