Cheyenne’s Britney Wallesch acknowledges that Saturday — of all days — was a strange time to announce a campaign.
All of Wyoming is currently in a state of emergency and, as many struggle with the reality of lost jobs, a stock market in decline and an oil price war abroad, not too many people are even thinking about state politics. Much less her bid to unseat her district’s incumbent Republican Sen. Anthony Bouchard in this year’s general election.
But as other Democrats running for the statehouse kicked off their campaigns months ago, Wallesch, a Democrat, said the decision to wait — and to pull the trigger right now — came for one reason only: she was simply ready to start running. Wallesch, founder and executive director of Cheyenne’s Black Dog Animal Rescue and chairwoman of the Wyoming Nonprofit Network’s board of directors, had been planning a campaign for the Wyoming statehouse since last August, seeing an opportunity to provide a needed voice in the Legislature both for women and the nonprofit sector she has spent years advocating for.
In the midst of a pandemic — and facing the prospect of being unable to go door-to-door for weeks if not months due to the coronavirus — Wallesch decided now was as good a time as any.
“Do you bail on all the work that’s been done because the timing is weird?” Wallesch said Friday in an interview with the Star-Tribune. “Or do you say ‘You know, we’re asking people to have faith in you as a leader, so you have to show up in this moment, even if it’s not the way we planned to do it’?”
Her bid against Bouchard — who won the seat in a surprise upset of longtime incumbent Dave Zwonitzer in the 2016 primaries — is an effort to bring constituents’ concerns back into the Capitol at a time where they feel underrepresented, Wallesch said. Attending legislative sessions as a private citizen, Wallesch said she observed a party and gender imbalance, a lack of perspective, and, at home, a lack of access and accessibility to the person intended to bring those concerns to the Legislature.
Finally deciding to run, she said, was an extension of what she is used to doing every other day of her life: identifying a problem and developing a solution to solve it.
“There aren’t a lot of women who are in a position where they can (run for office),” she said. “It became apparent to me that I was in that position and therefore felt a responsibility to embrace it.”
Running as a western Democrat, her platform is fairly standard: a support for Second Amendment rights but an openness to expanded gun safety programs. Support for the state’s education system and advocacy for competitive rates of pay for teachers. Affordable healthcare, particularly for those with mental health issues.
But in “business-friendly” Wyoming, Wallesch sees a niche for herself she feels has been absent from the conversation for a long time in the Senate: a business owner who supports diversifying the state’s revenue streams, bringing new voices into the debate and bolstering the community assets needed to make communities vibrant.
“We can’t just cut programs and services and expect people to stay here,” she said. “We want people to stay here, to make their living here and to love being in Wyoming. Because it is a wonderful place. We just need to be able to build a future for them that makes them want to stay.”
At a time of tough decisions for state lawmakers — as well as heightened economic anxiety, the likelihood of deep budget cuts and possible tax increases — it’s certainly not an easy time for anyone to run.
It’s a reality Wallesch not only acknowledges but embraces.
“Regardless of the current state of things, there’s no point in which running for something like public service isn’t going to be extremely hard,” she said. “The fact the environment is even harder, I think, is sort of a challenge of your commitment to the thing. For me, it makes me want to double down. I’m not a person who runs away from something that’s hard, and the harder it gets, the more I feel internally committed to doing whatever I can to make a difference.”
At stake for the candidate is a seat at the table for a sector she feels has rarely been included in conversations in the Legislature — nonprofits and the constituency they serve. She sees an opportunity to not only bring that perspective into the floor debates but to serve as a conduit for those nonprofits as well, acting as a liaison between them and their government. She wants to be an active listener, increasing constituent access and improving transparency in places where she believes it’s long been absent. This, she said, includes not only her own district but the state legislature as well, where she says some conservative groups have been making increasing strides to bolster conformity among the state’s conservative political class.
“I have not framed my opposition as a single person,” she said. “What we are fighting against is a radical fringe group that is trying to redefine our values.
“They’re trying to frame decisions around how women receive health care or what the rules around how we vote might be” she continued. “We see them attacking people who don’t agree with their position in a way that makes it hard for them to stand for their own values. And I don’t think that’s right.”
That said, kicking off a campaign in the middle of a pandemic does come with its challenges. Her campaign launch event — originally scheduled for Saturday — was indefinitely postponed, taking consideration for the types of social distancing practices that have become ubiquitous across the United States.
However, getting started and building name recognition early is important, even with the general election more than half a year away. At the center of her campaign, she said, is increasing connectivity with her constituents and bringing their voices back into the Capitol, learning exactly how state policies are impacting them on the ground.
“I think it has the potential to reveal new opportunities or solutions or paths forward to solve the problems we’ve been struggling with for the last decade that we haven’t made much progress on,” she said. “If we just keep having the same people asking the same questions over and over again, we’re going to keep getting the same answers. And that is exactly what is happening right now.”
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