Historian and former University of Wyoming vice president for institutional advancement Peter Simpson retired from that post in 1997, but remained at UW where he taught political science for many years. Simpson represented Sheridan County in the Wyoming House of Representatives from 1981-1984. He was the Republican nominee for governor of Wyoming in 1986. Here he urges state legislators to take a pragmatic approach and focus on issues that matter most  — Ed.

Former Gov. Dave Freudenthal came to visit with my class last spring. He made a comment that animated the students and generated a discussion that’s gone on ever since among friends and colleagues, including brother Al, as you can see by his Forum contribution this week.

Pete Simpson
Pete Simpson

Dave said, and I paraphrase, “what’s happened to good old Wyoming pragmatism – the Wyoming-specific, practical approaches to Wyoming problems that has characterized Wyoming political decisionmaking in the past?”

The topic had been the Legislature’s rejection of Medicaid expansion during the last session, and Dave suggested part of the reason was its association with Obamacare. “That’s ideology,” he went on to say, “and it’s alien to the Wyoming Way.”  He called it an example of the “nationalization” of Wyoming politics.

I think I know what Dave was getting at. I can recall during my own time in the Wyoming Legislature in the early 1980’s few of us were unaware of national issues, particularly “hot button” issues like abortion. Wyoming law provided for state support of women’s health through the WIC program (Women, Infants and Children) which featured a nutritional support agenda. And, there were invariably efforts to restrict access to that program for any woman seeking abortion.

Members respected those efforts. The Labor, Health and Social Services Committee always put the bill on the floor and the issue was seriously debated. When the vote came it was usually to preserve universal access. But, members’ personal beliefs were not couched in ideology. There was no sloganeering or preachment. It was an issue of conscience. And regardless of personal passions, it was not treated as a legislative priority ahead of schools or public health in general.

Let me be clear, my comments here are not to disparage the Wyoming Legislature in any way. I served in that body and as one of my colleagues once said, “Everybody here has as good a claim to goodwill and honesty as anybody else.”

He was “spot on.” I had high admiration for my fellow members then and I respect those serving today. As the late and revered newscaster, David Brinkley, once said during a visit to Sheridan, “You’re lucky here in Wyoming. You have an amateur legislature. Your representatives live with the people they represent and they live with the laws they make. That’s what the founding fathers intended.”

That should be a source of pride for us all.

What I want to get at here, however, is what Dave, I think, was implying. There is a trend in recent political discourse and in our political attitudes in Wyoming that may be taking on more and more of the divisiveness and partisanship of, say, Washington, DC.

Historically, we’ve tended to argue over party principles — over the way to get things done. Rarely do we argue over ideological purity or partisan advantage for its own sake. We’re too close to each other. We know each other. Washington, DC? Heaven forbid!!   

But, the concern has been raised; so, I scanned the report on legislative interim committee work recently and took a look at pre-filed bills for the upcoming legislative session. There are several in the hopper, though not nearly as many as for general sessions in the past. I didn’t see much of anything on the “hot button” issues of today: gun rights, gay marriage, climate change and the like. But, such issues generally come up in late filings or in amendments from the floor.

More concerning, however, is the seeming lack of interim work on what some might call “deep” tax reform (are all the prospects really yet on the table to replace long term mineral revenue shortfalls, for example?), on budgeting for public education (there’s lots on school and teacher accountability and on funding cuts but less it seems on program support and finding new funding) and on access to medical care for the uninsured, the underinsured and the poor in general (Wyoming’s rejection of Medicaid expansion meant increased numbers of uninsured as it did in all other states rejecting Medicaid expansion).

These problems are important and solutions need to be sought. But, any one of them can, of course, be hijacked by ideology, by special interest lobbying, by outside money and by petty demagoguery.

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Dave Freudenthal and brother Al are right. We should be wary going into the next session, all of us — constituents and legislators alike — and on the lookout for whatever threatens to put party or ideology ahead of Wyoming’s common good. We need on those occasions to remind ourselves of the Wyoming Way — the practical, pragmatic, Wyoming-specific way of meeting challenges we face.

The words “populism,” “tea-party,” “liberalism” and “alt-right” hover over the political landscape like a dense fog. Wyoming is better prepared than any state in the union to lift that fog, keep a clear vision and stay on the road to making the Wyoming we want for ourselves and our children. After all, we have the cleanest air in America by NOAA’s measurement. How can we miss?                        

Well, that’s enough from the Simpson boys, right? I’ll keep hosting this Forum as a way to bring continued civil dialogue to Wyoming. Those of you who have either less grey hair or more hair in general can visualize a desirable future for Wyoming and the ways to assure it. Tell us what you think.

Pete Simpson

Dr. Peter Kooi Simpson is a University of Wyoming professor emeritus who taught political science for more than 12 years. A University of Wyoming basketball player and veteran of the Navy, Pete earned...

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