(Opinion) Twenty-seven women are running in House races and 10 others are candidates for Senate seats this November. Many will win and hopefully change the attitude and look of the Wyoming Legislature, adding gender diversity to what now looks like a class reunion of mostly old, bald, conservative white men.
I welcome the change, and so should the rest of the state.
The only woman now serving in the Senate, Bernadine Craft of Rock Springs in Senate District 12, is not seeking re-election after three terms in the House and one Senate term. But another Democrat, Liisa Anselmi-Dalton, filed to replace Craft and since she is unopposed, it’s almost guaranteed that the Senate will continue to have at least one female member.
Nine other women are Senate candidates, including four who are taking on incumbents. Republican Affie Ellis will challenge Democratic Sen. Floyd Esquibel in SD 8; independent Cindy Baldwin will face Republican Sen. Hank Coe in SD 18; Democrat Chesie Lee will battle GOP Sen. Eli Bebout in SD 26; and Democrat Kim Holloway will meet Republican Sen. Jim Anderson in the SD 28 tilt.
Meanwhile in the House, only three of the 27 women running are getting a “free ride” this year. The unopposed female candidates are Reps. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle), HD 5; Sue Wilson (R-Cheyenne), HD 7; and JoAnn Dayton (D-Rock Springs), HD 17.
HD 26 in parts of Big Horn and Park counties features an all-female race with three candidates: Republican Jamie Flitner, Democrat Jean Petty and the Constitutional Party’s Joyce Collins.
Nine women are taking on the difficult task of facing House incumbents (one of them also a woman): Laurie Longtine (D) vs. Rep. Bunky Loucks (R) in Casper, Julia Stuble (D) vs. Rep. Lloyd Larsen (R) in Lander, Larissa Sneider (D) vs. Rep. Mark Piiparinen (R) in Evanston, Jackie Freeze (D) vs. Rep. Mark Baker (R) in Rock Springs, Debbie Bovee (D) vs. Rep. Gerald Gay (R) in Casper, Val Burgess (D) vs. Rep. Mark Jennings (R) in Sheridan, Marylee White (D) in Wilson vs. Rep. Marti Halverson (R) in Etna, Jeanne Brown (D) vs. Rep. Albert Sommers (R) in Pinedale, and Deirdre Stoelzle (D) vs. Rep. Steve Harshman (R) in Casper.
Female candidates have 37 different reasons for running
The 37 women seeking state legislative seats likely have 37 different reasons for throwing their hats in the ring. Some decided they could finally devote time to a political race because they either retired or their children were grown up, while others are being driven by issues they feel strongly about. Some were talked into it by family and friends, and others decided no matter how busy they are between their home and work lives they could no longer sit on the sidelines and watch the same state lawmakers make bad decisions year after year.
This is Affie Ellis’ second foray into state politics, following a 2006 bid for House District 29 in the Colorado Legislature when she lived in Denver. Ellis faced another incumbent (also a woman) in that Colorado race – Democratic Rep. Debbie Benefield. Ellis lost the general election, 12,001 to 10,746, but said the experience is helping in her campaign against Esquibel, a 20-year veteran of the Wyoming Legislature.
“I didn’t take the decision [to run again] lightly, because I know the amount of work it takes to run a tough campaign,” said Ellis, a member of the Navajo Nation who has three young children. “In Wyoming, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. Wyoming needs new, energetic leaders.”
The attorney and businesswoman said she has vowed to knock on all of the doors in her district, barring any aggressive dogs being outside. She thinks that personal contact with voters is essential to any political campaign. “As long as I’ve lived in Cheyenne I’ve never had a legislative candidate knock on my door, and I wanted to change that,” she said.
Ellis said if she’s elected to the Senate, she will be able to voice some concerns from the kind of people state lawmakers often don’t hear from: Native Americans, mothers and small business owners. “I don’t see those voices strongly represented,” she said.
She’s still staking out positions on several key issues, including Medicaid expansion, but she makes no apologies for not deciding yet how she would vote. “I’m not interested in making quick decisions without having facts,” she said. “I want to hear what people in my district have to say.”
Some candidates, like Chesie Lee of SD 26 in Riverton, are veteran lobbyists who have spent years watching the Legislature at work and know the process inside out. Still, she was a very reluctant candidate.
