GILLETTE, Wyo. (AP) — For more than 25 years, generations of children enjoyed the carousel at NZ Shoes, opened in July 1969 by a recently married, 20-something Mike Enzi new to Gillette. They rode slow circles on colorful wooden horses named Beauty, Flicka, Furry, Ginger, King and Silver.
Never imagining doing anything other than selling shoes, Enzi expanded, opening stores in Sheridan and Miles City, Montana.
Now more than a half-century later, a 76-year-old Enzi is still a little discombobulated after his own decades-long political carousel ride that’s finally come full circle. What started as an impromptu decision to run for Gillette mayor in 1974 ended Jan. 3 when Cynthia Lummis was sworn is as his successor after 24 years representing Wyoming in the U.S. Senate.
And after 42 years combined in local, state and federal politics, Enzi said he has no intentions of sticking his fingers in other political pies.
“Jan. 3, which is a Sunday, is when Cynthia Lummis will be sworn in to take my place in the U.S. Senate,” he said during a visit at the Gillette News Record after returning from the Senate for the last time for the holidays. “So, the day after that, in every way, I am officially retired. My Senate ID is canceled. All of my offices already had to shut down.”
While he spent nearly all of his 24 years on Capitol Hill trying to pass budget reform, the most daunting task ahead of him now is unpacking dozens of boxes filled with memorabilia and mementos collected over the decades.
And he’s back where it all started with that shoe store and carousel more than 51 years ago, the Gillette News Record reported.
An urging from Sen. Simpson
Born Feb. 1, 1944, and raised in Thermopolis, Enzi’s down-to-earth, quiet demeanor belies a top-notch education, which includes an undergraduate accounting degree from George Washington University and a master’s in retail marketing from the University of Denver.
An Eagle Scout, he graduated with the Class of 1962 from Sheridan High School. On June 7, 1969, he married Diana and a week later, the newlyweds moved to Gillette and opened their first NZ Shoes store.
Gillette was a small town of about 7,000 then and on the verge of a boom that would transform it into one of the most important energy hubs in the United States, earning it the nickname Energy Capitol of the Nation. Before that could happen, though, Gillette had to prepare for the unprecedented growth on the way.
“Diana and I got married and the next week we moved here,” Enzi said. “What we were intending to do was start a life, and we started our shoe store.
“Then we got to build a community. Then I got to do some things at the state level, then the federal level. It all started here and is based on what I learned while I was here (in Gillette).”
But it wasn’t until then-Sen. Al Simpson caught up with a young Enzi at a state Jaycees convention. Enzi had just given a speech about the value of being a leader in your community and Simpson saw potential.
“‘I don’t even know what party you’re in, but it’s time you put your money where your mouth is on this leadership stuff and get into politics,’” Enzi recalled Simpson telling him. “‘That town you live in, Gillette, needs a mayor.’”
After spending the four-hour drive back to Gillette talking about it with his wife, he decided to run. After two terms as mayor, he served 10 years as a state lawmaker before running for Simpson’s seat in the U.S. Senate when he retired in 1996.
But it was his time as mayor that Enzi credits for preparing him for tackling problems at the state and federal levels.
Then, Gillette was “much different,” he said.
“At the time I was mayor, I was having to sell people on preparing for growth and welcoming growth,” he said. “Now, we’re on a possible downturn, although we’re more fearful of it than what’s actually happening.”
The key to preparing for the boom that transformed Gillette was forming a Future Directions Committee and the ability of people here to not only talk about solutions to problems, but to get things done.
“This is the only town I’ve been in anywhere that really dreams ahead, visions ahead, futures out what we’re missing,” he said. “And then they get it, and they get it faster than any place I’ve ever seen. And I hope that never changes.”
An example of that is the Optional 1% Sales Tax, which was first passed in 1976. Since, Campbell County has been the only Wyoming county to extend the tax every time it’s come up for renewal. That money over the the past 44 years was “absolutely essential” in transforming Gillette and the county, Enzi said.
“We couldn’t have survived those early years without it,” he said. “And a lot of the things we have now that we appreciate came because of that.”
Only 29 when he was first elected mayor in 1974, Enzi credits a young attitude and spirit for making change happen.
