GUEST OPINION: Jackson Hole Divided

By on June 21, 2017

Portraitgate may be over but partisan politics are here to stay.

(NPS)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – On Monday, the Jackson Town Council took up the issue of the decoration of town hall. Although it was not on the agenda, two motions were put forth for immediate consideration. The first would make all future interior decorating decisions the explicit responsibility of the full council, and the second directed that there should be portraits up of the U.S. president and vice president, along with the governor of Wyoming.

The overflowing crowd made impassioned pleas on both sides. The room seemed evenly split for and against the motions. Several council members read prepared remarks and then they voted, passing both. The portraits of President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence would go back up on the wall in town hall, effective immediately.

Within a couple hours one local paper had published the piece “Trump fracas resolved,” which tied a neat little bow on the whole affair. Back to business as usual: arguing about housing, transportation, and development, right?

Sadly, I think the actions of the Jackson Town Council, by giving in to outside pressure and overriding the democratically elected mayor, will have the opposite effect. We are now destined to talk about this silly issue for years to come. The consequences of this action may, indeed, be far-reaching and long-term.

Jackson Hole is a unique place with a unique history. Yellowstone National Park had already been a destination for adventurous visitors for more than 40 years before the Town of Jackson was officially incorporated in 1914. Tourism has formed one of the cornerstones of our economy from the very beginning and it is responsible for much of our wealth and stability, especially relative to the boom and bust economy of the rest of Wyoming.

It has also steadily led this place to become more politically liberal as the older, more conservative generations have faded and been replaced by young folks coming here, falling in love with the valley, and staying to build their lives. This is nothing new; we have been a blue county since former President Bill Clinton won here in 1992. Hillary Clinton garnered 58 percent of the vote here, making it the only county in Wyoming that she won.

Now we have been bullied into forcing presidential portraits to be displayed by law, making us one of the first towns in the nation to do so, and our local independence and political freedom is seemingly in jeopardy.

I counted myself originally among those who didn’t give a hoot what photos were hanging where. But when the Teton County GOP decided to ignite a national firestorm with the issue to score political points and some of our local media fanned the flames with breathless coverage, an avalanche of hatred and vitriol descended on us.

A Wyoming state representative from another district released a video decrying our actions and our liberal ways. People from other parts of the country threatened to boycott; they called local businesses and random government office numbers just so they could shout at someone in Jackson Hole. The mayor received a message from a man threatening to come here and cut his throat.

So many of the enraged callers and commenters discussed the lack of respect being shown, all while showing a complete disregard for respecting elected officials themselves.

This was no longer an interior design fight. It had become a fight for our ability to express our will as a community. The council, caving in to that angry and violent pressure, has now shown those who would boss us around that Jackson’s cooperation can be forced by that combination, and I am deeply saddened to imagine what will happen when we must take a strong stand for something we actually deem vital.

One of the stated goals of the council’s action was to undo the economic damage, whatever that was. Unfortunately, there is no good way to let those angry folks know that we’ve bowed to their wishes without giving the whole story another ride on the old national media train, and this time the negative reaction may be bigger. We will now, in the view of some, be the town that gave in to the right-wing.

Trump’s approval rating is hovering around a dismal 38 percent nationally. Internationally he is even more widely disliked. These are the people who plan vacations to Yellowstone and Grand Teton, who come here and spend their money with us.

According to the Office of Tourism, Colorado and California were the top states our visitors came from in 2016. Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles were our top target markets for our winter marketing campaign. Yellowstone, Jackson, and Grand Teton were the top three destinations for all Wyoming visitors in 2015.

Tourism is a 3.2 billion-dollar industry in this state and provides 32,000 jobs. Jackson Hole is at the heart of that and we should be leading the charge to be open, welcoming, and inclusive.

We need to take strong stands to support our public lands and our environment, and be leaders by example on those issues in Wyoming. We must stand behind the workers who make this place run. These issues may bring us into conflict with the ideology of the rest of the state, and other parts of the country. We will pay a price for our local politics simply because pleasing everyone is impossible.

The council’s decision seems like risky and short-sighted pandering to a small subset of the population that may cause us further damage down the line.

Indeed, I think we’ll be talking about the politics of this for a long time. Muldoon was elected after running on a progressive platform that included a promise not to do business as usual. He was within his traditional rights to make decorating decisions at town hall. The council chose to put the views of a vocal minority over the will of the people.

The council’s action, though intended to bring about a return to non-partisan town politics, was instead inherently partisan. The way each candidate voted and expressed their views on this matter will be brought back up in the next election cycle, particularly since it will be partly a referendum on whether the portraits stay up.

There will be no more hiding behind the veil of non-partisanship for this council or any future councils; you’re either on one side or the other, since no real compromise was struck. And that’s ultimately what’s so sad about the whole business—there was no attempt to back the mayor and condemn the ridiculous threats and intimidation while leaving room for the council to make changes in the future, or to just send the whole question out to the actual voters as a referendum.

The council decided they knew better, and in the process embroiled themselves in this mess for good.

I stood at the meeting to make my views known to the council, and I appreciated the opportunity to do that. I do hope this can be brought to a close and we can all move on. But in the hours after the meeting, as I read the cascade of Facebook comments, it struck me: This was never really about pictures. This was about a divided nation struggling with the greatest political upheaval in a generation.

Like it or not, Jackson Hole has a voice in that larger national discourse. What we do in these days, the issues we tackle, and the way we conduct our local politics will echo on down through the next generation of folks to call this valley home.

Monday evening may have represented a victory for some, but in the end I think we all lost a little bit of what makes this place special. I hope we can get it back. PJH

Olaus Linn is a graphic designer and part-time rancher. He was born and raised in Jackson Hole and his family still lives and works on their homestead along the Snake River.

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