PULSE ON POLITICS: A funny thing happened on the way to the forum

By on October 8, 2014

Ed Cheramy kicked off the county Tea Party forum at the Virginian with the declaration that this would not be some kind of circus where candidates were surprised by questions that might encourage them to think beyond the carefully crafted platitudes bullet-pointed on their websites. All but Bob Lenz, that is. His idea of a website is a forgotten corner of the house that doesn’t see regular dusting.

“We at the Tea Party don’t encourage ‘ambush’ questions,” Cheramy said. “We don’t want glib answers given off-the-cuff. That’s why we gave out the questions 10 days ago. We are looking for thoughtful answers.”

What the preemptive strike method of questioning did was encourage candidates to read prepared statements. Listening to someone read something about politics is about as riveting as watching C-SPAN’s coverage of vulnerable incumbent governors across the nation.

Tea Party ED Jeff Hymas moderated the panels that began with the town races. Hymas was an absolute pro with lots of class. His only shortcoming was the inability to pronounce Andy Schwartz’s last name. He kept calling him “Mr. Shorts.”

Mayor

Sara Flitner rocked the mic to begin the evening’s proceedings. She seemed very composed. Flitner fed the host party exactly what they wanted to hear during the first answer regarding core values, stressing her miserliness in both her personal and business life.

Her highlight was reinforcing her ranching upbringing, where she made sure to drop ‘Westernisms’ like: “You don’t leave a gate open after you pass through it,” and “If something needs fed or watered, you do that first before you take care of yourself,” and “You get back on the horse … again and again,” and “It’s a long time between spring branding and fall shipping.”

If Flitner was running for 4-H director, she was a shoo-in.

The Tea Party’s only provocative question was “What differentiates you from your opponents?” A question that hinted at the notion it would be all right to do a little opponent bashing but few took the bait. Flitner was ready for the invite with the evening’s best response as Mark Nowlin sat to her left. “I’m not running against anyone, I’m running for you,” she said with a nod to the audience.

Following the spit and polish of Flitner wouldn’t be easy for anyone but Mark Nowlin seemed especially out of place in the sit-and-read format. His microphone wasn’t on when he started, even though Hyman told everyone to make sure his or her mics were on. Not that that should be a qualification for the mayor’s office but, seriously, how hard is it to make sure your mic is on?

When Nowlin finally found the power switch, he may have well left it off. He held the mic so far away from his mouth he was barely audible compared to Flitner’s booming, authoritative voice. Nowlin talked about his Judeo-Christian values (the only candidate besides Paul Vogelheim to acknowledge a power higher than, say, Clarene Law) and his family (his great-grandfather, DC Nowlin, was Wyoming’s second game warden).

Nowlin fumbled his words occasionally and looked nervous. His highlight reel included the less-than-inspiring, “I’m an empty-nester, so I’ll have ample time to dedicate to you and our town.” Insinuating, perhaps, Flitner was overextended with her own business life or that he had absolutely nothing better going on in his world than to run for mayor when it seemed no one else would.

Town Council

OK, if I were Don Frank’s campaign manager I would crumple up his script and pour a couple of bourbon shots down his throat. At town meetings, he comes off as stiff and hard to listen to. I can’t quite pinpoint it, but he is so wordy and deadpan with delivery, I lose interest easily.

“I work every day in budgets,” he said, at one point. OK, that explains it.

Frank also made sure to plug Tea Party ideals: pursuit of happiness, expectation of privacy, minimal tax burdens, etc.

Frank came out of his shell twice, once by relating a personal experience with public comment periods in town meetings. The most satisfying experience is when a citizen gives sincere public comment, he said. Especially when it’s a point not brought up in a staff report. “That moment is the essence of democracy,” he said.

Frank took the opportunity to blow his own horn with the differentiation question. “I’m the only guy in town or county government who actually builds houses,” he declared on the topic of workforce housing.

The incumbent’s closing statement was calculated and cheesy, though. “I’m always there, I’m always fair, and I will always be Frank with you.”

Bob Lenz held his microphone like it was made of botulinum. It was so far from his mouth, it picked up Frank’s breathing better than Lenz’s campaign rhetoric. Hyman finally reminded the contestants to hold the mic closer to their mouths. “When you think it’s too close, hold it closer,” he said.

Lenz said he learned a valuable tip from outgoing mayor Mark Barron: Treat citizens like customers. Hmm, if applied like United Airlines does it, we’re all screwed. Hopefully, Lenz takes more of a Zappos approach.

“Spending money is a constant job of prioritizing,” Lenz revealed. The grizzled veteran of the council also pointed out his attendance record. He’s missed one meeting in seven years, by his account. He also mentioned that he hits the streets to look at new projects, which he has been known to do a lot.

Give him credit: Lenz spoke from the heart often, without burying his head in his notes like most of the others.

