CASPER, Wyo. (AP) — For years, Wyoming has enjoyed a reputation for civility in its politics that sets it apart from many places. There were exceptions, to be sure, but politicians prided themselves on being courteous even when disagreeing, longtime observers say.
“The group norm in the Legislature has been that you can agree with somebody on one bill, on the next bill, 15 minutes later, you can oppose them, but you are friends all the time,” said Sen. Charlie Scott, a Natrona County Republican and rancher who, at 43 years, is the state’s longest tenured lawmaker.
But things appear decidedly less civil in Wyoming politics this year. In September, a Park County GOP official sent a state lawmaker an email calling her an obscenity and suggesting she should kill herself. A month later, the former Speaker of the House had to apologize after cursing a colleague in a hot mic incident. During that same special session of the Legislature, yet another lawmaker, complaining about inaction on a bill, posted a meme on Facebook that declared “fix bayonets.”
This year has also seen revelations that spies allegedly attempted to infiltrate Wyoming politics. And a state senator running for U.S. House suggested that Dr. Anthony Fauci should be tried and executed, the Casper Star-Tribune reported.
There have been similar examples across the country of a decline in political civility. But the level of incivility and lack of respect in Wyoming politics is new, multiple people on both sides of the aisle told the Star-Tribune. And it’s not reserved only for members of the opposition.
“There’s a lack of decorum, civility and it’s generated into a low IQ, name calling,” said Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs. “It’s just exploded in the last year and a half, two years. In my 12 years in the Legislature, I’ve never seen such a low level of civility, respect and decorum for people who have different opinions.
“I think it’s a sad state of affairs in Wyoming.”
Hicks, a natural resource manager from southern Wyoming, is one of the Legislature’s most conservative politicians. But that hasn’t protected him from vitriol — especially from his own party.
“There are several groups who wallow in this hog pen of mud slinging,” Hicks said. “They can’t appeal to the populace with their arguments, so they have to do confrontational politics. That’s become rampant within the Republican party.”
Hicks was recently tied to one of the most rancorous incidents in Wyoming politics this year.
It started with an email that Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, received from Troy Bray, a Park County precinct committeeman, about an anti-vaccine mandate bill she voted against in March.
“If I were as despicable a person as you, I would kill myself to rid the world of myself. You sicken me,” Bray wrote. “Thank you for ensuring that the people of Wyoming are subjected to tyranny once again. F(asterisk)(asterisk)(asterisk) YOU C(asterisk)(asterisk)(asterisk).”
The email became public, and caused a stir in Park County and across the state, where Bray avoided a censure.
In mid-October, Hicks received an email from Steve Bray, a former candidate for statehouse. He apparently thought the email was sent by Troy Bray, and sent a response to that effect.
“Please remove me from your email list,” Hicks wrote to Steve Bray, apparently thinking he was responding to Troy Bray. “Given your pass (sic) history of obscenity laced unwanted attacks on members of the legislature there is absolutely nothing of any value that you have to say that I am interested in hearing. I do not represent you and I sure as hell do not have any respect for your past despicable behavior.”
Some of Hicks’ fellow lawmakers and other state Republican officials didn’t like the email. Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, shared a screenshot of Hicks’ email in an email to the entire Legislature in which he asked “Is this the new norm in politics, to tattle tale?”
“This ‘victim mentality’ can spread like a cancer. It’s weak sauce at best,” Bouchard wrote. “And this is what happens when the first thought is to react as a victim. Definitely not a good look.”
At the Wyoming GOP Central Committee meeting last month, Laramie County Republican Party representatives introduced a resolution to censure Bray for his email to Nethercott.
At that same meeting, some Republicans sought to shift some blame for the episode to Nethercott.
“That individual is the one who made that letter public,” Vice Chairman of the Wyoming GOP, Dave Holland, said at the central committee meeting, referring to Nethercott. “It was her choice to make the letter public.”
In addition to declining to punish Bray, the party then entertained censuring Hicks for his email and instance of mistaken identity. Ultimately, they decided to chastise him in a resolution that accused him of acting “in an unacceptable and uncouth manner toward a fellow member of the Wyoming Republican Party.”
