For a few months in the spring of 1996, Mike Enzi thought his career in politics was over.
Then a 10-year veteran of the Wyoming Legislature, Enzi was in recovery from open heart surgery the previous October at Deaconess Hospital in Billings, Montana, where he was treated for a damaged heart valve.
It had been a long run for Enzi, the tireless shoe salesman and former Gillette mayor. He arrived in the town before coal trains and oil rigs became a way of life in the Powder River Basin. A patch of grass on the prairie that had once been nothing but a small main drag surrounded by acres of trailer homes and trouble was now a bustling and vibrant community, with new construction downtown, paved streets and alleys, and a functioning water system to facilitate the growth.
In Cheyenne and even on the world stage, Enzi had been a happy warrior for the city he had helped to build, fighting against unfunded mandates and legalized gambling, tempering the worst of the attrition measures of the 1990s and, while serving in the Legislature, working to continue an annual athlete exchange program between Russia and Gillette after the USSR’s dissolution. But with his mentor — Sen. Al Simpson — preparing to leave his seat in the U.S. Senate, clearing the way for the influential lawmaker to take his place, the 52-year-old — feeling sorry for himself and pondering retirement — didn’t feel like he had it in him.
Until he went to church.
“My wandering mind said, ‘I’ve put in lots of public service. I’ve had this heart problem. It’s about time that I got to hunt and fish,” Enzi recalled in a speech at Gillette City Hall in May 2019. “Then I got this nudge: ‘I didn’t keep you alive to hunt and fish!’ I left church in tears and this journey began without ever having run for state-wide office.”
It would take nearly two dozen years more for Enzi, now 76, to finally call it quits, bringing a close to a career that covered every level of public life in Wyoming as well as a period of immense change in Washington, D.C. The same year he was elected to the U.S. Senate, Fox News and MSNBC got their starts. Newt Gingrich, the firebrand conservative and a master of television, was coming into his own as Speaker of the House. Within the first few years of Enzi’s first term, a president would be impeached and an acceleration of political polarization first observed in the 1970s would begin to take off, according to an MIT analysis, culminating in the modern day gridlock of today’s iterations of Congress.
As the timbre of the Senate changes — is there still a place for a politician like Mike Enzi?
“He just wants to work together for the people of the United States,” said Nello Williams, a friend of Enzi’s since the early ‘70s and a frequent fishing partner. “But now, it’s ‘them or us.’ And I know that bothers Mike.”
“I think he’s stepping out at the right time,” he added.
Who is Mike Enzi?
Enzi’s 23 years in office mark the longest tenure for a U.S. senator from Wyoming since Francis E. Warren’s more than three-decade stint in Washington — then a national record — ended with his death in 1929.
In that time, the mild-mannered Enzi built a reputation on the Hill as an understated workhorse within the Republican caucus, a studious figure who preferred the Senate chapel and committee room debates over the television cameras and dramatic floor speeches that have come to define life within the nation’s highest deliberative body.
Those outside Wyoming came to see him as a curiosity, Simpson’s silent replacement. His “80-20 rule” — focus on the 80% the two parties can agree on instead of the 20% they can’t — contrasts sharply with his colleague Sen. John Barrasso’s frequent tart-tongued attacks of Senate Democrats on cable news. “Who is Mike Enzi?” a 2013 profile in Politico pondered ahead of his competitive primary campaign against current Rep. Liz Cheney, and among the D.C. press corps, many asked themselves the same question, despite the senator’s nearly two decades on the job.
But Enzi — an accountant in the days before his time in Washington — never was one to play the game the way it’s played today, media-shy and reclusive, more willing to grease the wheels of legislation through phone calls and hushed conversations in the halls of power than in booming speeches from the Senate floor. “He often literally keeps his head down, immersed in either thought or reading, typically wielding an e-reader device,” a write-up from Politico’s Burgess Everett read. “He frequently ignores reporters to go about his day, which is likely focused on cutting spending and balancing the budget.”
Others, like The Associated Press’ Mead Gruver, have described the senator as “low-key.” Comparing him to Cheney in 2013, The Atlantic’s Molly Ball described Enzi as “plenty conservative” but lacking “the pugilistic style of a Ted Cruz” as opposed to Cheney’s “appetite for constant public conflict.”
