Simpson Forum: Wyoming’s political identity

By Sienna White
— August 6, 2013
Sienna White
Sienna White

Being raised by two scientists produced myriad unsurprising, but often laughable, results, and this upbringing drastically impacted the way I view the world. My family has been known to share our favorite unique genetic anomalies over the dinner table, to discuss the outcomes of dihybrid-cross Punnett squares at holiday gatherings, and to identify commonly seen fauna and flora by their scientific names in everyday conversation. This science-centric background made me inherently skeptical of the validity of graphs and statistics, given the ease with which they can be manipulated and the frequency with which they are misrepresented. I mention this because the question of Wyoming’s political identity is usually answered with numbers.

  • 576,412. According to the 2012 census, the population of Wyoming is 576,412 people.
  • 90% white and 80% Christian. Polls have found that about 80% of Wyomingites consider themselves Christian, including an 11% Mormon minority, while the remaining 18-20% don’t consider themselves religious.
  • 1964. This was the last time Wyoming elected a Democratic Presidential candidate and it was one of only eight times that’s happened since Wyoming was granted statehood.
  • 2nd. Wyoming has the second highest average elevation in the U.S., after Colorado.
  • #1 and #2. Wyoming is the number one producer of coal in the United States, and is ranked second for total U.S. energy production. Wyoming’s natural resource commodities include coal, natural gas, coal-bed methane, crude oil, uranium, and trona.

It’s easy to look at those familiar numbers and conclude Wyoming’s political identity is obviously extremely conservative, and largely Republican. Because the data strongly supports that conclusion, the conversation usually ends there. Thus, Wyoming is classified as a radical right-wing state with a wealth of coal mining and natural resources.

Related story: Introducing the Pete Simpson Forum
Related story: Introducing the Pete Simpson Forum

I, however, argue that this generalized classification of Wyoming’s political identity is inaccurate and unrepresentative of the state where I was raised. Statistics are often used as an easy way to answer tough questions, an end in themselves, much to the detriment of the objective of science and statistics – which is understanding. Wyoming is a complex, diverse, anachronism of a state, and I believe the question of Wyoming’s political identity, both static and evolving, defies single sentence classification.

Allow me to preface my thoughts on our political identity with the disclosure that my love for Wyoming is absolute and unconditional. My parents haven’t locked their front door since before I was born, I learned to drive in an ancient, grizzled pickup truck while my parents threw hay bales in the back, and I was six years old before I saw an escalator for the first time at the Denver Museum of Natural History. There is no better place in the world to grow up, and I’m always conflicted when I tell people how great it is – I’m proud of where I come from, but I don’t want a stampede of outsiders moving in!

Despite this unfaltering loyalty, it’s abundantly clear to me that our state is facing quite a few tough conversations that can’t be avoided any longer. The cognitive dissonance I feel toward the place that made me who I am is significant, and I’m often unable to describe, let alone resolve, the feeling of discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs. Our state has innumerable positive one-of-a-kind qualities, yet we also maintain more than our share of backwards, archaic, and outright discriminatory views. The Millennial Generation, even in Wyoming, tends to be far more liberal than our parents – so we face the challenge of balancing the Wyoming values we grew up with, and the social progressive movement many of us relate to. This evolution is a component of Wyoming’s political identity that cannot be ignored. To complicate things further, Wyoming endures the juxtaposition of a politically conservative majority, with a country that loves reading headlines exaggerating the extremism of that portion of our population. Wyoming’s political identity is riddled with success as well as failure, radically conservative political statements and progressive victories.

related story lawrence woods
Related story: Wyoming’s political identity by Lawrence Woods

In 1998, Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered in Laramie, Wyo., and it became the United States’ most infamous gay hate crime. The horror of what happened that night breaks my heart, but I can’t help wondering why the 30 fatally violent hate crimes that were committed against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender victims in other parts of the United States last year alone didn’t receive remotely comparable news coverage. Those deaths were certainly no less grisly or tragic, but people love to read news stories that reinforce pre-existing stereotypes, and none of those murders took place in a state like Wyoming.

