Last week in Natrona County, residents learned that two people they had not voted for would be representing them in two traditionally elected positions: one on the Casper City Council and one as county coroner.
Qualifications aside, both candidates’ pathways into elected office — at face value — seemed hardly democratic in nature. James Whipps, the new County Coroner, was part of a group of three candidates nominated by a political party and was later appointed by the Natrona County Commission. Then there’s former Casper Vice Mayor Steve Cathey who — despite losing an election to the person he was replacing — was selected by fellow members of the City Council from a pool of 13 applicants.
Wyoming has a tried, and very well-established, culture of politicians gaining power without a single vote. Three members of Wyoming’s executive branch — Gov. Mark Gordon (appointed as state treasurer in 2012), Secretary of State Ed Buchanan (appointed in 2018) and Treasurer Curt Meier (appointed to the Wyoming Legislature in 1995) — rose to political prominence without ever being elected, vesting them with an incumbency advantage that most research shows can prove a significant barrier for challengers in ensuing elections.
Similar stories can be seen in local elections all over the state. One example can be seen in Sheridan County, where one current state senator, Dave Kinskey, and one representative, Mark Kinner, were appointed to the seat by the county commissioners there after those positions were vacated. Some speculated the political party-led appointment process factored into Gordon passing over Buchanan for a vacant judgeship this spring, potentially out of a concern that the state GOP would produce a crop of partisans for consideration. Even one of Wyoming’s most powerful politicians, U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, was given his seat in Washington, appointed to his position after serving time in the Wyoming Legislature to replace Sen. Craig Thomas, who died in 2007 while still in office.
States are generally split over how they fill vacancies in elected offices. For state legislative offices, half the country fills its vacancies via special election, while the other half relies on a mixture of appointment processes, either through the incumbent political party (five states), county commissioners (eight states) or the governor. For offices at different levels of Wyoming’s government, successors can be appointed through a variety of means, either through their political party or by their respective governing bodies. Only one office in Wyoming — the U.S. House of Representatives seat — can be decided by special election.
But does Wyoming miss out on something with its seemingly undemocratic process for filling vacancies? Some may argue not. Secretary of State spokesman Will Dinneen said one advantage a lack of special elections has lies with the fact elections take a lot of time and cost quite a bit of money to put on. Without the need to constantly plan for special elections at the precinct, city or even county levels, Dinneen argued the state’s elections have time to be better planned while, at the same time, offering a chance to save the taxpayers money.
Additionally, there is the logic that — by working through an appointment process — Wyoming’s voters are trusting the judgment of people they already voted into office, something to consider given the notoriously low turnout of special elections nationally. In Arkansas, for example, turnout in special elections averages an abysmal 19 percent, compared to 44 percent in general elections. Other studies, like the one Harvard Ph.D. candidate Connor Phillips recently conducted, have shown that consolidating elections can actually help to boost voter turnout, therefore increasing the quality of candidate that eventually gets voted into office.
“If I had to speculate, that was probably the thinking behind the writers of our election laws,” Dinneen said. “You want to have the people making the choice about who their elected officials are at the time they’re thinking about elections.”
Lawyer for Northern Arapaho Tribe responds to CST investigation
Last weekend, tribal affairs reporter Chris Aadland and I dropped an investigative piece disputing claims by Northern Arapaho Tribe leadership that business council members were unaware of a massive lobbying effort to undermine discussions of gaming regulations in the Wyoming Legislature — a revelation used as the basis for the tribe firing its lobbyist and law firm.
In a public meeting last week, the tribe’s new attorney Keith Harper provided members with an update on all those happenings, while addressing a number of the allegations detailed in our story in the Star-Tribune. Though the story included numerous sources as well as a statement from the tribe issuing a blanket denial of those allegations, Harper accused the newspaper of having it out for the Northern Arapaho Tribe, even though the reporting backs the words of a minority of the business council.
“Let me tell you something about these newspapers,” Harper said. “These newspapers are all about trying to take down the tribe. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The tribe was set to vote over the weekend on a resolution to fire Harper and his firm, Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, among other resolutions — including one to ban its recently fired law firm “in perpetuity.”
You can view Harper’s statements here.
The Week Ahead
Monday: Joint Committee on Transportation meets in Cheyenne.
Tuesday: Wyoming State Fair kicks off in Douglas.
Wednesday: Select Water Committee meets in Buffalo
Thursday: Joint Judiciary Committee meets in Casper.
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Wyo politicians respond to Blackjewel and coal’s black times: An analysis by WyoFile’s Andrew Graham on how Wyoming’s politicians are reacting to the apparent downfall of one of the state’s signature industries. (via WyoFile)
Wyoming is committed to a ‘citizen legislature.’ But the format can limit who is able to participate: Just before the close of the 2019 legislative session in Cheyenne, Rep. Landon Brown — then a 32-year-old staffer in the state’s Department of Environmental Quality — was contemplating resignation. (via Trib.com)
American Cancer Society: Wyoming needs to raise tobacco taxes: Like a lot of Wyoming border towns, Aladdin — especially its general store — survives on out-of-towners spending their money there. Unlike other towns, which might eke out existences on outdoor recreation tourism, Aladdin benefits from the sale of a particular product: tobacco. (via the Jackson Hole News & Guide)
Park County Commission looks to cut $2 million in county spending: Just days after finalizing the budget for the 2019-20 fiscal year, Park County commissioners began working on the next one, hoping to slash $2 million worth of spending. Efforts could include a hiring freeze and other losses of service, such as shorter library hours or longer lines in the clerk’s office. (via the Powell Tribune)
Can Western states afford to break the boom-and-bust cycle? Wyoming lags behind other Western states in terms of personal income growth, higher education attainment and employment in high-value sectors like manufacturing. To a large extent, those lagging economic indicators can be traced to fossil fuel reliance. (via High Country News)
Mixed reactions to Pendley appointment as BLM chief: In a move that spurred mixed reactions from sportsmen, ranchers, former Bureau of Land Management employees and the state’s congressional delegation, Wyoming native William Perry Pendley was named acting director of the BLM in an order from Interior Secretary David Bernhardt in late July. (via The Buffalo Bulletin)
President Donald Trump loves tariffs — a tool of the trade war that has adversely impacted states all over the country, including Wyoming. However, a new effort currently being brokered by the Trump administration could have some windfall for Wyoming’s agriculture industry.
Last week, Trump announced a new trade agreement with the European Union that is expected to increase beef exports by more than $270 million — an announcement that received the praise of Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney.
“Wyoming ranchers produce beef that is the best in the world, and this deal means that there will be more availability and demand for their product,” she said. “I hope the EU Parliament will swiftly approve this deal, and I look forward to our state reaping the benefits that come with growing our exports.”
John Barrasso broke with President Donald Trump over the president’s endorsement of “red flag laws” and expanded background checks for firearm purchases in the wake of a pair of mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas. In the past, Barrasso — instead of pushing for more laws for gun control — has instead advocated for enforcing existing laws and increasing access to mental health care.
Mike Enzi joined a number of Republican senators in applauding changes the Environmental Protection Agency hopes to make to the water quality certification process, which is expected to lead to increased levels of drilling and energy development — an effort led by Barrasso’s Committee on Environment and Public Works.
“This is important for exporting Wyoming’s natural resources and supporting jobs in our state,” Enzi said. “Clarifying the water quality certification process should lead to a more responsible permitting process focused on protecting America’s water rather than political motives.”
Liz Cheney had a quiet week as the House remains in recess, taking time to visit the Jackson Hole Jewish Community Center to meet with members of the Wyoming AIPAC community, according to her newsletter.