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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

No "profiles in courage" in Wyoming politics

There have been many past leaders in the Cowboy State who chose to stand by their principles rather than bow to outside pressures. Such intestinal fortitude is in short supply today.

By Rodger McDaniel 

The refusal of Wyoming’s congressional delegation to meet constituents in town hall meetings exhibits a fundamental lack of courage. Yeah, it might be a tough couple of hours, but some folks are concerned, angry or frightened. Instead of stepping up, they send staffers to face the crowd.

Wyoming politicians haven’t always lacked “profiles in courage.” I
U.S. Rep. Teno Roncalio (right) campaigns with Teddy Kennedy in 1972
read John F. Kennedy’s book by that title in junior high. It gave me a vision for public service. Kennedy wrote of, in his words, “pressures experienced by eight U.S. senators and the grace with which they endured them – the risks to their careers, the unpopularity of their courses.” Alas, there’s no such grace or risk-taking among current members of Congress.

It’s useful to revisit times when Wyoming had courageous public servants.

One early hero was Asa Mercer. He had the wherewithal to speak the truth about the Johnson County War. Initially a supporter of the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association, Mercer came to believe the cattle barons weren’t protecting their interests from “rustlers.” They were trying to drive small ranchers off land they wanted for themselves. Mercer exposed them, publishing a controversial book. The barons endeavored to suppress “Banditti of the Plains.” Mercer was beaten, an arsonist destroyed his publishing office, and he lost his job. But his 1894 book still stands.

Stan Hathaway, a Republican governor from 1967-75, boldly fought the powerful mining industry and members of his own party to enact Wyoming’s first tax on minerals. He battled the same power base for a constitutional amendment creating the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund. A Casper Star-Tribune headline at the time said, “Stan drops bomb, backs mineral tax.” It took audacity for a Republican to “drop” that bomb on an industry that exercised such control over Wyoming politics.

Teno Roncalio was Wyoming’s congressman in 1972 when El Paso Natural Gas proposed a crazy fracking project. They planned to detonate underground nuclear explosions in Sublette County to free deep deposits of natural gas. Even the Atomic Energy Commission supported “Project Wagon Wheel.” There were many heroes in this struggle, but even though Teno had lost Sublette County by a significant margin, he valiantly fought their battle. After persuading the speaker to appoint him to the House Atomic Energy Committee, Teno maneuvered to kill Wagon Wheel’s funding.

Gov. Milward Simpson opposed the death penalty as a matter of principle. He knew it would cost him the governorship. It did. Milward’s son, Al, fearlessly supported gay rights and the right of a woman to choose, costing him the 1988 GOP vice presidential nomination.

When Congress authorized LBJ to escalate the Vietnam War, Sen. Gale McGee was one of 56 Democrats voting for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. As the war became increasingly unpopular, nearly every other Democrat abandoned the president. Undaunted, though abandoned, McGee maintained support for the war with an unflinching belief that it was in America’s interest.

In state-federal relationships, political pandering almost always overcomes principle. Not so for former Gov. Leslie Miller. When FDR proposed expanding Teton National Park in 1943, every Wyoming politician was opposed. Miller, a Democrat, believed the highest use of that region was tourism and recreation. Looking to the future, Miller was alone in testifying for the park’s expansion. He said of the opponents, including a Democratic governor, “Seldom, if ever, in the history of Wyoming has a project which should be entitled to sympathetic consideration been so grossly misrepresented.”

If only Leslie Miller or other intrepid souls were around to offer similar words to Gov. Matt Mead, who fearfully insists Wyoming remain the only state unwilling to permit refugee resettlement. Miller’s words also would be a welcome retort to the congressional delegation’s blindly partisan willingness to toss thousands of their constituents overboard to fulfill a campaign promise to “repeal and replace” Obamacare and to state legislators who voted party, rather than conscience, to deny expansion of Medicaid to thousands of low-income working people.

Time passes and, sadly, one need look further and further back in history for any “profiles in courage.”

Rodger McDaniel lives is the pastor at Highlands Presbyterian Church in Cheyenne. He resides in Laramie.

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