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On Sept. 12, the transcript of an interview between state Rep. Gerald Gay and a journalist was published on the website of the left-leaning advocacy group Better Wyoming.

The reporter and Republican lawmaker from Casper discussed an assortment of issues facing Wyoming. But it was Gay’s comments about the gender-pay gap that made headlines — first in Wyoming and then nationally.

Last year, the Equality State had the worst disparity between men’s and women’s wages in the United States. Gay said women contributed to the problem, arguing they were taking too much maternity and sick leave: “Women are always going to take their full maternity leave, and there’s the dependability issue about whether they’re going to show up for things.”

Women — and many men — across Wyoming were irate. The representative doubled down on his comments in an interview with the Star-Tribune after the transcript was published. His remarks later made national news and resulted in the Natrona County GOP leadership and some key Republican luminaries distancing themselves from his words.

Gay has since said he doesn’t blame women for the problem. The media twisted his words because it has an agenda, he said. Gay’s taken out radio advertisements, blaming the Star-Tribune and establishment Republicans for his troubles.

The Gay controversy was the first time this election cycle that work from a group of left-leaning activist organizations in Wyoming has garnered attention.

Better Wyoming is a project of Forward Wyoming, an educational nonprofit that has other programs geared toward young people and grassroots organizing.

Forward Wyoming, Forward Wyoming Advocacy and ELLA WY are the newest groups to enter Wyoming’s political scene. ELLA was the first group formed, starting in 2013. The trio of groups are each structured differently under the federal tax code, and their donors are not publicly disclosed. Liz Storer, a Jackson resident and granddaughter of broadcast pioneer George B. Storer, said she’s been involved in their formation and is among a group of advisers, whom she did not disclose.

Little has been known about the progressive activist groups — until now.

Anonymous groups, from the trio on the left to the Wyoming Liberty Group on the right, are changing the political landscape in Wyoming, which had prided itself in direct contact between constituents and elected officials. When the groups are involved in electing or defeating candidates, the cash they funnel is known as dark money.

State election law largely permits dark money, although the Wyoming GOP has complained about the groups to the Wyoming Secretary of State’s office. The Republicans accuse the organizations of working closely together in violation of state law. The groups deny the allegations.

And Storer downplayed the role that Better Wyoming had in the Gay controversy.

“It was an interview that was transcribed, so it was really Gerald’s own comments that upset people,” she said.

ELLA

Throughout much of the last decade, the Wyoming Democratic Party had been steadily losing legislative seats.

Democratic candidates complained the party was not providing them enough money and volunteers to defeat their GOP opponents.

But in 2014, that trend somewhat reversed: Wyoming was one of a handful of states to increase the number of Democrats in the Legislature. Wyoming’s gain was small – only one additional seat turned blue, bringing to 13 the number of Democrats in the 90-seat Legislature.

A new company, ELLA, was widely credited with the electoral success that had previously eluded the party.

ELLA specializes in campaign management – helping candidates with canvassing, voter data analysis and keeping track of potential supporters.

Storer and others involved in the group’s formation were looking for left-of-center candidates in 2014.

Chris Bell, who was an ELLA staffer back then and is now its executive director, said he and other employees approached people with leadership skills and asked them to run. They looked for people who could inspire the public about issues that transcend party lines, such as the future of public lands, the wage gap and Medicaid expansion.

“The bigger issue is affordable access to high-quality health care,” Bell said. “The simplest answer is Medicaid expansion.”

After success in 2014, ELLA employees did not have to search hard for potential candidates. This cycle, candidates approached ELLA asking for help, Bell said.

Six legislative candidates hired ELLA to manage their campaigns this year — including Democrat Dan Neal, running for House District 56 in Casper, and Rep. Charles Pelkey, a Laramie Democrat seeking re-election in HD45.

Some other candidates did not hire ELLA to run their campaigns but are paying ELLA to access its voter file, including Rep. Mary Throne, a Cheyenne Democrat who is running for re-election in House District 11, Bell said.

The Wyoming Secretary of State provides candidates an Excel file of voters’ addresses, party affiliation and elections they’ve voted in, among other things. ELLA has put the information in a user-friendly format, he said.

The Star-Tribune tried to learn about all the candidates ELLA is helping, but Bell stopped confirming names, saying he should not discuss them until an investigation into the Wyoming GOP allegations is complete.

“If this was under different circumstances, I would be happy to talk to you,” he said.

Pelkey spoke highly about the company, saying its employees are enthusiastic young people who want to make a difference.

“ELLA gave me good data,” he said. “If you knock on 100 doors, it’s sometimes random. But if you have a fairly good breakdown of people’s party affiliation and their party interests, they have that. I save time for myself and I have people help me in my campaign, which has worked out really well.”

The Storer family

Storer is the president and CEO of the $73 million George B. Storer Foundation, founded in 1955 by her grandfather, George B. Storer. The family has long been interested in politics.

George Storer helped elect former Gov. Cliff Hansen, current Gov. Matt Mead’s grandfather, to the U.S. Senate, and Casper oilman John Wold to the U.S. House, Storer said.