Wyoming is “The Equality State” and although we may have granted women the right to vote at least in part due to a minimum population threshold for statehood, we proudly take credit for being the first state to elect a female governor. Our Equality State status was publicly called into question in light of Matthew Shepard’s murder, and it appears we face another harsh reality check. Studies indicate that on average, women in the U.S. earn about 77 cents for every dollar a man does, creating a wage gap of 23 cents. The most recent research, based on 2011 data, found that in Washington, D.C., women earn 90.4 cents, narrowing the gap to just under 10 cents. But in Wyoming, women earn 66.6 cents for each dollar a man does, bringing the wage gap to 33.4 cents.

As I mentioned, knowing where data comes from is imperative, so my initial conflicted reaction to the not-so-equal state of affairs surrounding Wyoming’s gender wage gap, was that the data couldn’t possibly represent the whole picture. In 2011, Casper, Wyo., was named one of CNN Money’s nine fastest growing boom towns in the United States with rapid economic growth rooted in mining and natural resources. I hypothesized that gender segregation by industry had to be skewing the state-wide wage gender data. Disappointingly, I was wrong. Women are paid significantly less than men across the board, including those working in Education and Health Care, and 26 percent of female headed households in Wyoming live below the federal poverty line.

Alarmingly, Wyoming law also punishes those guilty of animal abuse more harshly than it punishes those guilty of domestic violence and child abuse, and we have one of the highest domestic violence rates in the country.

Despite Wyoming’s notorious “keep the government out of our business” attitude, it’s interesting to note that Wyoming receives more federal tax dollars per capita in aid than any state but Alaska. Our federal aid, per capita, is more than double the U.S. average yet we vehemently oppose any mention of regulation by the federal government. This opposition extends to issues as varied as federal gun regulation, which we embarrassingly attempted to nullify preemptively through state legislation in 2013, to the listing and monitoring of endangered species.

We are lucky enough to have the state-funded Hathaway Scholarship, created by the legislature in 2005, with a $400 million permanent endowment — the income from which gives all Wyoming high school grads the opportunity to receive full-ride scholarships to the University of Wyoming. In contrast, Wyoming was one of the states that filed suit against Obamacare opposing legislation that would allow those same Wyoming Hathaway scholars to remain on their parents’ insurance plans and have access to affordable healthcare.

The federal government began subsidizing agriculture in 1933, and farm aid programs have been criticized for encouraging troubled farmers to take “bigger-than-prudent risks,” yet Wyoming received $758 million in federal agriculture subsidies between 1995 and 2012. There is an inherent contradiction between calling for smaller government and condemning the national budget deficit, but accepting significant federal aid – yet Wyoming certainly maintains both positions simultaneously.

So in answer to the question: “What is Wyoming’s political identity?” Well, it depends.

Wyoming is a breathtakingly beautiful, complex, complicated, incongruent place with a political landscape as varied as the geography and weather. Snowstorms during Cody’s Fourth of July Parade have happened on more than one occasion during my lifetime. I watched Republican and social conservative, Pat Childers, whose daughter is a lesbian, give a truly moving speech opposing a proposed “defense of marriage” addition to the Wyoming constitution in our House of Representatives. I walked across the stage at my graduation from the University of Wyoming with a class of more young women than young men.

As a Millennial raised in Wyoming, I oppose our far-right social conservatism and our frequent disregard for environmental sustainability, but I will always have a bucking bronc on my license plate. So, I think this is a pivotal moment in Wyoming’s history, and we have the opportunity to choose what we’re going to stand for. Will we be the location of the Libertarian Free State Project? Will we be the most conservative state in the nation? Will we be known for our gender discrimination and failure to provide constitutionally guaranteed equal protection? Or will we successfully broaden our definitions, without watering down our Wyoming values, and remain the Equality State?

Wyoming has a population of half a million people – not a very large statistical sample. Our population is not one that readily lends itself to inclusion in correlative data or recognizable statistical trends. Wyoming’s political identity in the 21st century is yet to be determined, but the unquestionable common denominator among Wyomingites, and the reason I know we’ll survive the tough conversations ahead, is the value we place on integrity – a good start for any conversation.