“My advocacy [for different issues] has always been important to me,” she explained, saying she hesitated over dropping her advocacy role. Lee also knew the task of challenging such a well-known opponent as Sen. Eli Bebout would be demanding. When friends initially approached her about entering the race, she told them she didn’t have the time or money to do it.
She said what ultimately changed her mind is that Bebout hasn’t had an opponent in 20 years. “He’s had a free ride, and I don’t think he’s been representing the people of his district,” she said. “He represents his own business interests.”
Lee noted ethics charges against Bebout were filed with the legislative leadership this summer, accusing him of conflicts of interest for voting on issues in which he allegedly could financially benefit. Bebout denied all charges and the Legislative Management Council dismissed the case on Aug. 26.
When she started campaigning door-to-door, Lee said she received good responses to her key points, especially her opposition to Bebout’s plan to transfer federal public land to the state of Wyoming to manage. Bebout was undeniably the architect of the controversial proposal, and pushed a feasibility study through the Legislature after serving as chairman of a select committee on public lands.
“The people I meet while campaigning — especially men — want to have access to public land for recreation,” the Democrat said.
The other two main issues she always tells potential voters about is her support for Medicaid expansion and her desire for state government to work more closely with the tribes on the Wind River Reservation. Lee said she generally gets a positive response to both issues, with the caveat that many are still convinced the state won’t ever cooperate more with the tribes. “They say, ‘Good luck with that one,'” she related.
In summary, Lee said she wants to break up the “good-ol’-boy” system in Wyoming that her GOP opponent not only symbolizes, but is responsible for maintaining.
Splitting the vote in Cheyenne
In Cheyenne, the Republican primary in Senate District 6 yielded a bizarre outcome. The three-way race included HD 9 Rep. Dave Zwonitzer, rancher Lindi Kirkbride and gun-rights protector Anthony Bouchard. The first two candidates are moderate Republicans, but Bouchard represents a far-right faction of the GOP.
Zwonitzer and Kirkbride essentially split the moderate vote, together winning about 65 percent of the total but both losing to Bouchard, director of the Wyoming Gun Owners Association. The final tally was Bouchard, 1,137, Zwonitzer, 1,132 and Kirkbride, 978. A mandatory recount confirmed that Bouchard won.
Zwonitzer and Kirkbride vowed to run clean, positive campaigns, but their opponent filled up mailboxes in SD 6 with fliers that featured derogatory pictures of President Barack Obama and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and outrageous statements about the federal government’s alleged seizure of personal rights, including those guarded by the Second Amendment. The negative tactics that represent the worst of modern-day politics won in the end.
I can’t imagine the electorate wants to see any more of this hate-filled campaign, but thankfully Bouchard will not get a free ride to a Senate seat. Zwonitzer’s wife, Kym Zwonitzer, filed as an independent candidate after the primary and had the necessary signatures certified last week to get on the general election ballot.
Make no mistake: She’s not a surrogate for her husband, who served since 2006 in the House. She has her own views and is running her own campaign. Both Kirkbride and the current senator representing SD 6, Wayne Johnson, have endorsed her.
Kym Zwonitzer comes from an active political family. Her mother, Charlene Stogsdill, ran for the Legislature and so did her great-grandmother, Meroa Thomas. Both lost, but she hopes to be the first woman in her family to break that trend.
Dave and Kym Zwonitzer’s son, Dan Zwonitzer, is a Republican who has represented HD 43 since 2005.
“I am a lifelong Republican and I’m proud to be a Republican volunteer at the grassroots level,” Kym Zwonitzer said. “I will run as an independent but I will serve as a common-sense Republican. With my background in small business and financial management I want to help our state navigate our declining revenue situation without missing any opportunity to attract new industry and help small businesses grow.”
The candidacies of Ellis, Lee and Zwonitzer embody the desire to serve their state that all 36 women running for the Legislature this year possess, plus the skills and competitiveness needed to do the job.
(Read a related story about who funded whom in the primary election for Wyoming’s U.S. House seat)
One senate candidate wasn’t counted in the original writing of this column, which has since been updated to correct that error. Kerry Drake adds; One of the female Senate candidates, Tara Nethercott, defeated two men in the GOP primary for SD 4, David Pope and Bill Weaver. In the general election she will face Democratic Rep. Ken Esquibel, who now represents HD 41 in Cheyenne — Ed.