Over the past year, thousands of Wyomingites joined the national surge of activism in response to Donald Trump’s election, taking to the streets and to social media in protest. We demonstrated alongside millions worldwide for the Women’s March, and we joined angry Americans in every state to clog Congress’ phone lines as the new administration settled in.
Following the playbook of Indivisible, a national progressive grassroots organization, folks across Wyoming collectively demanded that our Congressional representatives hold town hall meetings to personally face their constituents. When the politicians refused to show up, we crowdfunded newspaper ads and held mock town halls in their absences to shame them.
Intensely passionate and intelligent people across Wyoming spent countless hours working to make our members of Congress listen to our voices.
But the measurable effect of these admirable efforts has been approximately zero.
When it comes to the minds of our members of Congress, we didn’t change a thing.
They’re not listening to you. What did you expect?
The sad truth for progressives, liberals, Democrats, and other left-leaning people in Wyoming is that your Congressional representatives — Sens. John Barrasso and Mike Enzi and Rep. Liz Cheney — feel absolutely no political threat from you.
Furthermore, they don’t care what you think, and they’re not going to listen to you.
But what do we expect? Did we really think, for instance, that Enzi and Barrasso would vote against the Obamacare repeal bill if enough of us called them, if we presented extra-thoughtful and emotional arguments that convincingly dramatized for them the real-life consequences of their reckless actions?
Enzi and Barrasso wrote the Obamacare repeal bill! Their donors demanded it. Of course they’re not going to vote against it.
And Cheney … come on. Her entire political career is built on sleights of hand, opportunism, and access to vast wealth. What place does the commoner’s voice of any political persuasion have among that toxic mix?
Focus on state-level politics
A resistance must be judged like a tree: by its fruits. Certainly it feels cathartic to call your congressmen’s offices or to attend a “listening session” with their staffers and air your grievances. And what decency-loving person these days couldn’t use some catharsis?
But politics isn’t about feeling good — it’s about power, and it’s about winning. If the tactics you’ve tried don’t work, you must attempt something else. If you find you can’t influence one set of circumstances, you must work to influence another.
For people in Wyoming who spent a frustrating year calling on Cheney, Barrasso, and Enzi with nothing to show for it, there is an obvious alternative that can affect real political change: Focus your time and energy instead on state and local politics.
The local difference
Your state senators and representatives don’t have the luxury of living on the East Coast, out of their constituents’ reach. You see them in restaurants, at gas stations, and at high school football games. They’re physically in your community. Because Wyoming is a small town, you likely know someone who knows them. The same is true for your city council and school board members.
State lawmakers also don’t enjoy the protection of bureaucracy and layers of staff. If you called or wrote Enzi, Barrasso, or Cheney, your entreaties went to their aides, who likely never even relayed them to their bosses. My friend worked for a summer in Barrasso’s office a few years back and said citizen comments were something of an inside joke among staffers.
However, if you call the phone numbers listed on your state legislators’ profiles, they’re likely to pick up themselves. They check their own email inboxes, and they often answer. You can actually talk to them!
State legislators also attend public meetings — in Cheyenne each winter during the legislative session, and in the interim throughout the state. These meetings are typically filled with paid lobbyists who are the only people who provide “public comment.” There are often no citizens whatsoever, except during hearings that involve hot-button topics like public land transfer and abortion.
I attended a “listening session” last spring where staffers representing Enzi, Barrasso, and Cheney sat at a table at the public library in Laramie while roughly 60 people aired their grievances one-by-one. If that same number of people ever showed up at a typical state Legislature committee meeting — say, on tax reform, the minimum wage, or public education funding — lawmakers would be shaking and sweating in their patent leather office chairs.
A dozen citizens testifying at a state legislative committee meeting, or hundreds flooding state lawmakers with emails and phone calls, could dramatically influence decisions that determine the future of our state.
For every appalling national issue, there’s a Wyoming equivalent
Of course, this past year’s outpouring of activism was a response to the election of Donald Trump and the deep feeling of dread it instilled in many people about the fate of our nation. But if you can take your mind off Washington, D.C., and look around Wyoming, the prospects of our state don’t look much better.
For each national-level issue about which you might feel outraged and compelled to call your members of Congress, there’s probably an equivalent right here in Wyoming that you have a better chance of influencing:
- Mad about tax reform giving massive tax breaks to the richest Americans? Thanks to Wyoming’s upside-down tax structure, our richest one percent already paid the absolute lowest tax rate in the nation — a share that’s roughly seven times less than the state’s lowest 20 percent of earners.
- Worried about the future of Obamacare? In Wyoming, our Legislature never expanded Medicaid to 17,000 uninsured people. Lawmakers’ refusal of the $200 million in federal money that would have come with expansion contributes to the Wyoming Department of Health’s ballooning budget crisis.
- Sickened by Trump’s new Division of Conscience and Religious Freedom that protects healthcare workers who refuse to treat transgendered people? Wyoming’s Legislature has repeatedly declined to pass a statewide nondiscrimination law that would protect LGBT people from codified bigotry.
- Appalled by the uptick in deportations and threats to Dreamers? In Wyoming, a private prison corporation is working to build an “immigration detention facility” outside Evanston to contribute to (and profit from) the hysteria.
- Troubled by mass incarceration? Wyoming’s prison population has skyrocketed over the past 20 years in large part because the Legislature passes new criminal laws every year while limiting options for rehabilitation and reform.
- Concerned about the future of Planned Parenthood? Last year, the Wyoming State Legislature passed the first two laws restricting women’s reproductive rights since 1989, and more are potentially on the way.
State-level strength will lead to power at the polls
One reason that Wyoming activists turned their wrath and scorn toward Barrasso, Enzi, and Cheney last year was the news media’s frenzied coverage of every move the federal government made. Since our members of Congress deal with national issues like tax reform, Obamacare, DACA, etc., and news articles about the issues circulated feverishly around social media — along with urgings to “Call Your Congressmen!” — our national representatives seemed the most obvious, if oblivious, targets.
There’s far less coverage of state-level issues, which makes activism and advocacy more difficult. But there are outlets that offer solid reportage on important Wyoming issues that you can take action to influence. You’re reading one of the best outlets right now, WyoFile. And the state’s biggest newspapers—the Casper Star-Tribune and Wyoming Tribune Eagle — do a good job of bird-dogging Cheyenne, too. Wyoming’s 41 smaller papers are often a wealth of hyperlocal community information [and great places to find WyoFile articles].
Likewise, there are advocacy organizations in the state that can help provide guidance for your activism. I happen to be the director of one: Better Wyoming. We publish articles, produce videos, and provide tools to connect Wyoming residents with their state representatives about pressing topics under discussion at the Legislature. Currently, the conversations there — and thus our focus — are on public education funding and tax reform. Our counterpart organization, Forward Wyoming, does voter mobilization work and runs a multi-week advocacy training course called the Grassroots Institute, among other projects.
Other excellent organizations that might help steer your activist urgings include the Wyoming ACLU, the Equality State Policy Center, Juntos, Wyoming Equality, Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, and NARAL Pro-Choice Wyoming. There are also a slew of great conservation organizations working in Wyoming, as well as a number of politically active sportsmen’s groups.
So, in 2018, instead of banging your head against the wall calling Cheney’s office, find out what your state legislators are up to and harass them instead. Cheney’s going to be Cheney until she’s removed from office. But another good thing about organizing at the state level is that it’s also exactly what will build enough power to beat politicians like her in the voting booth a little on down the road.
Nate Martin is the director of Better Wyoming.