“I’ve learned a lot from him,” Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, a close friend of Enzi’s in Washington, told the Star-Tribune in a recent interview. “He’s quiet, he’s steady. He focuses on 80% of the things we agree on and not on the 20% we don’t. He understands that if you want to get a result, you have to be bipartisan. That means in order to get 60 votes, you have to get some Democrats if you’re a Republican, or vice versa. And he’s been able to do that for years, even as a strong conservative.”
To Washington, that style was dull, lacking in pizazz, lending itself to a reputation of inefficacy seemingly unearned for a lawmaker who passed more than 100 pieces of legislation under four different presidents. To those from Wyoming who knew him, Enzi’s style was simply an uncompromising version of a Wyoming style of politics honed through decades of consistent practice in meeting rooms from Gillette to Cheyenne.
The early years
The road to Washington, D.C., however, began not with the modern tradition of television interviews and multi-million advertising campaigns, but from a small basement apartment and countless conversations huddled around the fire after a long day’s hunt.
When a young Mike Enzi first arrived in Gillette in 1969, the town was a perfect embodiment of the classic western boom town: a hardscrabble community comprised of eager youth and blue collar families in search of opportunity.
Counting just under 3,600 residents a decade earlier, the burgeoning community numbered nearly twice that when Enzi arrived, with hardly any place to put them. Waiting lists for any available apartment numbered in the double digits, while the community — in the grips of tumultuous social change — became known for a phenomenon known nationally as “Gillette syndrome” — a somewhat mythical characterization of the high crime rates and social issues that would befall the town in the early 1970s.
“He took on the job when the place was bursting at the seams,” said current Gillette mayor Mary Louise Carter-King, whos father, Herb Carter, was a City Council member during Enzi’s years as mayor. “We had tent cities in our parks because there was absolutely nowhere to live. They literally couldn’t build houses fast enough.”
When Enzi and his new wife, Diana, looked to make the move into town and expand the family shoe store’s presence into Wyoming, the young couple’s only option was a tiny basement apartment “wedged between the wall and the furnace,” Enzi recalled in an interview with the Star-Tribune. Only cardboard partitions separated each of the rooms — a better alternative to the trailer courts scattered around the outskirts of town, wheels sinking into the mud.
“Just finding a place to live was a huge challenge,” Enzi said. “When we went to build the store, we couldn’t get any carpenters or anybody to help us out, because they all had really big jobs to do. So Diana and I had to do all the remodeling in the store ourselves. Our marriage has survived that now for over 50 years.”
But in that mixing pot of opportunity, Enzi soon found kindred spirits among the eager 20- and 30-somethings who had begun to flow into the community. Williams and his brother Rollo — young educators at the local high school — became quick friends with the couple through their attendance at the First Presbyterian Church, while Enzi threw himself into the local business community. He joined groups like the local Chamber of Commerce to become established among the growing city, which was beginning a period of even more rapid growth following a critical 1976 Supreme Court ruling expanding mineral leasing in the region.
“We were a young community,” Williams said. “Mike didn’t have a lot of trouble getting other people involved, because we all came from other places — Indiana, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana — we were from all over the place. We saw the same picture and we all wanted to do something about it. But Mike was our leader.”
“We’d sit around the fireplace for two, three hours and talk about what Campbell County and Gillette needed, and what we could do to get it,” he added. “He got a lot of people involved in that, and all of those people helped to make Gillette into what it is today.”
The then-29-year-old Enzi didn’t even consider running for office until a chance 1973 encounter with then-state Sen. Simpson at a leadership luncheon for a civic organization he was a part of — the Jaycees — in Cody.
Urging him to put his money where his mouth was, Simpson pulled Enzi aside and encouraged him to run for mayor. Within a year, Enzi — a resident of Gillette for only a few years at that point — was running it, building a foundation for a city still searching for an identity. A meeting with the mayor of Phoenix inspired the development of the city’s first water system. The management of the city’s landfill and airport would become absorbed by Campbell County. A zoning and streets master plan was devised, laying a template for a rash of new development that would pop up in the ‘80s and ‘90s. When coal-carrying trains would block the city’s main intersection — a common nuisance for the city at the time — he would count the minutes the obstruction would last, personally ticketing the train’s conductors when they exceeded the 20 minutes they were allowed.
“It was a great town because it was a busy town,” Enzi recalled of those years. “There’s nothing like the vigor of youth. I mean, they don’t know what can’t be done. That was the real advantage I had as mayor. I had all of these people that didn’t know what government was expected to do who were ready to pitch in any way they could. They knew what they wanted their town to be like. I just got to help them achieve their dreams.”
