Last Wednesday night, like legislators, lobbyists and the press corps, I left the temporary Capitol at the Jonah Business Center in Cheyenne for the final time.
After four sessions — one more than the state anticipated — I found a sense of sorrow welling up inside. All the good memories flooded back. Was that a tear running down my cheek?
Just kidding. I couldn’t wait to get out of the place, and not just because the most recent session was one of the most frustrating I’ve covered in many years.
I would have thrown my baseball cap up in the air, Mary Tyler Moore-style, if I wasn’t afraid it would blow across the parking lot and end up in Nebraska.
I disliked the Jonah from the moment I opened the front door. After spending years at the historic Capitol watching the Legislature, I don’t know what I expected. But an office building is a far cry from anything that remotely resembles the hallowed halls of government.
For those who never visited the Jonah building, the first thing you spotted was the security desk at the end of the hall. If you peeled off to the left, you made your way to the House. The right wing was the Senate, and politically these days that made sense.
Observers watching either chamber occupied rooms at the rear where they were segregated from the action by a wall of windows.
These glorified holding tanks were both affectionately known as “The Fishbowl.” Except for the chamber leaders all the way up front, staff members and speakers at the podiums, the audience could see only the backs of legislators’ heads.
Other than a common meeting room called L54 that could seat about 50, committees shared small spaces where people were crammed in. There’s nothing like the feeling of racing to an 8 a.m. meeting and getting there with a few minutes to spare, only to find every seat filled. Standing in a doorway for an hour is not my idea of comfortable.
The state spent about $4.4 million to lease the approximately 45,000 square feet of office space at the Jonah, according to the state Office of Construction Management.
I haven’t toured the new Capitol yet, but people who have say it has been beautifully restored to its former glory. The Capitol Square Project, which also includes the Herschler Building, will cost an estimated $300 million.
Legislators had fun the last two days at the Jonah making references to the building’s previous life as a Kmart. Senate President Drew Perkins noted that his chamber was ensconced in the area that had been the men’s clothing section. Senators wore “blue-light special” symbols on their name tags.
I talked to several veteran lawmakers and was pleased to learn I’m not alone in my dislike for the mostly abandoned faux Capitol digs, which will continue to host legislative staff until summer.
Sen. Charlie Scott (R-Casper) is the longest serving lawmaker in the state’s history. He’s just completed his 41st year in the Legislature.
“After the experience [at the Jonah building] if they put us in a heated barn with enough electricity for a copying machine, we’re going to behave about the same way as we did here,” Scott quipped. “But I don’t think having us in these temporary quarters has hurt the quality of the work significantly.”
But House Minority Leader Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie) thinks the office building location has had a negative impact.
“When we first started here and people were bemoaning it, I thought to myself, ‘We’re just here to do a job. I can do my job here.’ But the reality is by last year it occurred to me that I think we did better work when we were in the Capitol.”
Why? “The art and architecture, and how it moves you emotionally,” she said. “That space [at the Capitol] adds to the feeling and the obligation of doing the people’s work. It’s much grander than being in a space that is so incredibly closed in with low ceilings.”
“I’ll be glad to get out of here,” Connolly said.
“I will not miss it one bit,” agreed Rep. Charles Pelkey (D-Laramie).
As Connolly noted, the Jonah’s lack of aesthetics provides good reason to Pelkey for the return to the Capitol.
“There are a few representatives who give really long floor speeches, and when you’re in the Capitol you can lean back in your chair and just study that beautiful glass work up there,” Pelkey reminisced. “Here, you get bored and look up at the ceiling and its acoustic tiles and fluorescent lights.”
Pelkey has one good reason to remember the Jonah. He has the honor of being the final chairman of the House Committee of the Whole in the building. “That’s kind of cool,” Pelkey said.
“That’s like being the chairman in an outhouse,” joked Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander), who served six years in the House before beginning his 20-year Senate career.
Case said he is also cognizant of how the grandeur of the surroundings at the real Capitol affected legislators’ work and attitudes.
“They formalize the [lawmaking] process,” he said. “I think that’s a good thing because we’ve gotten away from some of that. I’m looking forward to that being restored.”
The Senate decided to keep the same seating arrangement it had in the Capitol, so Case has been in his usual place in the rear right corner.
“I hate this seat,” he said, looking at his Jonah placement. “The news camera crews shoot from there and they always get the back of my bald head.
“The only reason I’ve kept this seat is so I have it when I go back to the Capitol, where I’m buried in the most remote corner of the whole place,” Case explained. “It’s the best seat in the house.”
Case said he wasn’t a huge fan of spending so much money on restoring the Capitol Building, but he believes “it was the right thing to do for Wyoming.”
Case said one thing has changed in the renovated Capitol that he doesn’t appreciate. “My committee room where I spent a couple of decades is now a bathroom,” he said. Since Case brought it up, it should be noted that legislators will no longer have to share their restroom facilities with the public rabble, including media representatives. That’s a shame, because in the Jonah, you can hear a lot of interesting chatter from the isolation of a stall. It may not make the next edition of the newspaper or that night’s evening news, but it’s occasionally useful.
One member of the press corps recalled that during the recent session he overheard one legislator in the restroom complain to another about a tough question the reporter asked him earlier that day. Now that’s a candid review journalists don’t often get to hear.
Most lobbyists I talked to said they enjoyed the access they had to legislators at the Jonah, where they could flag down targets and pigeonhole the poor saps for a few minutes. It took me four years, but I finally found a space where I felt comfortable: the lunchroom where lobbyists daily brought in catered meals. This was a great place to plug in my laptop and write, except it was off-limits during the lunch hour, occasional breakfasts, and when House Republicans caucused there. I came to view it as my expansive private office, and it was annoying to so frequently get kicked out. But working there will be my one good memory of the Jonah.
As for the rest of the building, I must be honest: it was a much better Kmart than it was a Capitol. Sorry, Jonah.
Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Casper and can be reached at [email protected]