Kevin Wilson is a relative newcomer to Lander. But his story in getting there resembles that of many who have moved in and out of the picturesque town at the foothills of the Wind River Range.
A resident of the town five years now, Wilson was raised in a military family and quickly grew accustomed to bouncing around the states, moving between homes in Florida and New York in childhood and growing into his own restless life as a submariner in the U.S. Navy. After leaving, he moved to Lander to — like many others who have come and gone from the town — attend the area’s renowned National Outdoor Leadership School.
He was hooked immediately, he said.
“This was just the most awesome place I’ve ever seen,” Wilson said in an interview last week. “And so different from where I grew up, in the city, so hemmed in. … I think about that song a lot, that they paved paradise and put up a parking lot when I think about Florida.”
Unlike many in Lander’s transient population, he eventually returned, got a job with NOLS and decided to put down roots. He was invested and, like with any investment, he wanted to protect it and help it grow. He had a home there now, had gotten married to a fellow NOLS staffer and, like many young Wyomingites, wanted to cultivate opportunities for others to live out the dreams he had made come true.
For many members of his generation, he said, opportunities like his have grown increasingly scarce, their professional careers bookended by financial crisis after crisis. Entering the workforce at the onset of the Great Recession, Wilson was now living in a state where the traditional sectors that have long sustained it — energy, tourism and agriculture — were now battered, and the individuals poised to guide the state through that crisis seemed not to resemble those who have experienced what he was experiencing: a collective failure to launch.
“People are saying this is like the first time in American history where it looks like you weren’t going to be able to have the same opportunities or be able to (do) better than your parents did,” Wilson said.
“We’re kind of looking for a way to change and move forward and adapt to the economy that we’ve grown up in,” he added. “We’re trying to make that economy better for the future instead of doing business as usual.”
So Wilson — a newcomer to politics — decided he wanted a seat at the table. This fall, he plans to run his first-ever campaign, seeking to become a member of the Wyoming Legislature.
With his announcement, Wilson joins a growing list of young, Democratic newcomers who are mounting challenges against seasoned incumbents in Wyoming this fall. Each race offers different dynamics; Laramie’s Karlee Provenza seeks to replace a retiring Democrat in Rep. Charles Pelkey, and Cheyenne Democrat Britney Wallesch seeks to unseat vocal conservative Sen. Anthony Bouchard. Wilson likely faces a stiff challenge in four-time incumbent Rep. Lloyd Larsen, a charismatic and influential conservative Republican with deep roots locally who holds a seat on the powerful Joint Appropriations Committee.
But Wilson offers a promise similar to the rest of his cohort of fresh challengers: a willingness to pursue something different.
“I look up at the Wyoming Legislature and just thought this group of older, retired, wealthy oil and gas guys or people in similar industries with similar thinking, basically just proposing the same old policy approaches from 15, 20, 30 years ago,” Wilson said. “And they’ve been trying to apply them to the unique challenges that our state is facing today. And it hasn’t been working. It hasn’t been working for a really long time. One thing you learned growing up in a military household and being in the military is improvise, adapt and overcome when you’re faced with new issues and problems. And I don’t think that there’s really much of that at all to speak of in the Wyoming Legislature right now. ... It’s all doubling down on the same old tired policies.”
Wilson, a former park ranger and Wyoming Conservation Corps member, hopes his message can put him over the precipice in purplish House District 54. While Larsen — who won his seat by a wide margin in a competitive Republican primary in 2012 — has won by safe margins in recent years, Democrats have steadily gained ground in the once safely Republican district, shaving Larsen’s 17-point margin of victory in 2012 by four points four years later. In 2018, Larsen defeated Democrat Mark Calhoun by fewer than six points, the closest margin of victory seen in that area of the state since 1998, when Larsen’s Republican predecessor, Del McOmie, won his seat there with 53 percent of the vote.
For Wilson to win where others have not, he said he believes he needs to connect with a coalition he considers himself to be part of: the working class. After the military, Wilson — who is also a registered nurse — has worked in a slew of different sectors, both for-profit and nonprofit, and said he has built connections with occupants of every step of the social ladder. But he also has perspective, he said, of worrying about his health care coverage and wondering how he’ll pay his bills one month to the next.
Bringing those together, he said, will likely be critical in November.
“I come face-to-face with a different segment of the population here being in Lander and Fremont County,” Wilson said. “Then I think about what policies and positions (Larsen) has taken throughout his time in the legislature. They have more reflected the business community that he came from, and maybe their interests. Then there’s where I come from, which is working people struggling to get by struggling to pay their bills, struggling to get health care and just wanting a fair shake in Wyoming.”
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