Deirdre Stoelzle isn’t a typical candidate for the Wyoming House. She jokes that she’s “in it to lose,” and the reality is that she’s taken on the most Quixotic race any Democrat in the state faces this year.
That’s because she’s challenging Rep. Steve Harshman, who has served as House District 37’s representative for the past 13 years. The co-chairman of the influential Joint Appropriations Committee, which tends to rule budget decisions, he has steadily risen in the ranks of the Republican leadership and plans to run for speaker of the House next year.
Unexpected things can happen in Wyoming elections — just ask Rosie Berger, a moderate, six-term Republican from Big Horn who was in line to be the next House speaker before far-right newcomer Bo Biteman defeated her by 310 votes in the GOP House District 51 primary.
Stoelzle is hardly a Republican far-right candidate — it would be hard for her to be further from it. Harshman, Natrona County High School’s long-time head football coach, meanwhile won his Republican primary by nearly 1,000 votes over challenger Greg Flesvig.
Harshman is a heavy favorite to defeat Stoelzle, but like any politician he’s not invulnerable. He’s led the opposition to Medicaid expansion in the House for four years and if voters in HD 37 ever get a clue about how much his stand has cost the state — $320 million since January 2014 — who knows what could happen?
Full disclosure: I have been Stoelzle’s friend for nearly 25 years, and much of that time we spent toiling as reporters and editors at the Casper Star-Tribune. The names of two other former colleagues appear on this year’s ballot. Casper Democrat Dan Neal, who made the transition from newspaper editor to director of the Equality State Policy Center before retiring, wants to represent HD 56. Charles Pelkey of Laramie, a former reporter turned lawyer, earned his legislative wings in 2014 and is running for re-election in HD 45.
I am not objective about any member of this potential journalist triumvirate, nor am I part of Stoelzle’s campaign. What spurred me to write this column is because I never had an inkling she wanted to run for public office. She told me recently that her motivation was to help Natrona County Democrats reach their goal of having at least one challenger to every Republican incumbent.
Most candidates, including Neal and Pelkey, have spent much of their time since May pounding professionally produced signs in yards, trudging door to door on massive meet-and-greets, and printing slick, colorful posters. That’s how politicians do it in Wyoming and pretty much everywhere else.
Not your traditional campaign
Stoelzle knew from the beginning that she wasn’t going to run a traditional campaign. Most observers would charitably call her approach, uh, refreshingly unorthodox. Others might say nutty.
Stoelzle had a few bumper stickers printed, many of which she gave to people who live out of town and can’t vote for her. With a true grassroots fervor she and volunteers hand-painted all of her signs. She’s not campaigning door to door, and her expenses have been minor. She certainly hasn’t hired help from consultants like the ELLA group reportedly helping other Democratic candidates, including Neal and Pelkey.
“Why should I spend any money to lose to Steve Harshman?” she reasons in her direct, irreverent way. Why indeed? She may be the most frugal and practical candidate in the state.
What Stoelzle does have working in her favor is an emphatic view of problems in state government and how she would fix them. Her platform is predicated on the need to drastically shore up the system of taxing the mineral industry, since that’s the biggest source of revenue for the state. She said the Legislature could pull as much money as it needs by properly taxing the existing gold mine that is the extraction and natural-resources industry.
“Here’s the thing,” said Stoelzle, who recalled she was astounded while covering the Joint Appropriations Committee in the 1990s to see the miserly spending approved for social programs while the Legislature smiled on tax breaks for the extraction industry. “Wyoming needs to stay straight on its taxation of the fossil fuel industry. It’s the right thing to do,” she said, and it’s necessary to continue providing essential services for the poor.
Most politicians won’t even whisper about any tax increases, primarily because it will kill you at the polls. They’re not about to raise taxes on the minerals industry, which pays for about 70 percent of the cost of operating state government.
State lawmakers have introduced a few bills to reduce mineral severance taxes in recent sessions, but none to increase them. Harshman voted against a 2014 bill that would have reduced the severance tax on coal. He has maintained that the state’s mineral severance taxes should remain at the current level. Stoelzle would like the Legislature to consider raising mineral severance taxes but has not suggested a specific rate.
Focusing 0n corporate taxpayers
As a writer and researcher, Stoelzle said she has seen her share of multi-million dollar litigation from explosions, spills and pollution by big corporations operating on Wyoming land, exploiting mineral resources and polluting groundwater. “The lawyers are getting rich, too,” she said.
