Popular, moderate governors a proud Wyoming tradition

© 2017-Kemmerer Gazette

Few Wyomingites were surprised when Business Insider magazine recently named Gov. Matt Mead the third most popular governor in the nation. Well-liked governors are somewhat of a tradition out here.

The publication, citing a survey conducted by Morning Consult, a media and technology company, determined that Mead has an impressive 67 percent approval rating. The former U.S. attorney will finish his two terms in the governor’s office next year unless he challenges the state’s term limits law and runs again, which is unlikely. The high rating puts him behind only Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, who had 71 percent support, and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, at 68 percent.

“It’s the value of having your family vote twice, I guess; you get right up there,” Mead joked when Saratoga/Rawlins radio reporter Jim O’Reilly asked him about the survey at a news conference.

On a more serious note, the governor added, “I guess I attribute it somewhat to … people appreciate that the employees in the state of Wyoming work hard every day to do the best job possible for the state and I think that’s reflected in that.”

Deservedly named the least popular of the country’s 50 governors was New Jersey’s Chris Christie, whose disapproval rating climbed to 69 percent after he was photographed enjoying a state beach with his family after having closed the same beach to the public.

Only three points behind was Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, a right-wing extremist and the overseer of the “Kansas Experiment” — an unfettered implementation of anti-tax and -regulation supply side philosophies that’s widely credited with cratering both Kansas’s economy and civic institutions.

Thankfully, Wyoming has never had a governor who was anywhere near so obnoxious as that pair of jokers. If you examine the governors of Wyoming in the past half-century, you’ll find there’s not an ideologue in the bunch. It’s a history lesson would-be candidates would do well to take to heart.

I asked Phil Roberts, University of Wyoming history professor, for his take on what sets Wyoming governors apart from politicians in other states. As a Democratic gubernatorial candidate himself in 1998, he has a unique perspective.

Roberts said the men who held the office from 1965 to 1995 — Republican Stan Hathaway and Democrats Ed Herschler and Mike Sullivan — “largely got elected from the moderate voters of each party. None of them governed in a partisan way.”

He said Mead and former Govs. Jim Geringer (R) and Dave Freudenthal (D) were “more influenced by hard-right legislators and made numerous efforts at wooing them, [but] they seemed to take pragmatic approaches that would help Wyoming generally.”

In contrast, Wyoming’s recent congressional candidates, the professor noted, rarely reflect constituent views, paying closer attention instead to lobbyists and big-money brokers. “This is a big departure from Wyoming tradition,” Roberts said. “Even old party stalwarts for governor in earlier days likely would not have sold out to far-right ideology and party loyalty — without losing the race.”

As long as our governors show voters they will keep fighting the good fight against the feds, protect our environment and wildlife, and not completely hand over the state to the mineral companies that pay state government’s way, they typically serve their time in office unscathed.

Mead’s seven years in office have occasionally been turbulent, especially the time he went to war with former Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill, essentially trying to remove her from the job. But there wasn’t a huge blowback to his governing style and he hasn’t seen too many troubled times with the Legislature.

Mead’s grandfather, Cliff Hansen, was governor from 1963 to ’67, which predates my time in Wyoming. But from what I’ve gathered from historical accounts of his life, Hansen was every bit as popular as his grandson, and maybe more.

Hansen, known as Wyoming’s “cowboy governor,” embodied the leadership qualities that many state politicians have admired and tried to duplicate. His obituary noted he “brought both the down-to-earth pragmatism of a lifelong cattle rancher and the affability of a small-town politician to Cheyenne and then to Washington [as a U.S senator].” He was praised as a man “on friendly and familiar terms throughout his career, not only with those on both sides of the political aisle, but also with elevator attendants, cafeteria workers and staff members throughout the Capitol.”

In other words, he was genuinely connected to the people and places of Wyoming, not just the politically powerful or economically elite. There’s a lesson in that too for the folks thinking of running in 2018.

Wyoming also has maintained a special affinity for governors who are easily accessible. Hathaway could be spotted in the bleachers at high school basketball games, casually shooting the breeze with other fans, no security detail in sight.

One Herschler story goes that a man walked into a Cheyenne tavern and loudly declared he’d like to give the governor a piece of his mind. The bartender pointed to Herschler sitting on a nearby barstool and told the man, “Go ahead. He’s right over there.”

Wyoming has had some colorful characters as governors, but none of them can match the pioneer politicians of the state.

At least three governors are well remembered for their connection to Wyoming criminals. The creepiest has become legendary. A dozen years before he was elected the state’s third governor, physician John Osbourne helped conduct the autopsy of “Big Nose” George Parrott, a convicted murderer and horse thief who was sentenced to death, escaped and was then lynched by a mob in Rawlins in 1881. No one knows why Osbourne was so hard up for footwear, but the future politician had Parrott’s skin tanned and made into a pair of shoes that he later wore at his gubernatorial inauguration.

Osbourne’s successor, William A. Richards, who served as governor from 1895 to ’99, showed mercy to Butch Cassidy when he was still a petty outlaw. The freed Cassidy later formed a gang of bandits and prosecuted an infamous crime spree throughout Wyoming and the West.

Fenimore Chatterton, Wyoming’s sixth governor, didn’t bow to public pressure to commute the death sentence of Tom Horn, a range detective who was convicted in Cheyenne of murdering a 12-year-old boy, but perhaps he should have. A lot of people thought Horn was innocent, and political pundits at the time speculated that the Republican’s decision to let Horn hang led directly to his re-election loss in 1905.

Wyoming’s 2018 gubernatorial primaries are still more than a year away, but already one candidate has entered the race. Sheridan businessman Bill Dahlin, a Republican unknown in state political circles, appears to have made economic diversification in Wyoming his campaign centerpiece.

There is no shortage of possible candidates from either party. GOP speculation includes former Congressman Cynthia Lummis, Secretary of State Ed Murray, State Treasurer Mark Gordon, former House Speaker Ed Buchanan and 2016 congressional candidate Darin Smith.

On the Democratic side potential candidates include former House Minority Leader Mary Throne, State Sen. Chris Rothfuss, 2016 U.S. House candidate Ryan Greene and Milward Simpson, director of the Nature Conservancy and grandson of the former Wyoming governor of the same name.

If they’re serious, most of the above politicians have already revved up their campaign fundraising efforts.

Roberts said money, along with party labels, almost never determined gubernatorial races in former times. An exception was in 1982 when Gov. Nels H. Smith’s grandson and namesake, Nels J. Smith, dropped out as the GOP nominee.

Party “bigwigs” determined that the new nominee had to have “personal money” to put into the race. They selected Casper oilman Warren Morton, who was routed by Herschler.

Speaking of money, while it may not have determined many gubernatorial winners in Wyoming, a candidate needs more of it than ever to mount a statewide campaign.

“Clearly, money will be the biggest factor in this coming race, in my opinion,” said Roberts, who spent less than $10,000 on his gubernatorial campaign in 1998. The expenditure helped him get 6,415 votes, nearly 20 percent of the total. He finished last in the three-person race.

Let’s hope his personal electoral history doesn’t keep aspiring governors from learning the lessons of his historical scholarship.

Kerry Drake is a veteran Wyoming journalist, and a contributor to WyoHistory.org. He also moderates the WyPols blog. He has more than 30 years experience at the Wyoming Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune as a reporter, editor and editorial writer. He lives in Casper.

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