 — Sienna White is a former University of Wyoming student of Pete Simpson’s who hails from Cody. She is entering her second year at Case Western Reserve Law School studying international legal ethics.

This column appears as part of WyoFile’s Pete Simpson Forum, a project to stimulate civil dialogue on issues that matter to Wyoming. 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.

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  1. After Ms White graduated from Law School(in the MidWest), it appears she has not moved back to Cody, or Wyoming. Well, Googles etc. As noted, Wyoming’s loss, will be some other state’s gain. I wish her well, she will go far in all that life has on the road ahead for her.

    Jim Hagood

  2. On page 404 of Gerry Spence’s book, “the Making of a Country Lawyer”, he purports to attribute words; a quote to ” ex U of Wyo law Dean Trelease that ” The law is designed to deprive people of justice”.
    Spence then goes on to claim Trelease said “We have to be concerned about what the American Bar , Association thinks of us”. In the dustup between ex Dean of the WYO Law School, Steve Easton, and ex t U of Wyo President Bob Sternberg, the ABA came up. In the 2015 U S World and News
    Reports, the U of Wyo law school is ranked # 108. It was absurd for Sternberg to claim, the U of Wyo Law
    School was tops then dropped, as he was fed some bad info, for some with an agenda.
    The Task Force agenda, and its composition was indicative on how politics is played in WYO,
    The Head of the Task Force was with a big corporate law firm in Denver, one that had a long record of suing the Federal Government over resource issues. I never got a reply to my open record acts request from the U of Wyo Law school on ABA reports. After I graduated from the U of Wyo law school, I got one of the most prestigious fellowships in the USA to attend George Washington University(GWU) Law School, to get an LL’M, graduate degree in Law. It had the first environmental law program in America. In the early 1970’s, environmental law was a new field. It is puzzling the resistance of the U of Wyoming law school, to respond to my Open Record Act request on ABA reports.
    GWU law school is ranked # 22 in the U S News And World Report, linked to ABA ratings.
    I do not entirely agree with Mr Spence on his wild claims that students are defrauded of their legal education. What is ironic, he is a grad of U of Wyo law school, as are most of his pards, and associates in his Law Firm. Some were in my 1970 class at U of Wyo Law. One ran for Congress in 1994, and was defeated, as was the ex Dean of U of Wyo law, Pete. when he ran for teh U S Congress. I asked Pete what his response was as to Spence.
    He gave no reply. That is odd, does he not give a damn about U of Wyo law school? He was a DEAN.
    He now lives in FL.
    Isn’t he an Alumni of U of Wyo Law School. So, I note this bright lady( S W) on her comments on Wyo. She went out of state to Law School. However, I am open for any to give their perspective on Spence’s claims. Except silence is the mode in this matter. Omerta. Spence LL C and marketing, Marcos, and assorted.

    Jim Hagood

  3. This is a very well written and excellent piece by Ms White.
    It is curious this bright aspiring law grad did not go to the University of Wyo law School.
    I have yet to see one U of Wyo law grad respond to the assertion of Gerry Spence on his BLOG
    “Is it not a miracle that after having been defrauded of their education at the hands of the entrenched in our law schools that American lawyers haven taken on the fraudulent mindset of their educators who have defrauded them?”

    One set of data that is key to understanding Wyo, is the money from places like Harris County Texas or other places that have big oil companies(headquarters outside WYO) that sends lots of money(bundled) into Wyoming, its way as to federal elections in Wyoming.(GOP LINKED)

    Are we to presume that Sienna White got a J D from the Univ of Norte Dame Law School(2015), and now works in the law profession in Ohio. If so, it is Wyoming’s lost this bright young lady, who left Wyoming.
    It was Ohio’s gain, this move of Ms White to a place far from Wyoming. Otherwise, updates please.