“Clearly, there’s a different moral imperative applied to the different cases,” Hicks said. “It also diminishes the importance and the belief of the party itself when there’s gross inconsistencies.”
Hicks was not the only lawmaker to be chastised at that meeting. Rep. Steve Harshman, a Republican from Casper who served for years as Speaker of the House, was criticized in the same resolution.
During the special session, Harshman was caught on a hot mic while participating over Zoom using derogatory language towards his House colleague, Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper.
“Chuck Gray, f(asterisk)(asterisk)(asterisk)(asterisk) (inaudible),” Harshman was caught saying. “Little f(asterisk)(asterisk)(asterisk)(asterisk)(asterisk)(asterisk) (inaudible).”
Harshman apologized the next day before the House and was disciplined by Speaker Eric Barlow, R-Gillette. There was discussion of censuring Harshman, but that never came to fruition.
“Whether intentional or inadvertent, there was a breach in that decorum,” Barlow said at the time.
Some observers say social media is playing a critical role in the rise of incivility. A policy disagreement can quickly turn ugly and be disseminated rapidly.
During the special session, the right wing of the Legislature grew frustrated as bills meant to block vaccine and mask mandates failed to advance. Some turned to social media to share their feelings.
“So one of our school districts arrest a student for violating their unconstitutional mandates and the senate refuses to hear a bill to reduce their authority but passes a gambling bill you know where their priorities are,” wrote Sen. Troy McKeown, R-Gillette, in a Facebook post. “We will not lay down. In fact, some defended the school boards … the conservatives will no longer be bullied by the powers that be. Remember it’s the 3rd rib …”
The latter comment was an apparent reference to the meme that accompanied the post. It read, “When life gives you lemons, fix bayonets!”
A couple days after the post, the Gillette senator told the Star-Tribune that it was not meant to be taken literally. But some lawmakers said it wasn’t acceptable.
“That’s beyond the pale,” Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Jackson, said. “What Jan. 6 shows us, is that taken in the wrong context, that could be dangerous.”
The Wyoming Democratic Party reported the post to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. As of this week, the post was still online.
McKeown maintains he wasn’t trying to encourage violence.
“First of all, it was a figurative post. It wasn’t inciting violence,” he told the Gillette News Record. “The only people who complained about it has been the media, evidently. It was a figurative post and it was posted out of frustration out of the fact that we’ve set down here a week and got nothing done. I’m not trying to incite violence.”
Bouchard, meanwhile, raised eyebrows for his own social media post. In September, he shared a meme on his congressional campaign’s Facebook page accusing Fauci of lying and suggesting that Fauci should be executed.
“After prosecution, the chair, the gallows, or lethal injection?” Bouchard wrote in the post, which was accompanied by an image of Fauci with a hanging noose.
When asked, Hicks said he believes Bouchard should shoulder some of the blame for the decline in civility.
“Bouchard used to put on workshops on how to do confrontational politics,” Hicks said.
Bouchard, who declined to be interviewed for this story, is running against Rep. Liz Cheney in the 2022 GOP House primary. He made national news earlier this year when he disclosed, ahead of a British tabloid’s report, that he’d impregnated a 14-year-old girl when he was 18.
In the aftermath, Bouchard ignored calls to resign. That in itself is an indication of the decline in civility in Wyoming politics, said Keith Goodenough, a former lawmaker.
“And so not all that long ago, (if) something like that came out, it would be a deal breaker,” he said.
A changing Legislature?
Scott, the longest serving lawmaker, believes the Legislature remains quite cordial, though he has seen a “mild” uptick in incivility.
“It’s been gradual, but it’s been growing like a little cancer. It’s unfortunate,” Scott said.
He has, however, gotten a “great deal of growth” in the amount of hateful calls he gets, particularly over the pandemic.
“Some of them have just been abusive, and that is no way to win friends and influence people,” Scott said.
