CHEYENNE — Senate Republicans are refusing to confirm three of Gov. Mark Gordon’s nominees to two powerful citizen oversight panels in an unusual politicization of the offices, boards and commissions appointment process.
The three nominees include Lander resident Era Aranow and Teton County Commissioner Natalia Duncan Macker to the state’s Environmental Quality Council as well as former state lawmaker Stan Blake, who was nominated to serve on the Water Development Commission. All three nominees are Democrats, and all were named to boards that require representatives from both parties.
The governors’ office did not elaborate on the reasons Gordon’s nominations were rejected, saying only that concerns over his nominees were not made clear until after his list had been submitted to the body and made public.
“Governor Gordon submitted his list of names to Senate leadership on (Feb. 24), two days before they were announced by our office,” Gordon’s spokesperson, Michael Pearlman, said in a statement. “We received no communication from the Senate about the nominees until after they were announced publicly.”
“After learning that the Senate was unlikely to confirm several of his nominees, the Governor has submitted a new list of nominees to the Senate,” he added.
No reasons given
Gordon’s office informed Eranow, Macker and Blake on Monday evening that their nominations were being pulled, according to the governor’s office and the candidates.
Instead of taking an official, on-the-record vote to reject the nominees, Senate Republicans decided not to support the nominations in a closed-door bipartisan caucus meeting Monday, and then informed the governor. Similar processes have been used historically to enable the governor to withdraw doomed nominations privately instead of suffering a public defeat.
In an interview Wednesday, Macker said she had no specific details why her nomination had been pulled and was surprised at the decision considering her own extensive experience on related issues around the state. She will remain a member of the Wyoming Land Quality Board after being asked to resign following her nomination to the EQC, according to an email Gordon’s office sent to her that was provided to WyoFile. She has served on that board since 2015.
“I have a track record with working on the DEQ as a member of the Land Quality Board on related issues,” she said. “The EQC is a good example of how we can set up processes that intentionally bring different perspectives to the table for the benefit of getting outcomes that better serve our communities and our state. I’m surprised because for the most part, I like to believe that in Wyoming, we don’t shy away from having conversations with people that are different from us.”
Blake declined to comment, saying only the governor’s office had called him to say it was pulling his appointment. Aranow said in a text message her nomination was rejected because Republican lawmakers did not believe she would be sufficiently supportive of Wyoming’s fossil fuel industry, despite little evidence to support the concern.
“No one asked me any questions about it,” she said in a text message, adding that her resumé was not made public and — beyond a two-week stint with the Wyoming Outdoor Council focused on fighting a dam’s construction and promoting a public lands day — she had no background supporting causes that were explicitly in favor of, or against, fossil fuels.
WyoFile has filed a public records request with the governor’s office for any correspondence from lawmakers objecting to the appointments. Those were not made available by press time. Senate President Dan Dockstader, R-Afton, confirmed Aranow’s suspicions in a brief interview Tuesday afternoon.
“That’s a concern with this body because [fossil fuels are] what drives this state,” he said, adding that her rejection was not done from a place of disrespect. “This is how we fund this state. They want to feel that there is support in the positions they assign. And if that support is not there, they become uncomfortable.
“I know there are changes occurring,” Dockstader said. “But the primary goal is to save all those fossil fuel jobs out there in some form or fashion, or smooth the transition in the years to come. But we can’t deny that which has created this state.”
Second time in as many years
While unusual, the rejection of Gordon’s nominees marks the second instance in two years of Senate lawmakers disrupting the confirmation process for appointed boards and commissions, almost all of which are volunteer posts. In 2020, Sen. Cheri Steinmetz, R-Lingle, objected to several Gordon nominees on the rationale they did not represent “Wyoming values” due to their stances on abortion, their LGBTQ advocacy work and other reasons.
While the caucus’ proceedings are traditionally off-record and confidential, several sources in the Capitol saw the appointment rejections as a sign of a new, more conservative Senate flexing its muscles toward a governor whose policies many of its members ran against.
The Senate was uncomfortable with the nominees’ policy positions, Dockstader said, not their political-party affiliation.
“It has nothing to do with that,” he said. “If those names are switched, it’s still a Democrat.”
Longtime Sen. Charlie Scott, R-Casper, said in an interview that challenges to the governor’s appointees are uncommon, but not unprecedented. The Senate once rejected a former lawmaker who was appointed to the University Board of Trustees on the floor of the Senate in an effort to “make an example of him,” Scott said, because lawmakers believed he was only interested in serving for the benefits afforded to trustees.
Another instance involved an appointee by former Gov. Jim Geringer on the floor in what Scott described as an “embarrassing” process. That instance spurred the Senate to establish a tradition of informing the governor of any concerns with the nominees before the lists were made public, he said.
“It’s happened a few times before,” he said, “and it’s certainly a messy, bloody process on the floor.”
Scott declined to name the reasons why this year’s slate of nominees was rejected. Sen. Chris Rothfuss — one of two Democrats in the Senate — was allowed to attend the meeting but, citing the confidential nature of the meetings, declined to share details from those conversations.
“It was a mistake to be there,” he said. I don’t know why I didn’t leave as soon as I realized what was going on so I could appropriately complain about the results of it. I’m not happy with the process, I’m not happy with what we did, I’m not happy with the results, and I’m disappointed the governor is just going along with all the requests.”
Macker hopes this year’s nomination process does not set a precedent, she said.
“It seems like maybe there were assumptions that had been made,” she said. “I hope that it doesn’t indicate that we’re reaching a place where we’re not willing to talk with people who have different perspectives than we do. Because I don’t think that is going to help our state move forward. And it’s certainly not how democracy is designed to work.”
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.