After a successful first term, some even speculated he would make a bid for the Legislature in 1978 to replace gubernatorial hopeful John Ostlund. The then-34-year-old turned it down, saying in a news conference “there is still a lot to be done,” according to a July 1978 Star-Tribune article.
“That was the best political job I had,” Enzi recalled, “and the toughest political job I had.”
After relenting the job to Carter in 1982, Enzi returned to private life. In addition to selling shoes, Enzi — a professed computer nerd who as a freshman lawmaker fought leadership for the right to use his laptop on the U.S. Senate floor — sold insurance and found the time to build his own canoe. He even ran a small computer business out of the back of his shoe store, a none-too-common business to be getting into in Wyoming in the early ‘80s.
“That’s where I bought my first KAYPRO computer,” said Michael Von Flatern, a longtime Gillette lawmaker who served as Enzi’s pilot on his U.S. Senate campaigns. “All-steel construction, and it was advertised as ‘portable,’ even though the thing had to weigh like 20 lbs.”
Private life got old fast and, within a few years of his retirement from the mayor’s office, Enzi ran for the Wyoming House of Representatives and later the Wyoming Senate, succeeding both times. At a crossroads in ‘96, Enzi — a respected conservative — found his former mentor leaving office and a seat open for the taking.
Getting there, however, would be a challenge. It was the beginning of Wyoming’s time as a Republican supermajority and the Wyoming GOP — in contrast to a waning Democratic Party — was at a crossroads. “The Republicans in Wyoming this year have just gotten too darn big,” Star-Tribune columnist Paul Ezra wrote in the lead-up to the 1996 election. “Two years ago, they were lean and mean and were riding the crest of the national GOP wave to boot. The result: they grabbed every elective office in sight. Now, two years later, the WyoElephant is big and bloated. The big tent is crowded with all kinds of folks, from the wacky right to the white-shoed middle to the Subaru-driving left.”
Though Enzi was deemed the front-runner, the steady-handed legislator faced Barrasso in that year’s nine-way Republican primary, a charismatic moderate and Casper orthopedic surgeon who saw himself as an earnest-speaking heir to the charismatic and pro-choice Simpson.
Winning a straw poll by seven votes at the Wyoming GOP’s convention in Riverton that year, Enzi slipped through the primaries by a little more than two percentage points on his way to a 12-point, general election victory over former Secretary of State Kathy Karpan. The spirited candidate ran her own fierce campaign against Enzi based on his record on taxes and the sale of public lands.
The tone of that year’s elections would also appear to mark a shift in the function of Wyoming politics, when big money from Washington and attack ads would emerge in Wyoming politics. After a Republican primary featuring a flurry of attacks between the race’s front-runners, the general election saw the national Republican and Democratic parties enter the fray, with both candidates denouncing the Washington-style campaign that had arrived in Wyoming. Chris Tollefson, a Star-Tribune political writer at the time, described it this way: “If the 1994 contest between Craig Thomas and Mike Sullivan sounded the death knell for that fading ideal, the 1996 Senate race, as retiring Sen. Al Simpson might put it, got out the shovel, piled on the dirt and tamped it down.”
“Prior to 1996, a lot of it was retail politics,” said Wyoming Treasurer Curt Meier, a Goshen County legislator who finished third in that year’s U.S. Senate primary. “You didn’t see a lot of the big money or the professional pollsters. It was all knocking on doors and talking to people, getting to know people on a personal basis.”
It was a new look for Enzi, a Cheyenne legislator known for talking quickly with little patience for reporters or lawmakers unable to keep up with the often complicated bills he was known to favor. Known today for his careful and diplomatic news releases, his campaign lambasted Democrats campaigning on Karpan’s behalf as “desperate” in their bid to reclaim control of the U.S. Senate and, prior to that, chastised Barrasso for his lack of legislative experience and purportedly taking credit for Wyoming’s take on welfare reform.
Enzi’s tone reverted once it became clear his seat would never be in jeopardy ever again. When Cheney first raised the possibility of running against him nearly two decades later, Enzi responded plainly: “I thought we were friends.”
A changing Washington
Enzi’s retirement may close the book on a chapter not just in Wyoming’s political history, but in the country’s. It marks the last vestiges of a time of mild-mannered conservatism and bipartisan goodwill that began to fade during the days of Enzi’s ascent to the U.S. Senate.