John Stennis didn’t do a whole lot to raise his stock Tuesday night. He talked about bringing a new energy: “As a young professional, I know how hard it is to make it in this town.” But he shied away from his previous downplaying of the “housing issue” in Jackson Hole, when it has been and will always be an issue. Too many fellow candidates were making it a part of their platform, so perhaps Stennis felt bullied into joining the cavalcade to the rescue of the valley’s poor displaced middle class.

Stennis made sure to preach to the choir, raising points like fiscal responsibility (does anyone ever advocate fiscal irresponsibility?) and Wyoming’s long history of protecting personal liberties. He must have drank the Tea.

Stennis’ highlight: “It’s not my money, it’s your money.”

Board of County Commissioners

County commissioner hopefuls provided the evening’s only excitement. Ben Ellis grabbed headlines with his declaration of independence from the party that invited him to the bash – prompting misguided headlines from the crosstown paper about an anger issue – when his candidness was probably well-received by “blue” backers and anyone who can appreciate honesty from a politician.

Scott Anderson also supplied ample levity, though some of the jokes (one about drones and him in a hot tub) missed the mark. The former radio announcer commanded the mic and spoke in the confident manner that marks the Independent as the think-on-his-feet politician he is.

Whether Anderson’s early reference to beloved former commissioner Bill Paddleford was a calculated one only he knows, but it worked. “Common sense,” Anderson said, were the two words he learned to employ from the late Paddleford.

Anderson played his ace-in-the-hole early, bashing the pay raise commissioners voted themselves a few months back. “I know one thing I don’t want to spend money on,” he began before calling a 35 percent pay raise for county leaders deplorable considering staffers received only a 3 percent bump in wages.

Anderson avoided reading prepared material for the most part and the effect was noticeable. Rather than tediously crafted sentences, he began his political diatribes with attention-grabbing colloquialisms like, “What drives me crazy … ”

Anderson was dead on about two points. “We don’t know what rights to protect until we know what rights we have,” he said, alluding to the snail-paced LDR rewrites holding up developers and private property owners. “We need to give people certainty.” He added he didn’t believe in partisan politics at the local level, which was why he chose to run as an independent.

The highlight of the evening for Anderson was his reference to better hair than most of the other panelists and his continued rant on micromanagement practices he blames for the county’s poor retention rate when it comes to employees.

If Anderson was apolitical when it came to party affiliation, Ben Ellis was the opposite. Ellis kept to a “true blue” stance even to the point of wagging a finger at his ultraconservative hosts. Ellis dropped a whole bunch of poli-sci on the crowd, talking about the Magna Carta, which was crafted in far less time and with far fewer pages than the current Comprehensive Plan.

Then he dropped the bomb. Rather than differentiate himself from his fellow candidates, Ellis chose to separate his values from those of the Tea Party.

“I do thank the Tea Party for this tonight but I have to strongly disagree with them on a number of issues,” the seven-year incumbent declared. I appreciate the role of the Tea Party, Ellis said. They always show up. “Even the press, who get paid to be there, is hardly in the room like Ed Cheramy.”

Ellis’ candid statements may have been shocking and unnecessary to some, but it was in no way as self-destructive as postgame chatterboxes heard by this reporter believed it to be. Ellis needs to beat Smokey Rhea, Mark Newcomb, and to some degree, Anderson. His tirade won’t lose him any Republican votes he never had to begin with. He grabbed the headlines the day after the forum and that’s worth 5,000 signs and about 2,000 doors slammed in his face.

Ellis’ biggest slip, as far as the GOP is concerned, is his reliance on government to save the day. “The free market in Teton County has failed to provide housing,” Ellis said. “We need political will to solve the problems. Expecting the private sector to solve the problems is not going to get it done.”

Rising star Mark Newcomb might have flamed out at the Virg. His overreliance on written materials was cumbersome, especially when he so often tripped up on his own words. Like Ellis, he brought up his support of gay marriage (as if that was a huge issue in Teton County). Newcomb admitted his view on many topics was similar to Ellis.

“You put two economists together and we sound similar. But I promise I didn’t cheat,” Newcomb said to solid laughter. But much of the poise on display at the first League of Women voters seemed to evaporate under the elk taxidermy in the convention center.

When Newcomb did take a stance, it was on precarious ground.

“You, as a community, spent five long years putting together a guiding plan. It would be disrespectful not to use it,” Newcomb said. Uh, no one is suggesting we don’t use it, just FINISH it. Newcomb also may have stumbled when he said, “If Mr. Perry and Ms. Rhea are boots on the ground [both candidates’ self-admission], I may be the visionary with my head in the clouds.” Did he really just say that?

Newcomb’s highlight: “I have acquired leadership skills as a mountain guide,” he said. “And as a mountain guide, I own my mistakes. I embrace them and learn from them. Good leaders do.”

