This is my last column as a staff reporter at WyoFile. I have accepted an offer to be a research associate with the Wyoming Migration Initiative at the University of Wyoming, led by biologist Matt Kauffman.
In the new position I’ll write articles and make short films to explain the science and history of Wyoming’s iconic big-game migrations. I’ll continue to be based in Laramie.
That may seem like a jump from covering politics, but for 20 years I’ve hunted elk as they made their seasonal movements through the Absarokas and the Gros Ventre Mountains. Five years ago I told my Dad as we left hunting camp that I wanted to learn more about how elk trek in and out of Yellowstone each year. Now that chance has arrived. Wyoming is at the forefront of important discoveries in wildlife migration, and I’m excited to play a new role in sharing this science with the public.
Though I’m leaving WyoFile and the political beat, I’ll continue my deep interest in all things Wyoming, and hope to share some of my writings here from time to time.
In my three years as a staff reporter — admittedly a short time for many in the industry — I’ve reported on some interesting events. One was lawmakers’ passing Senate File 104 in 2013, which shifted most duties of Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill (R) to an appointed director. I was in the House gallery when the House passed the bill in a 39-20 vote that drew a line in the sand between far-right Republicans and the rest of the Legislature. Wyoming finally resolved the issue, but it took two years, an investigation into Hill’s leadership, a Supreme Court decision overturning SF 104, a GOP effort to censure Gov. Matt Mead (R), and an election in which Hill failed to unseat Mead.
I also had a front-row seat to the abrupt resignation of University of Wyoming President Robert Sternberg, an event that spoke volumes about tensions at the state’s flagship institution.
I met Sternberg in the spring of 2013 during his first on-campus meeting with trustees. He was tall, wore a somewhat oversized jacket, and was emphatic about his values and his plans. I followed Sternberg through his first summer, often speaking with him about his plans for educating students to be “ethical leaders.” I was there at a UW Foundation event at the Powder Horn Golf Club in Sheridan when Sternberg misspoke and said how excited he was to be at Oklahoma State — a reference to his former employer.
In the audience that day was provost Myron Allen, whom Sternberg asked to resign a few weeks later, continuing the series of rapid-fire turnovers among key campus leaders.
One Monday afternoon in November, a long-time friend at UW forwarded me a few messages from an internal university email list, showing how professors and staff had grave concerns about the direction of the university under Sternberg. I began tracking key personnel changes and discovered two conflicting stories: Sternberg said he’d accepted Provost Allen’s resignation “with great regret,” while Allen said Sternberg had shown him the door.
Two weeks later, I joined reporters from every statewide newspaper and radio organization at an all-day watch in the UW library as trustees conducted an executive meeting. Word soon came that Sternberg had resigned. His severance package and compensation for five months’ work totaled $575,000. I stepped into a side office and called Sternberg on his cellphone to get a short statement:
“…my impression was there was a lot of faculty pushback to some of the personnel changes. … The faculty, some of them talked to the board about their dissatisfaction.”
I walked into a Laramie coffee shop the next Saturday morning and saw a table of senior faculty having an animated discussion. I didn’t pry, but it was clear that the community was abuzz with the news of Sternberg’s departure, and that many were hugely relieved.
Emotions also ran high in just about everything relating to LGBT rights and same-sex marriage. I saw teenagers crying in the House gallery after lawmakers killed a civil union bill in 2013. The following year, I watched a crowd in the Laramie Courthouse as two women prepared to apply for the first same-sex marriage license in Albany County, after a federal court ruling. The crowd fell silent the moment the Albany County Clerk came out of her office to talk to the same-sex couple about the forms they would sign. Later, one of the defendants in the court case handed out roses to the couple.
In 2015, I was sitting just a few feet away from a state representative who got kicked out of a committee hearing after saying that an LGBT non-discrimination bill should become law “when hell freezes over.” Many in the audience gasped at the words.
Some of my most memorable conversations as a WyoFile reporter came while writing in the lobby of the Wyoming House and Senate, long after most lawmakers and lobbyists had gone off to their evening receptions.
At that time of night, the Capitol is empty except for janitorial staff, night clerks, and a few lawmakers who are busy preparing for the next day’s debates. More than one time I had a great conversation with a lawmaker where I learned about where they came from and what mattered to them most. One night I spoke with the late Rep. John Patton (R-Sheridan) about the reforms he’d led in the Legislature in the 1960s. The notes from that conversation formed the basis of the remembrance I wrote about him after his death in 2015. It is that kind of access, candor, and institutional memory that I love most about Wyoming’s Legislature.
One of the true privileges of being a reporter is indulging one’s curiosity on behalf of the public interest. Hundreds people from all walks of life have given countless hours of their time to answer my questions about their role in Wyoming. Only a very few of them have hung up on me or refused to take my calls. (Often those moments taught me how to be a better reporter.)
I met many who were eager to show me how our state government works. Sen. Phil Nicholas (R-Laramie) and I spent an afternoon in his law office in 2012 going over state revenue charts. The meeting left my head spinning from a barrage of state budget account acronyms, and I knew I had a lot of work ahead of me to master the topic.
In Cheyenne, Bill Mai, the former fiscal advisor to Gov. Matt Mead, walked me through revenue flowcharts on his iPad as I began to understand how our budget works. (Many of those documents are publicly available here.) Renny MacKay, former spokesman for Mead and an old friend of mine from Laramie, often sent me helpful notes and corrections after reading my articles.
Don Richards, the Legislative Service Office budget manager who hails from the Bighorn Basin, has been a fount of knowledge and patient explanations. I liked very much that he sometimes drives hours on the weekend to hit up his favorite fishing holes in Northern Wyoming.
Former state investment officer Michael Walden-Newman gave me a list of the thousands of stocks that Wyoming’s Treasurer’s Office invests in. But before we talked business, he showed me pictures of his kids and told great stories about being a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa. He said that people in Africa always greet a new person by asking about their family ties before showing any interest in their careers.
This past week I attended several holiday parties where I crossed paths with people I know both personally and through my work as a reporter. Many had thoughts about recent events in Wyoming news they wanted to discuss. It’s been a privilege and a joy to be part of such conversations, and I plan to stay involved however I can. Thankfully, Wyoming is a small place, and I’m sure I’ll see many of you again in the future.
Thanks for reading and supporting WyoFile, and keep in touch.
Gregory Nickerson’s top 12 stories of 2015
Lawmaker ejected, non-discrimination bill makes historic progress, Feb. 20.
Libertarian Gore-Tex heiress fuels hidden political donations, Apr 28.
Data trespassing bill is aimed at public lands grazing battle, May 19.
What would it take to bring Wyoming expatriates home?, June 9.
Waning energy revenue could cause 10% budget decline, Sept. 1.
How does Wyoming spend $9.3 billion every two years?, Sept. 8.
Soccer unites Peruvian workers and rural Wyoming ranchers, Sept. 22.
UW report claims no racial profiling in bookstore incident, Oct. 7.
UW president’s worries caused Rothfuss to abandon job offer, Oct. 6.
Lawsuit challenges constitutionality of data trespass laws, Oct. 23.
Gov. Mead’s budget proposes cuts, borrowing from rainy day, Dec. 2.
Laurie Nichols named 26th University of Wyoming president, Dec. 18.