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Republican caucus sticks with tradition in pick for speaker of the House

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Sommers

House Majority Floor Leader Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, gives a speech during the first day of the 66th Wyoming Legislature on March 1, 2021. 

House Republicans chose Rep. Albert Sommers to be the next speaker of the House on Saturday, passing over his far-right colleague Sheridan Rep. Mark Jennings for the post, a lawmaker who attended the GOP caucus in Casper told the Star-Tribune.

In the Senate, the Legislature’s current majority floor leader, Sen. Ogden Driskill, was voted president, a legislative source said.

Saturday’s vote means that, despite the inroads made by hard-line conservatives in the recent elections, key positions holding power within state government will still be controlled by more traditional Republicans. That includes the post of Gov. Mark Gordon, who was reelected by a landslide and is ultimately responsible for signing bills into law.

Shortly following the general elections, Sommers and Jennings emerged as close competitors in a contest for speaker of the House that could have decisively shifted the tone of the Legislature further right, reflecting the same shift that occurred in this year’s election. While Sommers represents a more traditional approach to Republican leadership, the selection of Jennings, who’s associated with the hard-line conservative House Freedom Caucus, could have created a wider opening for far-right factions of the House to hold bigger sway over the body’s proceedings.

In his close to a decade of service in the Legislature, Sommers, a Pinedale rancher who has a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Wyoming, has been the House majority whip, speaker pro tempore and majority floor leader. He’s a member of six committees this year and has chaired the Broadband Task Force and the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration, as well as a subcommittee on updating the Legislative procedures manual.

It’s somewhat unusual for there to be multiple candidates jockeying for leadership positions in the Legislature. Traditionally, those positions have been bestowed based on seniority which, in this situation, would have made Sommers the natural pick; Jennings has been in the Legislature for a shorter time than Sommers, and he’s never held a leadership position.

This isn’t the first time Jennings, who has connections to the far-right House Freedom Caucus, has vied for speaker of the House. In 2020, the last time Legislative leadership was reshuffled, Jennings mounted an unexpected challenge to Gillette Rep. Eric Barlow for the post in an attempt to get the voice of what he called the “conservative right” to the table.

At the time, he admitted to a Star-Tribune reporter that his move broke from tradition, but added that House tradition had already been upended when Casper Rep. Steve Harshman decided to run in 2018 for a second term as speaker of the House.

Rock Springs Rep. Clark Stith was chosen speaker pro tempore, beating out his opponent Cody Rep. Rachel Rodriguez-Williams, who also has ties with the House Freedom Caucus.

Jockeying for speaker of the house represents unusual shift in Wyoming politics

Driskill, the Devils Tower Republican who’s the pick for Senate president, has been in the Legislature since 2011, and was previously the Senate vice president. Besides being majority floor leader this year, he also chaired the Senate Corporations, Elections & Political Subdivisions Committee. He spearheaded the controversial 2022 Civics Transparency Act, a bill that former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow associated with concerns over the teaching of critical race theory in schools, though Driskill maintained that it was simply meant to increase transparency. (The bill didn’t make it into law.) Driskill also sponsored the 2021 charter school bill, which did make it into law and allows potential charter schools to get charter contracts through the State Loan and Investment Board rather than through local school districts.

Sheridan Republican Sen. Dave Kinskey was voted as Senate vice president.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland has appointed a special counsel in connection with two ongoing criminal investigations into former president Donald Trump.

The speaker of the House and Senate president have a lot of sway over how business gets done during the Legislative session. They get to choose who is on what committees, including making all appointments for committee chairs. They also have control over what legislation goes to what committees, and in what order.

On Saturday, the caucus also picked Baggs Sen. Larry Hicks as Senate majority floor leader. Hulett Rep. Chip Neiman, who’s entering his second term and is also associated with the House Freedom Caucus, was chosen as majority floor leader on the House side.

The majority floor leaders have control over what bills get heard and in what order once legislation gets through committee.

Neiman’s win over his challenger, Cheyenne Rep. Jared Olsen, is very unusual. Neiman is just finishing his first term in the Legislature. Multiple lawmakers told the Star-Tribune that they don’t remember the last time a freshman was chosen for a leadership position, if ever. And, as the current House majority whip who was just reelected for his fourth term, Olsen has far more seniority and leadership experience compared to the Hulett lawmaker.

Neiman was instrumental in pushing forward Wyoming’s abortion trigger ban law along with Rodriguez-Williams, the bill’s sponsor.

The abortion ban, which made it into law and briefly went into effect following the U.S. Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade over the summer, is being contested in court right now. Enforcement of the abortion ban is on pause for the duration of the lawsuit. In August, Neiman and Rodriguez-Williams filed a motion to join the lawsuit as intervenors. The judge presiding over the case will likely make the decision to grant or dismiss their request on Monday.

During a July Legislative committee meeting, senior lawmakers told Neiman that he had gone too far in trying to publicly pressure them into signing a pledge to support some election reform legislation. Several of the committee members said they were concerned the pledge backed them into a corner, forcing them to decide between signing to appease constituents in the moment then possibly having to go back on the promise if they didn’t agree with the draft legislation, or being singled out as a “Republican in Name Only.” After hearing the other lawmakers speak, Neiman recognized that he may have “made some freshman errors.”

307 Politics: Veteran lawmakers come down on the freshman

As another freshman lawmaker, Rodriguez-Williams’ bid for speaker pro tempore was also unusual.

Big Horn Rep. Cyrus Western was picked over Cheyenne Rep. Clarence Styvar for majority whip in the House. The majority whip helps the majority floor leader, makes sure party members are present on the floor, counts votes and communicates the majority position.

Though party caucuses will have already chosen who they want in leadership, there still has to be an official vote in the Legislature on candidates for speaker and speaker pro tempore in the House, as well as president and vice president of the Senate. Those votes will happen on the first day of the session. Although lawmakers can theoretically vote for a candidate other than the one that was chosen in their party’s caucus, that doesn’t happen very often.

Lawmakers from the Democratic Party will hold a caucus vote on Sunday to choose their party’s Legislative leadership.

This article has been updated.

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