    Jim Hagood

  4. YAY! I was really pleased to see this forum topic starting up, because I also believe this “public” conversation is long overdue and Wyoming could be on the cusp of recognizing a new paradigm of “political identity”. I have been waiting for this conversation for years……. THANK YOU!
    The biggest thing I struggle with is the disconnect between the actual identity and the accepted identity of Wyoming and the fact that people continue to allow the accepted identity to reign. By accepted I’m referring to the white, paternalistic/hegemonic, rancher, oil & gas, republican/libertarian, unlimited property rights to a fault, pro-business to a fault, anti-outsider, anti-government, party of “no”, nut-hoarding, insular communities with an inferiority complex ( the list could go on). Basically, how Wyoming is stereotyped by ourselves, our neighbors, and visitors. These characteristics are true, but not all the time and not in every circumstance. Wyoming may not be as diverse as other states, but we do have variety and nuance, and it would be refreshing for a change if that was recognized as being “legitimately” Wyoming also. I often wonder if this is a function of the live and let live attitude, a function of rural inferiority, Wyomingites fear of self-promotion (something positive and progressive about ourselves, because god-forbid someone from out of state might move here). I just feel like a lot of times those stereotypes are so out of date, yet at times they are wildly current. Some of the hypocrisy will not be resolved, but it would be great if we could take a long look at ourselves and work at resolving it. For example, let’s stop perpetuating our myths like “independence” when we are clearly very dependent. Could we consider making a choice? Let’s not accept federal aid and call our selves independent, or accept the Federal aide and celebrate how good we are at getting taxpayer money back to our state and stop talking about our independence. One of the Cowboy code of ethics, is honesty. Why doesn’t our state be honest with ourselves and show our integrity by recognizing what we are and celebrating the good in that instead of trying to live in the past or be something we aren’t. I feel like we are the guy in our 30’s who just can’t get over his high school football career, that never played in college. It’s time to move on, and be realistic about who were are and where we are at. Until we recognize the variety and the changing attitudes, we aren’t going to be able to forge anything of lasting value.

    I would also like to throw out there, that I think part of the reason this shift has never/not taken place, is because we have typically exported our youth and their ideas, so it has been easy to maintain the same ideology for so long. A really positive outcome of the energy booms across the state is young Wyomingites moving back to Wyoming, or staying here because there is job opportunities. Quite frankly, the overwhelming ideology that Wyoming continues with is extremely frustrating for young people, and I have seen tons of them choose to move out of state again, because it is so discouraging, and there is so little room to for change without being “labeled” that many will not do it.

  5. “What is Wyoming’s political identity?”
    Ask Encada, Wyodak, BPM Minerals Halliburton Colony Operations, US Energy Corp,
    Texas owns “I never met a TV camera I didn’t like” Barrasso. Energy corporations run this state as they see fit, writing the rules for our “elected officials” to sign with the illusion of supporting the state’s best interest, pfft,,

  6. Gloria- go across town in Powell and have a frank conversation with Dave Bonner on why he did not run for reelection to the Wyoming House. If he;s honest and the sun is shining brightly , he’ll tell you it was because the new crop of Teabaggers and other fringers that came into the Wyoming Lej in recent elections are definitely not compromisers. They do not know the meaning of the word. They are not open minded.

    You of all people being from an Old School Republican family and daughter of a real titan og Wyoming GOP heritage cannot possibly believe that we here in Park County have excellent leadership in the GOP. Not when independent Kelly Jensen got thrown out of office as County Clerk for not having that ” R ” behind her name in order to install an incompetent poltroon who did. Or having one ossified French brother sitting on the County Commission while the other less articulate and intellectually challenged brother is now your GOP County Chairman , a thinly disguised teabagger of the ‘ No Compromise” ilk. I could go on , but you see the trend I’m staking here. it’s worse in other Wyoming counties. Just the whole Cindy Hill debacle should tell you the state GOP has some serious disorders to deal with. And oh by the way , the severance tax on Coal is nowhere near as high as it should be, or used to be…15 percent vs. the current 7 percent. It needs to go back to that former rate, and the proceeds be put to REAL work on Wyoming’s future instead of being rat-holed away in the PMTF coffee can. I’m sorry , but the Wyoming Republican Party is doing precious little to prepare us for the pending era when nobody wants our coal any more, and our natural gas isn’t worth what it costs to extract and transport to a good market since everybody fracks their back 40 these days. The Republicans are not now nor have theye ver been progressive in Wyoming. They stay 20-50 years back from the leading edge of EVERYTHING except keeping up the stadium and trying to hire a decent football coach it seems.

