Democrats struggle to regain a foothold

  • TRUE BLUE: Teno Roncalio at 82

    Margaret Laybourn photo

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

I remembered it as always the biggest rally before the general election, over at the Slovenski Dom, the Slovene lodge's meeting home in my hometown of Rock Springs.

Democrats from Sweetwater County, the party's big, reliable stronghold in Wyoming, showed up to drink beer, eat kranske klobase and hear the speeches.

For the always-minority Democrats, this was a last shot of adrenaline from the coal miners and all the other blue-collar folk in southwest Wyoming who didn't think it was strange to belong to a labor union.

Candidate after candidate took turns whipping up the crowd; big applause was reserved for Teno Roncalio, the local-kid-made-good as Wyoming's true-blue Democratic congressman.

Just plain "Teno" was the son of an Italian immigrant who settled on the banks of the Bitter Creek to work the underground Union Pacific Coal Co. mines. Unlike many others, Teno stayed above ground, heeding his father's words: "Don't go in the goddamn mines." He worked his way up, shining shoes, cutting hair and reporting for a newspaper to get through law school - and into a career as an old-style Democratic politician.

At the lodge he gave one of his fiery blasts about the corporate-loving Republicans and their exploitation of the working people. It was liberal Democratic stuff delivered by an earthy guy who knew the Kennedys. Everybody loved it.

His words echoed in my ears when I went to see Teno the other day, hoping for some insight on why the Democrats had fallen on such hard times.

Teno is 82 now, walking slower, his booming voice a whisper and his eyesight fading. But he retains his grasp of Wyoming politics.

"I've never seen the party at such a low ebb," he says. Democrats used to give Wyoming voters a real choice, he continues. They sent longtime Democratic Sen. Joseph C. O'Mahoney to Washington for about 25 years and elected a liberal university professor named Gale McGee in 1958.

Teno was state party chairman during McGee's first campaign. Democrats then also elected a governor and gained control of the state House. To overcome the Republican's registration edge, Roncalio ran an aggressive campaign, relying on a hundred billboards on rural Wyoming roads. It was the equivalent of a media blitz in pre-television days. The ads featured "a real handsome cowboy slapping an elephant on the butt," with the theme, "give "em the gate in "58."

The money to buy the billboards came from a network of small businessmen around Wyoming who helped finance the party. Some wealthy ranchers, whose ancestors had come to Wyoming from Texas and the South, also contributed, and there was even oil money.

Today, Roncalio says, those constituencies are almost exclusively Republican.

"Hell, in the '30s we had a Democratic governor, Leslie Miller, who was an oil and gas man," he said. "Find me one or two of those today."

The winning strategy was to "depend upon Sweetwater County for a big majority" to offset the heavily Republican north and capture the votes along the Union Pacific Railroad. It can't happen now. The GOP has built a strong presence in Sweetwater, even sending Republicans to the state Legislature, a rarity in the past. Non-union paychecks in the underground trona mines and refineries, which replaced coal, stripped union allegiance and support that Democrats almost took for granted.

Booms, busts and shifts

As the minerals boom gathered strength in Wyoming in the early 1970s and late 1980s, the political landscape shifted. GOP upstart Malcolm Wallop ousted Democrat McGee, helped by a rancher-based environmental backlash against coal stripmines. Democrats took the governor's office with Ed Herschler, a strong-willed lawyer from Kemmerer, a small mining town. Herschler successfully parlayed a "growth on our terms' theme into three terms as governor.

Herschler was succeeded by Democrat Mike Sullivan, an oil company lawyer who made a fine art out of a new post-boom tactic: Sound like a Republican and tone down any "liberal" rhetoric. It worked twice for Sullivan, thanks also to weak Republican candidates.

Meanwhile, the GOP was gathering strength at the grassroots, slowly increasing legislative majorities and solidifying its hold on the three-member congressional delegation.

In 1994, the Democrats thought they could hold onto a couple of major offices when Sullivan ran for the Senate and longtime Secretary of State Kathy Karpan (a former Teno Roncalio aide) sought to replace Sullivan as governor.

They both lost after a GOP campaign linked them tightly to President Clinton, highly unpopular in Wyoming. It was a big defeat for the "Republicrat" look-alike strategy. As the slow post-boom bust ground on, the GOP juggernaut took over the state.

New faces, an old approach

This year, a trio of new faces and, at the last minute, a veteran of two previous statewide races, surfaced as candidates among the wounded Democrats, all offering what sounds like the traditional Democratic line.

"The party needs to reconnect with the grassroots and the working class," says state Sen. Keith Goodenough, one of two Democrats with little statewide notoriety who are running in the gubernatorial primary. Goodenough, a pony-tailed rarity in the Legislature, vexed Republicans by winning first a House seat and then his Senate term in conservative Casper.

He's also made some Democrats unhappy by declaring that the party is "dysfunctional." Before he became a legislator, Goodenough in 1986 unsuccessfully ran against Sullivan, who went on to win his first term as governor. Also running this year is University of Wyoming history professor Phil Roberts, who has never campaigned for or held any political office. Roberts is talking about taking on corporations, a rare position in 1990s Wyoming. He calls for hiking, not reducing, mineral severance taxes, saying that "if you add up the salaries, stock options and benefits of the CEOs of the companies doing business in Wyoming, it's less than what the companies are paying in severance taxes."

And just minutes before the filing period ended in early June, State Sen. John Vinich, who has been in the Legislature for nearly 25 years, surprised everyone by deciding to jump into the Democratic primary.

Vinich is long on name recognition but short on victories, having lost previously to Wallop and to now-Sen. Craig Thomas in a special election to replace Dick Cheney. Vinich, who attends law school, assailed what he said was Geringer's lack of leadership. He also accused Geringer of "coddling" the mineral industry and said the state ought to consider hiking taxes on coal production.

Former Sullivan aide and newspaper reporter Scott Farris - who was once a Republican - is running for the state's sole House seat. Industry has overwhelmed Wyoming, he says, creating a "colonial mentality" that suggests "it's lucky that anybody should employ our poor, stupid citizens." Farris says the state's GOP congressional delegation is "focused on extremist ideology" instead of dealing with regulation and taxation issues that would "help position Wyoming for the future."

All say it's time for the Democrats to redefine the party in Wyoming - and not by looking like Republicans.

"One of our mistakes has been a strategy to run as pseudo-Republican," Farris says. Roberts agrees, saying that in Wyoming, "if there's a choice between a Republican and pseudo-Republican - guess who wins."

But with the Democratic Party in its present disarray, the candidates face formidable obstacles. The biggest barrier is overcoming the apathy that characterizes current Wyoming politics. In a place with such a light tax burden on the average citizen, there's little reason to become politically active. Or perhaps the "freedom" that frontier Wyoming offers also works to its disadvantage.

Roncalio puts it this way: "Maybe people come here because they didn't want to become involved in the political process."

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