Both men, coincidentally, were Republicans.

“He essentially loaned them one of his employees who helped organize their campaigns,” Liz Storer wrote in the history of the organizations. “I don’t know if you could do that today with campaign contribution limits, but both gentlemen told me that this was an important factor in their electoral victories.”

Storer said she ran for the Legislature in 1996, when she lived in Cheyenne, and lost by a narrow margin. At the time, she recognized candidates needed help in campaign messaging and assembling data.

Thirteen years later, the foundation paid for research that examined how the public was educated and engaged in conservation, public lands, education and health care, and other issues. The survey showed that compared to other states, little was being done on the issues by Wyoming nonprofits. Furthermore, no group was highlighting legislators’ votes on bills relating to the issues.

ELLA was born shortly after. Bob Kubichek, a Casper native who worked for Obama for America in 2012, was the first executive director. The Wyoming GOP has tied the trio of organizations to the Obama administration and the Democratic National Committee, although Kubichek’s job on the Obama campaign ended when the president was re-elected. Kubichek left ELLA to run the campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Utah, Storer said.

In 2014, Forward Wyoming and Forward Wyoming Advocacy were born.

Forward Wyoming

Forward Wyoming is a nonprofit with an institute to show young people how to become involved in grassroots organizing, said its executive director, Marc Homer. It’s an attempt to empower young people, who are often accused of being lackadaisical about the world around them, but who more frequently feel disengaged by the process, Homer said.

Better Wyoming is a project of Forward Wyoming, with its own staff, Homer said.

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Forward Wyoming is also pushing a get-out-the vote message across the political spectrum to people who have common interests in its core issues, such as keeping public lands safe from transfer to the states, he said.

Forward Wyoming Advocacy

Forward Wyoming Advocacy is spending money on what’s known as independent expenditures — advertising and other campaign tactics designed to promote some candidates and criticize their opponents. It’s legal, as long as the candidates who benefit from the campaign don’t coordinate with Forward Wyoming Advocacy.

The Wyoming GOP has complained to the Wyoming Secretary of State’s office about campaigns of the Wyoming Hunters and Anglers Alliance and Women Lead Wyoming, both projects of Forward Wyoming Advocacy.

In one of the ads, postcards were sent to Albany County voters, showing a hunter in camouflage, with a backpack and gun, walking toward a grove of trees. “Where do your candidates stand on public lands?” the text reads.

On the other side of the postcard, people are told to vote for Ken Chestek, who’s running for House District 46 and who opposes the movement to transfer land to the states. They’re told to not vote for his Republican opponent, Bill Haley, calling him a coward for saying he wants to investigate both sides of the land transfer proposition.

The Wyoming GOP argues there’s no way a candidate who has hired ELLA would be ignorant of the independent campaigns.

“Go to the office — I did,” said Wyoming GOP chairman Matt Micheli, referring to the ELLA office. “Look at it. The address in Laramie, it’s like two rooms. There’s no way these people aren’t talking to each other. And it’s the same people.”

The progressive groups in their response to the GOP allegations said Forward Wyoming Advocacy months ago moved out of ELLA offices to another location in Laramie. They provided the Wyoming Secretary of State’s office with a copy of the legal opinion from their attorney, who told them how to keep their operations separate.

Forward Wyoming Advocacy now has different Laramie offices than ELLA’s. The staff moved several months ago, said Sydney Stein, Forward Wyoming Advocacy executive director.

Micheli, the GOP chairman, said that Forward Wyoming Advocacy only notified the state it had moved 10 days before the Republican Party complaint, which he said is suspicious. He said the GOP’s attorney visited the Forward Wyoming address and thinks it’s in an apartment building.

Stein denied the allegation.

“It’s our own office,” she said. “It is not a residence.”

Bell, of ELLA, said that the connections between the organizations may look unusual but similar activism is occurring in other places.

“This happens all over the United States,” he said. “We provide services for people who want to connect with their constituencies. We are so vigilant to make sure we have the appropriate protocols in place.”

Rep. Jim Byrd, a Cheyenne Democrat, is not employing ELLA this election cycle because he said that when a candidate signs a contract with them, those politicians cannot take political advice from others. He disagrees with that, since none of the advisers have legislative experience.

But he thinks the Republicans are silly for panicking over the progressive groups, when for years they have benefited from dark money on the right, which has helped defeat many Democrats and even moderate Republicans.

The Democratic Party has little power in Wyoming, Byrd said.

“If (a GOP candidate) loses they’re building a platform to whine on,” Byrd said. “And a few of these races they know they’re going to lose. And they’re worried about a few more races because they don’t have good messaging. When you have a simple majority for the last 15 years and we’re in this kind of financial shape, the Republicans own this.”

Although the donors to the nonprofit organizations are unknown, Storer said the push back is because they are different.

“There is this culture that doesn’t allow for difference of opinion particularly well,” she said. “If you challenge the status quo, you’re pretty much shunned.”

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Follow political reporter Laura Hancock on Twitter @laurahancock

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