    Yes, I’m a cynic. Growing up in Wyoming can do that to you.

  7. What a great forum! Thank you Pete! I worry about our state, and then I look at my daughter and son in law and their friends, my nieces and nephews and I see the same type of commitment and sanity that I read in Sienna’s piece. It is time for these young adults to step up and let their voices be heard and shape our future. While some of them may be a bit more liberal than my grandfather, my mother or even me, I have great faith in the next generation if we give them the nudge they need to get involved.

  8. This Pete Simpson forum is a great idea and I enjoyed both columns. Regarding Mr. Wood’s support for nuclear energy, it is hard to feel confident about it when we know that millions of gallons of contaminated nuclear waste has been and continues to leak into the ocean. The Japanese now plan on spending billions to try to contain the leakage with a “wall.” Chernobyl will not be habitable for centuries to come. No solution has yet been devised to handle spent nuclear waste safely over thousands of years.

    While I agree with a great deal of Ms. Hedderman’s remarks, I am sorry that the kind of people able to serve in our legislature is so constrained. There are very few who can arrange their affairs and/or leave their jobs/kids to serve and the pay is ridiculously low. Thus we end up with many retired white males. We lose a lot by not having the kind of bright young people (male and female) who could help us be less anachronistic, more diverse, and who offer a broader spectrum of ideas. Ms. Hedderman also refers to the legislature we’ve known in the past and fails to mention that the body has become far less mainstream in recent years and now has a large contingent of extremists in its ranks. This does not bode well for the future.

  9. Just wanted to clarify one statement in the article. The author states that Wyoming Wyoming law also punishes those guilty of animal abuse more harshly than it punishes those guilty of domestic violence and child abuse. Animal Abuse under W.S. §6-3-203 carries a 6 months/$750 penalty. A second offense has 1 year/$5000 penalty.

    Domestic Violence has a 6 month/$750 penalty. A second offense is 1 year. A third offense is a 5 year felony.

    Child Abuse is a 5 year felony. Aggravated Child Abuse is a 25 year felony.

  10. Wyoming has been truly blessed with outstanding political leadership over the years. Why is this? With mostly small towns and no big cities, the electorate has a more personal knowledge of the candidates. If they don’t actually know the candidates, they typically know someone who does. This enables voters to sift through the chaff and sort out people of good character. Usually the best candidates are elected to serve on the locally elected boards, in the court houses, the legislature, and the top five state offices. Another reason our political system seems to work so well in Wyoming is that our legislature is a citizen’s body comprised of people from all walks of life who spend most of the year at home pursuing their chosen careers. They bring a broad base of knowledge from which to deliberate as opposed to career politicians who are primarily concerned with getting re-elected. Our leaders usually make decisions based on what’s best for the state, not what’s best for them.
    Wyoming people are typically not extremists but people who agree to disagree and find workable solutions. In small towns, we tend to fry our fish with everyone else in town regardless of their political biases. It’s hard to demonize the very people you know and see often on the street. Have you noticed that the extreme survivalists and hate mongers just don’t gravitate to Wyoming but like Idaho and Montana better? We just don’t have as many crazy people as some other states… maybe it’s because it’s hard place to survive. The crazies just don’t hold up.
    I believe our political identity is one of compromise. Mineral production has been tempered with high severance taxes. The revenue the State brings in via the mineral industry is used for education and scholarships for the next generation. A tremendous amount has also been socked away in the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund. Both very wise uses of the money generated from extraction. It also makes our property taxes low, a reasonable sales tax which exempts groceries, and no state income tax. Our infrastructure is sound because of visionary leadership. I think it’s because we often actually know the people we place into leadership.

  11. Sienna White, thank you for writing this piece. Nice tone nudging us out of our comfort seat. But your specifics need better fields of battle: the income by gender numbers are statistically meaningless, correlation is not causality; the Hathaway scholarships and Obamacare are non sequiturs; federal tax stupidities can’t be blamed on Wyoming people. Keep swinging though. You throw a nice cowboy loop.

  12. International Legal Ethics? I was unable to find this “area of study” on the Case Western Reserve Law School website. A citation would be appreciated.