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Joe Barbuto

Democrat Joe Barbuto waves to a passing car as he canvasses a Rock Springs neighborhood in late September 2014. Barbuto was elected chairman of the Wyoming Democratic Party on Saturday.

Wyoming Democrats, who were divided after last year’s presidential caucus, rejected the party’s two pro-Hillary Clinton leaders Saturday and elected a former state lawmaker who caucused for the more progressive Bernie Sanders.

Joe Barbuto of Rock Springs is the new chairman. Laramie resident Erin O’Doherty is vice chairwoman. She said in a message that she originally was a Clinton supporter but she turned in a blank ballot and is uninterested in primary fights.

In Wyoming, Sanders won the popular vote in the Democratic caucuses. But Clinton ended up winning the state because of the party’s delegate math, causing an uproar among so-called Berniecrats.

Last year’s chairwoman, Ana Cuprill, and vice chairman, Bruce Palmer, both pledged to Clinton. Both were superdelegates. The two ran against Barbuto, O’Doherty and others for re-election in their party this year.

The race turned vitriolic Saturday, when someone left literature on tables titled “Why Ana Cuprill is unfit to serve,” said Jeran Artery of Cheyenne, who watched the elections in Sheridan with his husband, who is active in the party.

Meeting in Sheridan over the weekend, members of the state’s minority party also elected Truett Thompson of Cheyenne as secretary and Chris Caskey Russell of Laramie as treasurer, Barbuto said.

Barbuto steps into his role at a time when there are only 12 Democrats in the 90-member Wyoming Legislature — despite the party recruiting 61 people to run for seats.

He said when he first served in the Legislature in 2009, there were 27 Democrats.

“My main message I shared with members of the central committee was I thought it was time for the Democratic Party in Wyoming to become more organized,” he said. “It has to be done through a strategic plan.”

Barbuto said the plan will have goals for the upcoming election cycle, ideas for communication with people inside and outside the party and details on how to re-establish and strengthen relationships with groups in the state such as organized labor.

2016 election

Aimee Van Cleave, executive director of the Wyoming Democrats, was credited for recruiting in 2016 more than twice as many candidates to campaign for the Legislature as participated in 2014.

But as the campaign season got underway last spring, she took a leave of absence for a job with the Clinton campaign in New Hampshire. Some candidates felt they were left high and dry, without money or know-how to run their campaigns, which they blamed for their losses, Artery said.

Van Cleave on Monday said she was disappointed at the net loss of one seat in the Legislature.

“We had a great number of legislative candidates and they did a wonderful job running for offices,” she said. “I do think there’s a slight exaggeration in how much one person can make in an election. It’s the candidates who go door to door. I’m not sure what may have been different had I been here.”

She said the party attributes most of its losses to national politics.

Democrats talked on Saturday about whether they should just focus on a dozen or so winnable races and pour money and volunteers into those, or if the party should run a large number of candidates to give voters a choice at the polls, said Artery, the Cheyenne resident who said he most votes for Democrats. There’s no consensus yet, he said.

In the past, Wyomingites have had the least competitive statewide elections in the country, and the contests were largely decided in the GOP primary.

Wyoming is one of the nation’s reddest states, and Barbuto said not every Democrat is going to win.

“But I think going forward, we as a Democratic Party can do a better job making sure they have resources,” he said.

Not just financial resources but volunteers and education on best campaign practices, he said.

2017 Legislature

Democrats lost one net seat in the Legislature. While the number of Democrats in the House and Senate is low, it isn’t a record, said University of Wyoming history professor Phil Roberts.

In 1921, just one Democrat served in the House, and three served in the Senate.

But this year, new Republicans elected to the Legislature were social conservatives. Bills permitting guns in schools and regulating abortion – measures that had failed in the past – became law.

While much time was spent discussing social issues, lawmakers only started to figure out a way to plug the $400 million yearly education shortage and the ongoing revenue shortfall to general government operations.

An increase of Democrats in the Legislature could be a moderating force on Republicans, said Rep. Charles Pelkey, D-Laramie.

“It would certainly move the Legislature toward the center,” he said. “I think we’d have more thoughtful discourse on revenue and expenditures and savings.”

Coal

Members of the party have been at odds with each other – and the national party – on what stand to take on coal.

While Wyoming Democrats generally believe human activity is contributing to global climate change, some are fighting to save jobs and the state’s fossil fuels industry. Others believe it’s time to move on from coal, oil and gas.

Meanwhile, Barbuto wants to reach out to labor unions, which have been a typical Democratic base.

But many Wyoming union members toil in the fossil fuels industry, such as railroaders who haul coal or oil refinery workers who create petroleum products.

“I don’t think Democrats are anti-coal,” Barbuto said. “I think we realize what’s happening with the market and that in the future there could be less jobs in coal. But that if we work toward economic diversification and embrace other things that are happening in the energy market, other opportunities can be available. At the end of the day, I think people want a job they can depend on. We have to be realistic, and I think our friends in the union understand that.”

Trump effect

If President Donald Trump doesn’t deliver on his campaign promises to revitalize U.S. energy, Democrats may have an opening to pick up seats in the Legislature and other offices, Artery said.

“I think the first step is to hold those folks accountable,” Barbuto said.

He also said that in Wyoming, Republicans have ruled the Legislature unchecked for four decades. Yet they haven’t done much to diversify the state’s economy or alleviate Wyoming’s dependence on revenue from the energy sector, he said.

He wants to educate the public on the Democrats’ point of view.

“It doesn’t matter if we’re on the right side of issues if voters aren’t getting that message,” he said.

Follow political reporter Laura Hancock on Twitter @laurahancock

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Star-Tribune reporter Laura Hancock covers politics and the Wyoming Legislature.

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