Paul Perry looked relaxed as he cherry-picked a few core beliefs that coincided nicely with the Tea Party’s mantra. He dropped the “government closest to the people governs best” quote, often mistakenly attributed to Thomas Jefferson. The owner of Canvas Unlimited, who has probably never told any of his 34 employees how to pitch a tent, also echoed Anderson’s warning about micromanaging county employees. “Hire bright people and stay out of their way,” he said.

Perry also took a roundabout shot at Pathways and other agencies that may have overbuilt their ability to maintain. “We all like stuff. We are no different than anyone else. I love stuff,” Perry said. “Building stuff without concern for long-term implications and maintenance costs needs to be taken into account before your public dollars are spent.”

The lifelong Wyomingite sounded like a true statesman when he warned that personal liberty comes with personal responsibility. “People have to accept an assumed risk when they build in a flood zone or a fire interface. You can’t expect government to come rescue you if you made that personal choice,” he said.

When asked to differentiate himself from his opposition, Perry harped on a pet peeve of his: street smarts. “I’m on the ground in this community all year long,” Perry said. “I deal with equipment breakdowns and employee conflicts. We have theoretical, book smart candidates, and I too have a mechanical engineering degree. But I have street smarts.”

Reynolds Pomeroy stressed fiduciary responsibility and how, if elected, he would be transparent, ethical and wise about government expenditures. “I know it’s not my money, but I will always spend it like it is,” Pomeroy stated. “I will always ask myself: Is the expense budgeted and vetted through [a] governmental process? Is there another way to accomplish the goal without spending the public’s money?”

The first-time candidate for office appeared at ease with public speaking. He called himself a new voice and a new perspective while playing up his track record as a former outfitter and current advocate for conservation. “I have a broad insight into the Jackson Hole community,” he said.” My commitment to wildlife, open spaces and public access is unmatched by any candidate.”

The knock on Smokey Rhea, assuming there is one for every candidate, is she’s a one-trick pony incapable of thinking beyond social services aspects of government. As a longtime director of the Community Resource Center, Rhea has made it her lifelong endeavor to champion the rights of the downtrodden. “I worked for 32 years caring for the community,” she said.

Rhea came to the defense of the little guy more than once during the evening. On one occasion she recalled her disbelief that a certain politician was so out of touch with the state of workforce housing that she had to set him straight on a few things. “He honestly did not know that people were being displaced,” Rhea mentioned.

Addressing concerns raised early on the campaign trail that Rhea was against private property rights, she explained her position: “This one I’m going to read because I think it’s one of the most important ones,” Rhea began. “Our rights should not infringe on the rights of others. I do believe in property rights, but [for instance] I had to convince my husband we could not have chickens in our yard because we have neighbors. They could throw the eggs back at us.”

Rhea was very composed during the forum and often looked up from her written statements to speak from the heart. If Don was frank, Rhea was franker. “We are all going to say the same thing,” Rhea admitted of she and her fellow political aspirants. “We have to have people who are honest; who say the same thing to your face as they do to a group. I believe in compassion. I look at all sides of an issue. Is it the truth? Is it fair? And is it fair for everybody? I care about people.”

Highlight: When asked if she could be fiscally conservative, Rhea answered stifling back a snicker. “I worked in social services as an executive director for several years. I know how to work without any money.”

A perceived groundswell of anti-Pathway spending also found purchase with Rhea. “Pathways are important, but are they more important than our workforce housing?”

It was more of a bachelor party than a Tea Party for Paul Vogelheim. The four-year veteran of the BCC took time off from wedding planning (he was to be wed four days after the forum) to cross swords with fellow candidates. He began his philosophy with Boy Scout comparisons from his experience in a leadership role with the organization. He said he applies three Scouting fundamentals to his approach in government: trustworthiness, thriftiness, and reverence.

Vogelheim was pretty much the only candidate to reference his personal convictions. “A faith in God and trying to practice the Golden Rule are very fundamental for me,” he said. Vogelheim carried himself with charm and appeal as he explained his approach to governing. Vogelheim said he starts on the side of protecting personal rights until he gets to common-ownership rights like society’s guarantee of clean air and abundant wildlife.

By citing the contract entered into with a local snow plowing company to keep valley streets clear in the winter, Vogelheim also used concrete examples of wise county spending. “That way, we don’t have to own any of our own snow plowing equipment,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for a public-private agreement. We don’t have to invest in employees or equipment, but can also reach out and help a local landscaping business that could use work in the winter season.”

Vogelheim was also the most gracious candidate. He thanked Rhea for her service with CRC and asked all in attendance to vote for himself, Pomeroy, and/or Perry. In defending his position on being the sole dissenting vote for the commissioners’ salary hike, Vogelheim threw a bone to a fellow board member.

“Some say actions speak louder than words,” Vogelheim said. “I was the only one that voted against the commissioners’ pay increase, as Commissioner [Barbara] Allen was out of town. I was outvoted 3-to-1.”

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