Goodenough served in the state House and Senate as well as the Casper City Council from 1989 to 2014. He says he left politics at the “end of the cordial era.”
“A lot of (lawmakers) were ranchers or older guys from the greatest generation,” said Goodenough, who served as a Democrat in the Legislature and ran as an independent later in his political career. “And they just seem like they have a lot more respect in general than youngsters nowadays, like Chuck Gray and some of those guys.”
Gray, who is not a representative in Goodenough’s former Senate district, has served in the House since 2017. He is a member of the House Freedom Caucus, a far-right coalition who often vote together. Gray aggressively pursued election ID and anti-abortion bills in the Legislature and is sharply critical of the “mainstream media,” Democrats and Rep. Liz Cheney, whom he ran against for a time.
“This statement is just another example of the Democrats, insiders, and the media accusing strong conservatives of what they are actually guilty of,” Gray said in response to Goodenough’s comment. “They have the nerve to call me nasty for calling for transparency through recorded votes, demanding that legislators read the bills they vote on, and stating that the legislature should follow the Constitution by truly balancing the budget.
Meanwhile, this coalition of the Democrats, insiders, and media does little to criticize Harshman’s comments made when I asked for a recorded vote during the special session so that politicians are on the record with how they actually vote. They’ll say anything to shift the blame.”
Carbon County GOP Chairman Joey Correnti, meanwhile, takes issue with the idea that there has been a rise in incivility. He sees a few isolated incidents rather than a trend.
“I believe there has been an intensely increased focus over the past few years in accountability and the expectation that professed party values and voices of the grassroots be embraced and adhered to, as well as an active realization by many that there is a distinct difference between actual incivility and disrespect -VS- hearing something that is true but an individual or group happens to not like or benefit from,” he said.
Along with the perceived rise in incivility, Wyoming has experienced a splinter within the Wyoming Republican Party, with members often criticizing one another as much as they do Democrats.
“Within the Republican Party, it’s a split between the moderate and the far-right,” said Susan Stubson, a lawyer and Republican Party member whose husband, Tim, formerly served in the Legislature.
Multiple Republicans have been censured, or almost censured, by their own party in recent years. Dr. Joseph McGinley, a Natrona County GOP official who’s considered more moderate these days, was censured three times by the state party in one day. Last year, JoAnn True, a Natrona County Republican official, was censured by her own party for helping to found a nonpartisan political action committee that aims to increase female representation in office. She angered the far right because the group supported both Democrats and Republicans.
Also in 2020, Gillette police cited then Albany County Republican Chairman Michael Pearce for assault after he was accused of instigating a fight with Correnti. Police said Pearce, who landed in the hospital, began the fight by punching Correnti in the head.
Perhaps no one embodies the split in the Republican Party better than Rep. Liz Cheney, who voted with former President Donald Trump at a 93% clip while he was in office, but earned the scorn of his supporters for impeaching the former president and steadfastly criticizing him for lying about the election following the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.
“The lack of seriousness and civility, and rise in toxicity, from some elected officials and political party leaders is a direct threat to our ability to govern and to our goal of unifying the country around the shared American principles of freedom, liberty, and reverence for the Constitution,” Cheney said in statement to the Star-Tribune.
The late Sen. Mike Enzi enjoyed a reputation in Congress for getting along with people. Enzi served in the U.S. Senate from 1997 to 2021, and was known, amid a time of increasing rancor, for working across the aisle.
Enzi stressed his 80-20 rule — politicians should focus on the 80% of things they agree on rather than the 20% where they are in opposition.
Early in his time in politics, Enzi approached Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and asked, “How can we work together?” The two remained close friends after that, creating a valuable, bipartisan alliance.
That spirit of cooperation feels distant now. But even if the state of Wyoming politics may have changed, some hope the trend is not irreversible. Both Cheney and Goodenough say the solution comes down to “responsible and competent” individuals.
“The solution is for a mass of well-meaning, polite citizens to get back into the political system,” Goodenough said.
But those citizens would need to be elected. Which means it’s ultimately up to voters to decide what brand of Wyoming politics they prefer.