“Whether Washington politics and pressures from home will combine to shove him further toward the right or back toward the center of the Senate — where Simpson’s departure has left such a big, big hole — remains to be seen,” Tom Rea, a columnist for the Star-Tribune, wrote after a visit to Enzi’s campaign office shortly after his 1996 victory.
In the time since, things have gotten even more divided, a trend that friends of Enzi say has weighed on the senator in recent years.
Von Flatern recalled one event in Pinedale around 2014 where Enzi gave what Von Flatern called the first bad speech he’d ever seen him give, roughly around the time Cheney first chose to test the waters.
“His philosophy always was to keep his head down to work hard,” Von Flatern said. “You never saw the incendiary part of Congress from him where everybody makes a speech to piss off the other side and get a response from the other side. His philosophy was to not say anything unless you can say something good. So that’s what he did.”
As Enzi bids farewell to Washington, the Senate remains in gridlock not only across partisan lines, but within a delegation seeking to define a new path forward in the years after the administration of President Donald J. Trump. Two separate camps of senators in recent weeks have emerged to either back the sitting president in his efforts to overturn the 2020 election or live with the results.
In the new Washington, is there still a place for a politician like Enzi? Alexander — a 17-year-veteran of the Senate — believes there is, even in an era he described as one defined by an “internet democracy” of extremes and non-consensus, a world Enzi tried his best to avoid.
“I suggest to Tennesseans that they look at Washington, D.C., as a split-screen television,” Alexander said. “On one side is the cable news, the Kavanaugh hearings, senators throwing mud at each other during confirmation proceedings, tweets. On the other side of the screen are senators working quietly at the very same time to fix No Child Left Behind, to have more grants for rural areas, for training workers, for 21st Century Cures that help with opioids.
“The other side of the television screen is not as much watched or as exciting as the mud-throwing side of television screen, but it’s the part of the Senate that really gets things done. ... (Enzi) has a starring role on that side of the split screen.”
Probably no other politician has tested that more than Trump, who has created headaches even among lawmakers within his own party. Not one to speak negatively of any politician, Enzi has refrained from wading into critiques or defenses on the president, spending the last four years out of the spotlight and rarely weighing in on controversial legislation with little bearing on the people of Wyoming.
It’s something Enzi learned years before in the Wyoming Legislature. While serving as a member of the Joint Education Committee, he found himself in the position of being an outsider with no special interests, with an ability to help develop consensus between two unlikely parties. It helped lay the foundation for his “80-20 rule” of legislating. To get there, he said, one needs to take the time to lay the groundwork for compromise and ultimately allow lawmakers to legislate effectively.
Shortly after Trump won the Republican nomination in 2016, Enzi and a group of GOP lawmakers met with the brash real estate developer to urge him to tone down his rhetoric ahead of the general election and help Republicans retake control of the White House. Trump listened for 45 minutes, Enzi said. “It was the first president that I was ever with who listened for 45 minutes,” Enzi said.
At the end of that time, he recalled, Trump responded bluntly: “I think you’re right,” Enzi said he told Republican lawmakers. “But that’s not how I got here.”
Enzi, with a job to do, decided to do the same thing he did in Gillette, in Cheyenne and on the campaign trail: Find a way to keep moving.
“Each president has had a separate style,” Enzi said. “One of the things you have to do if you want to get something done is to pay attention to their style. Listen to what they think is important, because you’re more productive if you work on what they think is important. You can put it into your own style, and you can make sure that it matches up with both parties.”
Compromise is a challenging word in today’s politics. Enzi toed the party line in acquitting an impeached Republican president and quickly confirming Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett.
But Enzi also helped pass health care reform legislation while working with the late Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy, a close friend. Enzi led the way on significant mine safety legislation and in making bipartisan changes to No Child Left Behind, and he helped provide a boost to career and technical education.
In Enzi’s final speech on the Senate floor last month, the quiet warrior with a calculator watch focused not just on his past victories but on what the Senate could be: the ideal of compromise and debate he recalled coming to learn as a lawmaker in Wyoming.
“Both parties aren’t as far apart as what the arguments appear to make them,” Enzi said. “And it’s mostly the arguments that make us appear like we’re way apart. If there were there was less publicity on our disagreements, we’d probably spend more time finding the places where we work together.”