Happy Monday! Welcome to 307 Politics. Before we kick things off, a little personal news. Friday was my last day as state politics reporter at the Casper Star-Tribune. For now, I’ll still be author of this newsletter every Monday and will remain plugged into politics and especially the election. I’ll have a little more time to spend on this email each week, so let me know what you’d like to see (more aggregation of stories from around the state, more interviews, more commentary, etc.). But I’m relocating and taking the summer to do some traveling and see friends and family on the West Coast.
The Star-Tribune will be hiring a new reporter to cover politics and trib.com/307politics will remain the best place to find all of our coverage. As for me, I’ll still be covering Wyoming in this newsletter and maybe elsewhere. You can subscribe to my personal newsletter at arno.substack.com to stay connected, and you can also follow me @arnorosenfeld on Twitter. By the time you read this, I will no longer have access to my existing work email. My new email, which I’ll be using to report this newsletter, is firstname.lastname@example.org and my new work number is 307-278-9613. Feel free to say hi.
Now onto the news(letter)...
A proud moderate
Good politicians send their constituents mail. Not everyone watches the same television programs, or reads the same newspapers, or follows the same pages on social media. If you want to get reelected, you mail the folks in your district letters. Liz Cheney, for example, sent me -- and presumably everyone else in Wyoming -- a full-color, multi-page brochure a few months ago (things are going great in D.C., thanks for asking).
There’s a format to the letters. They tout the politician’s accomplishments, explain what good fight he or she is waging, and generally make it clear that if the recipient knows what’s good for himself, he’ll check the right box during the next election.
Unless you're Rep. Jerry Obermueller. Then your letter starts with song lyrics from the retired accountant’s “Springtime in Wyoming.”
Springtime in Wyoming and the sky is pastel blue/The land is turning green along the mountains’ purple hue/White cap on a high peak sparkling in the golden sun/Spring in Wyoming when the meadowlark sings its song.
But more noteworthy were a few lines further down in the letter. Obermueller, a Casper Republican, describes packing up all his family possessions into a car to leave Wyoming, before eventually returning in a moving van with two kids in tow. While the family scrimped and saved during hard times in Wyoming, it never got to the point of putting everything back in that oversize sedan.
“Yet this is exactly what some are asking of Wyoming as the first option -- pack everything back into the proverbial 1965 Ford Galaxy 500 every time oil prices drop,” he wrote.
It caught my eye, because, folksy diversions aside, Obermueller was penning a defense of what’s becoming an endangered breed in the Wyoming Legislature: moderate Republicans.
“The thing that surprised me the most about being in Cheyenne was the level of antipathy toward government itself,” Obermueller told me in an interview.
He didn’t elaborate. But based on my time there this winter, it’s not hard to understand the sentiment. For example, a gaggle of conservative lawmakers opposed merging the Department of Health and Department of Family Services, with one arguing that doing so would create a more efficient government agency, which would then supposedly be too powerful. Of course, many of these same lawmakers demanded broad cost-saving measures -- apparently just none that would come from genuine efficiencies.
Obermeuller said that attitude doesn’t square with his four decades as an accountant working in the private sector.
“What I was exposed to was much more moderate,” he said. “A willingness to support a government that was doing its job.”
Obermueller also points to Wyoming’s history as a state that has always relied on strong partnerships between the government and private businesses.
“Go back to exploration of it with Lewis and Clark and moving forward to the railroad system and the interstate system and the education system, the health system, all of these things have developed around government-private partnerships,” Obermueller said. “I come down on the side that we’re in this together and we try to find that balance.”
Obermueller is no liberal. The freshman lawmaker is opposed to abortion and gun regulations and he declined to back Medicaid expansion during his 2016 race, a point of contrast with his Democratic opponent Dan Neal. He replaced another relatively moderate Republican lawmaker, Tim Stubson, who declined to run again for the central Casper district two years ago.
But other districts have seen greater ideological swings when seats open up. Republican Rep. Chuck Gray, one of the Legislature’s most conservative members, replaced Tom Lockhart in east Casper. Gray, though hailing from the same party as Lockhart, sports a much different philosophy toward governance.
Obermueller attributes the Legislature’s shift right to the nationalizing of Wyoming politics. Voters in the state note high taxes out of Washington, or an overbearing federal government, and assume that the same solutions they support in Congress -- slashing taxes and public spending -- are appropriate at the state level too, despite far different existing policies.
“Wyoming becomes collateral damage,” he said.
Obermueller said that changes in Wyoming and the nation’s economy make it unacceptable to allow government services in the state to rise and fall with energy prices. With more out-of-state companies employing workers locally, a drop in coal prices doesn’t automatically translate to mass layoffs in Casper’s retail or services industry. That insulation means Wyoming’s population remains relatively stable despite the collapse of tax revenue on energy companies -- the state's main funding source. In other words, the number of children in public schools or drivers on public roads doesn't fall as fast as revenue does.
That’s why, in addition to improving government efficiency, Obermueller wants to look at levying a corporate income tax, which Wyoming currently doesn’t have, on large companies based in the state. Walmart, he argues, doesn’t choose whether to open stores in Casper or Cheyenne based on the state tax rate -- and local shoppers don’t pay any less for goods at the store than they do in Colorado.
“I’m willing to talk about solutions other than cuts to solve problems,” he said.
It’s not clear yet whether Obermueller will face a challenger in the primary or general election (any candidates running against him, please let me know). But he isn’t much worried about being outflanked by a more conservative primary challenger.
“I’ve staked my territory as a moderate,” he said. “I don't feel any particular obligation to represent a particularly hardline view.”
(Roundup will return.)