Wyoming can be on the right side of history

— April 15, 2014

Kerry Drake
Kerry Drake

I met someone the other day from a political subgroup I had mistakenly thought was nearly extinct: a liberal Republican.

In Wyoming, of all places.

There are many conservative Democrats around the state, but their counterparts on the political spectrum, progressive Republicans, have been a dying group for quite awhile as the more extreme, right-wing members of the party seem to be taking over the soul of the GOP. The Tea Party crowd is loud, extreme and absolutely not afraid to get in anybody’s face to let them know what they believe.

This isn’t surprising, considering the media resources that pummel the population every day with the message that Americans’ rights are being taken away, our nation’s morals have gone to hell, and it’s all the fault of that Democrat/black/socialist/Muslim/freedom-hating hypocrite who occupies the White House.

Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and a seemingly never ending wave of right-wing radio talk shows have made fortunes selling this blather since Barack Obama was elected president, and before that they made Bill Clinton their anti-Christ. They have Hillary on deck for the same treatment.

The media idols on the right – Rush, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Alan Jones – have long made it seem like a crime for Republicans to compromise with Democrats to get things accomplished for the benefit of the country. Obstructionists didn’t always control the U.S. House, and it wasn’t that long ago when the more moderate wings of both major parties could band together to promote an agenda that didn’t cast everyone as either a winner or loser. Differences of opinion could be worked out because, if you strip away the pettiness of politics, we’re all Americans at heart.

If you watch nothing but conservative or liberal talk shows, it’s easy to get discouraged about the future of this country. Yet I sense things may be changing, and we may be headed for – dare I say it? – a kinder, gentler brand of politics.

Two things I’ve seen in the past week have made me actually feel hopeful. The first was the liberal Wyoming Republican I met, who convinced me to stop defining everyone by the narrow labels that are convenient for the media to use to make us buy whatever crisis of the day they may be peddling.

She is a Republican because her parents and grandparents are Republicans, and she is carrying on a family tradition. But it’s more than that – she knows the party used to stand for smaller government, lower taxes, and keeping government out of people’s lives. The party they find in 2014 is a much different animal, but they still believe in the core principles they learned as kids. They want to belong to a party that will return to those values.

That brings me to the second sign that things are changing for the better: a renewed sense of tolerance within the GOP for other ideas. When I saw former Wyoming U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson on TV explaining why he supports the rights of gays and lesbians to marry, I felt immediately that it represents a vital sea change in American politics.

It wasn’t because I was surprised by Simpson’s support of gay citizens, because I’ve known that’s been his position for a long time. He has never been afraid to tell the story of one of his gay relatives who bravely fought in World War II, and was one of Simpson’s first heroes as he grew up in Cody. The love and respect he has for that man is shown clearly in his voice, and he knows in his heart it is wrong to restrict anyone’s right to love and marry whomever they choose, regardless of gender.

As Simpson says in his brilliant, emotional advertisement for the Freedom to Marry campaign, “I’m a Republican. The party’s basic core is: government out of your life and the right to be left alone.”

The reason Simpson’s message is so important is because many young Republicans were shocked that a conservative politician from his generation would support same-sex marriage. They may not have wanted to publicly show support for gay unions before, but Simpson’s ad has made them realize that it is acceptable to be tolerant of people the party has often singled out for ridicule. It carries over from Ronald Reagan’s statement that Republicans need to be a party with a big tent that welcomes many different views.

Simpson’s simple but heartfelt message needs to be heard by everyone, especially in Wyoming, where the recognition of gay rights is moving in the right direction but at a slower pace than the rest of the country. Nationally, 59 percent support same-sex marriage, and 34 percent oppose it. Those numbers are nearly reversed from what polls found a decade ago.

Meanwhile, state bans on gay marriage are continuing to fall at a fast rate, either through the official actions of legislatures, votes of the people or rulings from courts. I know that’s still abhorrent to a lot of people in Wyoming, because I read their hate-filled rants on the subject in blogs and comments on news articles on a daily basis.

But Wyoming has the chance to be on the right side of history now, and it should listen to Al Simpson and others who know the “Equality State” should not discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation; it’s the antithesis of what we claim to stand for.

Wyoming should, but probably won’t, drop its opposition to the lawsuit filed against it by four gay couples who call the state home and want to marry. It’s a lawsuit the state is destined to lose, but that hasn’t kept the current administration from continuing to waste time and money fighting legal battles on losing causes, from Obamacare to its attempt to take powers away from the superintendent of public instruction. The message seems to be that we’ll go down swinging.

Gov. Matt Mead makes the argument that gay marriage is prohibited under current law, and Wyoming’s attorney general needs to enforce existing law. I get that, and it’s a reasonable position.

But why on earth did Wyoming recently file a friend-of-the-court brief for the state of Virginia, which is defending its own gay marriage ban? Fourteen states signed the amicus brief, including Wyoming, even though Virginia’s own attorney general, Democrat Mark Herring, refused to defend the state’s ban. In fact, he’s weighed in on the side of the two gay couples challenging his state’s ban, which was overturned by a lower court and is being appealed next month.

Herring argues that the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause guards the fundamental right to marry and trumps the states’ authority to decide the issue. Wyoming’s attorney general obviously could make the same argument, if the governor directed him to do so.

One reason for taking that action would be the Legislature’s decisions earlier this year to reject bills for and against recognition of same-sex marriages in the state. Perhaps state legislators looked at what’s happened elsewhere, and decided not to act until the issue winds its way through state and federal courts. Court rulings opened the gates to same-sex marriage in New Jersey and New Mexico, while judges struck down state bans in Michigan, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia and Texas. Marriage equality is now the law in 17 states and the District of Columbia.

As they say, Wyoming doesn’t have a dog in Virginia’s fight, so there’s no reason for Wyoming to spend taxpayers’ money to inject itself into that state’s court battle in the name of all our residents. On an issue that’s historically been so divisive, which has courts ruling in favor of gay marriage and polls showing increasing support for marriage equality, and has Al Simpson as the voice of reason, let’s be on the right side of history for once instead of fighting for a losing cause until the last drop of blood has been shed.

— Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake is a contributor to WyoHistory.org. He also moderates the WyPols blog.

— Columns are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters. WyoFile welcomes guest columns and op-ed pieces from all points of view. If you’d like to write a guest column for WyoFile, please contact WyoFile editor-in-chief Dustin Bleizeffer at dustin@wyofile.com.

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Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. A new beginning for Wyofile I think its great. baby steps. we are all here to catch when you fall Because it’s the “Cowboy Way”.

  2. I have to agree – well written and on point. We really do need to be open minded.

    Interesting the quality of the argument when you leave out the inflammatory language and politics, left or right, republican or democrat.

  3. Live and Let Live–we could use a bit more of that fine philosophy here in the so-called Equality State.