“The advantage of young people is they don’t know what can’t be done,” he said. “They just go ahead and do it.”
The YES House is a prime example of this, he said.
While he was mayor, Enzi said a group approached him about creating a place that could be an alternative to incarcerating minors with adults.
“That sounds really good,” he recalled saying at the time. “I think that’s really innovative.”
What did they want from the city? Nothing, he said. They just wanted to let him know what was happening. Two weeks later, the group already had bought the house and were looking for house parents to staff it. Now, the facility serves northeast Wyoming.
“People have good ideas,” Enzi said. “One of the tragedies I see is more and more, we’re expecting government to do it.”
Over his four six-year terms in the U.S. Senate, Enzi estimates his office has helped people with more than 15,000 problems and concerns. And while he now acknowledges that individual attention is the foundation for being a congressman, that wasn’t what he thought when first elected.
“One of my biggest surprises on becoming a senator was the casework,” he said. “I went to legislate, and then I found out that probably our most important work is casework, where people are having a problem with the federal government.
“Often it can be solved, because there’s not a lot of common sense in the federal government.”
One of the most frequent requests has been from family members of Vietnam veterans seeking the decorations they earned during their service. They need Enzi’s help because all to often they’re denied by a bureaucracy that’s geared toward not helping them.
“They’re told, ‘Oh, those (records) burned up in a fire in St. Louis,’ and that’s not what happened,” Enzi said.
First off, the government doesn’t keep only one copy of any record, especially on paper, like those from the Vietnam era. He said sometimes it takes a kick in the pants from the office of a U.S. senator to go dig through “the old, dusty boxes.”
Energy and AML money
While concerned for the thermal coal industry that has transformed the Powder River Basin, Enzi said doom-and-gloom predictions are worse than the reality.
“It won’t disappear, it can’t disappear,” he said of PRB coal. “The nation can’t get along without it. We will be coming up with alternative uses for coal.”
One possibility that excites the senator is rare earths. While the refining of rare earth elements has become a national security issue with China now being the only place to have it done, Enzi said research is ongoing on a process that can extract rare earths from coal and burn it after.
Along with the rare earths that can be taken out of fly ash and from the clays above and below coal seams, coal remains valuable.
“We have the biggest supply anywhere of just rare earth,” he said.
He also doesn’t buy the push to blame coal and fossil fuels for climate change, at least not predominantly.
Groups like the Sierra Club, which want to eliminate all fossil fuels, “see putting coal out of business as the solution to climate change,” Enzi said. “I think people driving automobiles or wearing clothes or doing any number of things that require electricity are equal culprits.”
He also said that President-elect Joe Biden’s aggressive anti-coal, oil and gas policies may have more bark than bite to them. He urges people to not overreact to what people say.
“There have been wars on fossil fuels before,” he said. “In the ’70s, somebody from the federal government made a bad comment about Saudi Arabia and they cut us off. We had gas lines, and at that time we promised we would become self-sufficient on energy.
“We eventually did, but it was a painful time. People bought filling stations to get the gas that was in the tanks underground.”
For Biden or any administration to put an end to fossil fuels isn’t something that’s possible now, he said.
“To say that we’re going to get rid of fossil fuels, there’s a lot of inventing that has to be done in the meantime and there’s not a lot of emphasis on that,” Enzi said. “There’s only an emphasis on taxing.
“Taxing might stimulate it, but a prize works better. That’s one of the nice things that’s happening north of town here. There’s a prize for coming up with … better ways to take CO2 out (of emissions).”
He was referencing the Integrated Test Center, a research facility tied into the Dry Fork Station power plant. It’s one of two sites for finalist research teams competing in the NRG COSIA Carbon XPrize competition, which has offered a $20 million prize pool for projects that demonstrate viable ways to capture and reuse carbon dioxide emissions.
One of Enzi’s most notable accomplishments during his time in the Senate was securing hundreds of millions of dollars for Wyoming and other states owed through the Abandoned Mine Land program. A tax of 35 cents per ton of coal is paid by energy producers with half earmarked for the federal government and half supposed to go back to states.
“Well, we weren’t getting it,” Enzi said, adding that because of Wyoming’s huge coal production, that meant big money. “That’s one of the first things I checked on when I got back there (in Washington, D.C.).”
