We must reject the dirty tricks and return to pragmatism
July 15, 2021
For a long time, the Wyoming Legislature had a reputation for pragmatism. The lawmakers who inhabited it tended to be largely conservative, but they focused more on solving practical issues and less on fighting ideological battles that have little actual impact in Wyoming. Yes, there were always a few who sought to push polarizing bills that werenâ€™t needed â€” a Casper lawmaker sought a ban on sharia law some years back â€” but leadership usually batted down such time wasters.
Thatâ€™s changed over the past few years. The Legislature has pulled farther to the right, to be sure, but the real change has been its increasing focus on responding to national issues that might not be relevant to our state. In the last session, for example, we saw bills on voting security in a state with only four voting fraud convictions during the past 40 years. There was a time once when local politicians blanched at the idea of people from outside the state telling us what issues should be important to Wyoming. Now, many embrace such a brand of politics.
Consider the relative lack of outrage over the recent disclosure that two Wyoming lawmakers and a former representative were the target of a spying operation conducted by two conservative operatives, Sofia LaRocca and Beau Maier. According to an exhaustive report in the New York Times, the pair posed as progressive donors in order to infiltrate the stateâ€™s political circles to collect dirt and gather intelligence. Wyoming Democrats such as Rep. Karlee Provenza were targeted, but so were some Republicans, including Eric Barlow, now the Wyoming speaker of the house.
The effort was funded, according to the New York Times, by Susan Gore, an heiress to the Gore-Tex fortune. Goreâ€™s name has become increasingly involved in Wyoming politics through the Wyoming Liberty Group, an advocacy organization with conservative and libertarian leanings that she founded here in 2008.
Gore and the Wyoming Liberty Group are not the only reason for the Legislatureâ€™s increasingly ideological bent. But they are certainly doing what they can to move lawmakers in that direction. Back in 2016, the group asked lawmakers to sign a pledge that they would oppose creating new taxes or raising taxes already on the books. Itâ€™s been effective, at least from Goreâ€™s perspective. Republican politicians worried about a primary challenge from the right have repeatedly rejected efforts to raise new revenue, even as Wyomingâ€™s traditional revenue sources â€” most importantly, the fossil fuel industry â€” have undergone structural changes that mean the checks they write government will be smaller in the future. Even legislative attempts to eliminate obscure tax exemptions have faltered.
According to the New York Timesâ€™ reporting, this new attempt at subterfuge represents an even more concerning effort to influence Wyomingâ€™s politics. Politics is a rough and tumble endeavor, but do we really want ours sullied with people who feel it is acceptable to befriend someone with the intention of spying on them? A decade ago, even a negative advertisement was unusual in a competitive legislative race. Now, our politics involves undercover operatives.
That prompts a question: Where is the outrage over what occurred? We recognize that Wyomingites are loathe to tell other people how to spend their money, even when it comes to politics. But where is the loud and rightful criticism that such behavior, whether legal, is not something weâ€™ll stand for in our politics? Is the tepid response because our politicians, just like on the revenue question, are worried it will provoke a primary challenge?
This push to make our politics increasingly ideological has real consequences. The problems vexing our state are not being addressed. Wyoming still has a structural problem in how it funds government services. It has still not addressed how to sustainably pay for public schools, diversify its economy or keep so many of its young people from leaving. The same ideological adherence that apparently drove the spying operation is not helping us improve our state. We must reject the dirty tricks and return to pragmatism. We have a choice: use stones to throw rocks at one another or to build a better, more sustainable future.