In Jim Allen’s view, the Wyoming House of Representatives district he calls home is the most diverse legislative district in all of the Equality State.
That home turf — House District 33 — is one that Allen, a former Republican legislator, knows well: He’s represented the district twice, once through an appointment in 2004 and again from 2014-’18 via election. The majority of his constituents were members of the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes. But other reaches of his district tread outside of the Wind River Indian Reservation.
“It’s not entirely a native district,” Allen said. “It gets the reputation that it is — and a majority is — and that’s why it’s so diverse, because you have so many different ethnicities living there. And by the same token, you have different political perspectives.”
Representation in House District 33 fluctuates politically. Allen, a white Republican rancher, narrowly edged out Democratic tribal members to win office: In 2014 he beat current incumbent Andi LeBeau (D-Riverton) by 6% of the vote, and in 2016 he edged out Sergio Maldonado by 2%.
Outcomes have also swung the opposite direction. Northern Arapaho tribal member and Democrat Patrick Goggles beat Allen by 12% in 2004 and again by 4% in 2012. Then LeBeau, also a Northern Arapaho tribal member, knocked Allen out of office in 2018.
Now another Republican, nurse Sarah Penn — who’s cast herself as a far-right candidate — has entered the fray.
Come the Nov. 8 general election, House District 33’s diverse batch of voters will decide between Penn and LeBeau.
Stretching over 100 miles from the Wind River Range south of Dubois to the northern Red Desert, House District 33 encompasses the southwest corner of the Wind River Indian Reservation and sparsely populated areas south of Lander. All told it covers 2,966 square miles and houses roughly 9,500 residents.
Many of the communities within are dominated by Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribal members: Crowheart, Fort Washakie, Ethete and others. Other swaths of the district are populated mostly by non-tribal people, like the town of Hudson and agricultural areas west of Riverton. The larger municipalities of Riverton and Lander are excluded.
The electorate’s politics follow suit, ranging from “very conservative” farmers to Indigenous residents who tend to vote Democrat, Allen said. “It’s got everything,” he said. “A mix.”
Two-term incumbent LeBeau, who grew up on the Wind River Indian Reservation, is the second-ranking Democrat in the Wyoming House and a member of three legislative committees: House Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions; House Labor, Health and Social Services and the Select Committee on Tribal Relations. In a recent League of Women Voters-sponsored debate, she touted her representation of all residents in her district, not just tribal members, saying she supported agriculture, rural water systems and public education through her statehouse post.
Fremont County bookseller and shepherd Polly Hinds, who chairs the county’s Democratic Party, said she is pleased with LeBeau’s track record representing House District 33. Hinds described LeBeau’s Republican challenger, Penn, as “vehemently to the right.”
Penn described herself as a champion of small government. “I think that the government needs to get out of the way,” she said in the closing arguments of her debate with LeBeau. “We’ve given our government too much power, and we need to start walking that back.”
Even before the primary, Penn was in the good graces of the Wyoming Republican Party: She spoke at the Save Wyoming rally in Lander, an invitation-only event where only one candidate for any particular seat was present. Penn had two Republican challengers. The Wyoming GOP has since supported her financially, and she’s also garnered 87 individual donations totaling nearly $24,000, including a pair of $1,500 gifts from Dan and Carleen Brophy, wealthy Jackson Hole funders who back anti-establishment Republicans. LeBeau, meanwhile, has raised a fraction of what Penn has — around $2,000, according to secretary of state data.
What to watch for:
The outcome of Penn v. LeBeau may come down to tribal voter turnout and how well a Trump-aligned candidate plays in western Fremont County. At the former president’s May rally in Casper, Penn told WyoFile the impetus for her political awakening and bid to run for office was how current legislators responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. “They claim to be conservative,” Penn said at the time, “but that’s not how they vote.”
Political observers are split on whether Penn’s far-right viewpoints would have appeal in House District 33. Allen thinks they will: “People are extremely frustrated with the status quo right now,” he said. “All this woke stuff, that does not play well here.”
Hinds, however, doesn’t see Trumpiness as a winning ticket. The rhetoric is “enticing to a certain element,” she said, but the actual issues of the Trump platform don’t trickle down and affect the lives of district residents.
As a part of our ongoing coverage of the 2022 election, WyoFile is keeping an eye on notable legislative races across the state. Follow our Legislative Races to Watch series here. -Ed