When he approached other senators and government agencies about releasing the money from the AML trust fund, they said it had already been spent.
“They said, ‘Well, you’ll have to find some way to put some money in there,’” Enzi recalled. “I said, ‘No, no. The companies have been putting money in there.’ They said, ‘No, no, that’s not how it works here. That money’s already been spent.’
“I never heard of a trust fund that works that way. As it turns out, all of the (federal government) trust funds worked that way. Technically, it’s there. There’s a bond in the drawer, there’s just no cash backing up the bond.”
It wasn’t until he chaired a committee tasked with pension reform that Enzi was able to release that AML money. And he credits Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy in helping get it done.
As the pension bill was wrapping up, the leaders in the Senate came to Enzi with a raft of other bills they wanted to attach. Because the pension bill had to pass, their tagalongs also would.
“I’d been trying to get money for AML and had been told it can’t be done,” Enzi said. “So, if you’re going to put your bills on there, I’m going to put mine on there.
“They said, ’Oh, no, no, that’s not how it works.”
That’s when Kennedy pulled Enzi aside.
“Sen. Kennedy said, ‘No, Mike. You’re the chairman. You can do what you want.’ So I put it on there and it passed along with the other stuff,” he said. “That’s how we started getting the AML money.”
One last ride
In retirement, Enzi will have plenty of time for his other passions in life: fishing and hunting. He’ll also have time to go through the dozens of boxes making the trip from Washington, D.C., to his new “office,” the house across the street from his Gillette home. Enzi bought it and plans to use it as his base of operations in retirement.
While he said now is the perfect time to call it a career, it nearly ended six years earlier. That’s because he didn’t initially plan to run for a fourth term in 2014.
As he was traveling around Wyoming visiting communities, he found himself in three different churches on consecutive Sundays. And while all three were of different denominations, the messages of the sermons were the same.
“Three weeks in a row, the sermon was the same,” he said. “The word ‘retirement’ is not in the Bible.”
Well, Enzi said he had his answer. He ran and won again.
It was similar to how he became a senator in the first place. When Simpson retired, the race to replace him was wide open and Simpson had urged Enzi to go for it. He had had open-heart surgery a few months before and didn’t know if he was up for it.
“I kept saying no,” he said. “Then, we were in church and singing the last song. It was about leaving your boat on the shore and I’m thinking, ‘Man, I have missed out on a lot of fishing and hunting. It’s time I got to do more fishing and hunting.’”
After church that day, he had a realization.
“I got this little nudge that said, ‘I didn’t keep you alive to hunt and fish.’ I guess I’m supposed to run,” Enzi said.
That’s why before making his retirement announcement in May 2019, Enzi said he was paying attention to those inner voices.
“This time, no messages,” he said. “It’s time to leave. I’ve always had a lot of things I want to get done, but the capability of doing them is changing.”
And while he’s the one in the spotlight as an elected official, Enzi credits the work and support of his wife over the decades.
“None of this would’ve happened without her,” he said. “The best thing that ever happened to me is when she said she’d marry me.”
He also said there were “a couple of times” he didn’t take Diana’s advice. But inevitably, “I regretted it.”
His signature ice cream and root beer float socials were his wife’s idea. While campaigning at all levels, Enzi would hold wholesome socials that were family friendly. Over time, he’d meet people as adults who would say they remembered having root beer floats with him and their parents.
With more than 100 of his bills signed into law, Enzi said he doesn’t have any grandiose notions about his legacy.
“I suspect that in less than 20 years, nobody will know who I am, and that’s never been my purpose,” he said. “I hope some people are commenting about some good piece of legislation that got passed. They’ll have no idea who did it, because I didn’t run right out and do press releases on it or go to the press gallery with it. I’ve always known that the people that were affected by it knew about it.
“But to say you really need this for a legacy? No, my legacy is what I do every day, not what I get publicity for. In 20 years, they won’t be reading about me, but I hope they’ll enjoy the fruits of what I got done.”
Now Enzi will have plenty of time to hunt, fish and enjoy the occasional root beer float. He also can relive a little of what brought him to Gillette in the first place. That old NZ Shoes carousel is still here on display at the Rockpile Museum.
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