“Industry doesn’t pay its fair share [of taxes] because we don’t make them pay for it,” she said. “When they do well, the government acts awed senseless, like they’re paying more money than we need.” But historically, she maintained, lawmakers have provided the industry tax breaks that weren’t necessary out of fear they would leave the state.
“Even with all the fines they pay due to violating federal regulations, and all they pay in litigation and payments to injured and killed workers, corporations are making huge profits,” Stoelzle said.
“Until the Legislature can really wrap their heads around how much of the global economy is in the profits of these companies, we can’t really assess them,” she added. “We need to accept that they should pay their fair share, good times and bad. I don’t think it’s right to relieve the rich while more people are becoming poor.”
And that brings her to another major component of her plan: finally pass Medicaid expansion. It would help 20,000 uninsured poor people in the state.
She believes it’s also fiscal insanity for leaders like Harshman to reject a huge sum in federal funds for Medicaid expansion, even if hating the feds is the main hobby of irresponsible Republican legislators. All 13 of the Democrats now in the Legislature support Medicaid expansion.
Harshman has strongly opposed Medicaid expansion because he believes the state could be on the hook for new costs if the federal portion of Medicaid spending ever decreases. As the JAC’s co-chairman he led the charge to kill Medicaid expansion earlier this year before the budget session even started, and attempts to revive the bill failed.
“Since the Legislature opted out of the program in 2013, it’s cost Wyoming nearly $320 million, and we continue to lose more than $310,000 a day,” Stoelzle noted. “Can you imagine the impact those federal dollars could have had on the state’s economy?”
This is money Wyomingites have already paid in federal taxes, she said.
“We’ve forfeited those federal funds, and our money has gone to other states to help their people,” she said. “When you pay your taxes you expect it’s because we want to take care of the greater good. We want to contribute to the social welfare, the economic welfare, the environmental welfare, safety, all things that rely on public funds to work. You can’t tell me that health care for the working poor is not needed. You can’t tell me that unemployment benefits aren’t needed or the police aren’t needed.”
“Unconsionable impact” of failure to expand Medicaid
She said the state’s own experts in the Department of Health told lawmakers early on that expanding Medicaid would not be another burdensome, mandated expense. In 2014 the department told lawmakers the state would save about $30 million per biennium by expanding Medicaid because the cost of some other social service programs could be reduced. After rejecting the federal government’s offer to pay 100 percent of the expansion costs during the first three years, Wyoming would now have to negotiate an alternative plan with the feds before any savings for the state could be estimated.
Stoelzle said the “unconscionable impact” of GOP lawmakers’ rejection of expansion has deprived about 20,000 extremely low-income people from obtaining health insurance because they are in the Medicaid gap. This population, she noted, is both ineligible for Medicaid under its previous rules and too poor to qualify for the Affordable Care Act’s subsidies and credits that were designed to allow middle-class Americans to purchase health insurance.
“My opponent and others have basically characterized these people as deadbeats,” Stoelzle said, her voice rising. “But these are people who do work — maybe two minimum-wage jobs that don’t stretch nearly far enough to pay their bills, let alone allow them to buy health insurance.”
State lawmakers, she said, have totally ignored (or not cared about) the Wyoming DOH’s estimate that the failure to expand Medicaid means 111 people who fall into the Medicaid gap will die prematurely each year.
“It’s a tragedy, and it’s inexcusable,” Stoelzle said. “The only excuse my opponent and other Republicans can come up with is their distrust of the federal government. Everybody knows they refuse to allow any program created by President Obama to succeed. They should be ashamed of themselves.”
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There is one more negative effect of rejecting expansion, Stoelzle said. Because so many of the working poor can’t afford to regularly see a doctor, most go to the emergency room, significantly driving up the cost of hospital charity care. “Other people who have private health insurance are stuck paying the bills through higher premiums,” she said.
No matter the outcome of the election, Stoelzle plans to spend time in Cheyenne in January to learn from veteran lawmakers and do what she can to help new ones. She wants to intently study issues and continue to run for office. Maybe the next time she won’t have such a well-known opponent.
“I’ve failed at a lot of things in my life, and I’m not afraid to fail in this election,” she said. “I mean, it’s not going to be like it’s going to feel good, but I feel it’s something that has to be done. We Democrats have to show that we’re here, we can make a difference, and times are going to change. And change is coming fast.”