THE BUZZ 2: Portraitgate Version 2.0

By on July 18, 2017

Local Dems call hypocrisy over heated partisan debate about presidential portraits.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Mayor Pete Muldoon garnered national attention, and an inbox full of hate mail and threats, after he and Councilman Jim Stanford replaced portraits of President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence with a photo of Chief Washakie. But memories of President Barack Obama and VP Joe Biden’s photos hanging in—and then disappearing from—county commissioner chambers have some calling foul. They say not all decorative decisions are created equal and that the Teton County GOP isn’t playing by the values it claims to uphold.

In fact, presidential and vice-presidential portraits once hung on the back wall of the county commissioner chambers. Ben Ellis was elected to the board of county commissioners the same year Obama was elected president in 2008, and was the county planning commissioner during George Bush’s presidency. He remembers Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney’s portraits replaced with Obama and Biden’s when they were elected. “They sat there on the wall in the commissioner’s chambers for … well into my term,” Ellis recalled. Then, they were taken down to make room for images from the historical society.

Recall: After Muldoon’s redecorating decision, the Teton County Republican Party, chaired by County Commissioner Paul Vogelheim, created a petition demanding the presidential portraits be reinstated to “support the longstanding tradition of honoring the office of the U.S. President and Vice President by displaying their photos in the Jackson Town Hall and Teton County Commission Chambers.” It accrued almost 700 signatures.

“Hanging pictures of the president has been a tradition in the community since at least the mid-80s,” Vogelheim stated on Teton County GOP’s website. “When it comes to showing respect for our nation and our state, this is a nonpartisan issue.”

But from at least 2013 on, no such photos hung anywhere in the county building. “There wasn’t a photo of the president displayed in any part of the building while I was on the county commission,” Melissa Turley, former Teton County commissioner, said.

The decision to remove Obama and Biden’s portraits was neither deliberate nor political, county clerk Sherry Daigle said. Instead, the Historical Society gave her photos to display somewhere in the building, and the back wall of the commissioner chambers was where they fit best. “We were gonna put them down the hallway [between the front entrance on Willow and the chambers], but the sun shines so badly on that wall, the pictures were gonna get ruined,” Daigle said.

But she doesn’t know what happened to the portraits after they were taken down. “I was under the assumption that the pictures were gonna be put back up,” Daigle said. “I don’t know where they went from there.”

At the time, Ellis didn’t mind, despite being a Democrat and thinking Obama was “one of the most graceful elected officials we’ve ever had. But I was OK with it,” Ellis said. “It’s OK for our local officials to try and depoliticize [local spaces] as much as possible … I do think it’s very appropriate to not have those images hang in places of community deliberation.”

Hence, the Teton County GOP and Vogelheim’s, apparent outrage at Muldoon’s decision was at the very least confusing. “I’ve certainly been very uncomfortable with the way the Republican Party has politicized this issue,” Ellis said. Even as a temporary decorative change, shouldn’t they have been as outraged at the absence of Obama’s portrait, out of respect for the office of the president? Should that logic not move both ways?

“Absolutely,” Vogelheim told PJH. He would defend the right to display presidential portraits “regardless of political affiliation.” Obama’s replacement simply happened quietly: “I don’t remember it being taken down,” Vogelheim said. “Sherry [Daigle] indicated that it was taken down when the Historical Society came in and put the pictures up, that’s the extent of my familiarity. I remember it being there most of the term, but don’t remember it being taken down.”

Ellis, however, actually recalls Vogelheim and Daigle both approaching him and the board about the new images. “I wasn’t approached by the Historical Society, I was approached by Sherry Daigle and Paul Vogelheim,” he said. But the details of the decision are unclear for all who remember it, and at this point it’s a battle of memories.

Still, the uproar after Trump’s portrait was removed is precisely the problem, Turley said. The removal could have just been a decorative change, like in the county building. “Teton GOP has to take some responsibility,” Turley said. “[Vogelheim] is the one that started a national petition, and drew the attention of Fox News. The county commission did the same thing, and nobody even noticed.”

Turley served as a town councilor and a county commissioner, and said it’s crucial for members of each entity to work together with members from the other. “That relationship is more important than nasty partisan politics and trying to draw national attention,” she said.

Even Muldoon admitted to politicizing the portrait switch, and apologized at a June 19 town council meeting. Perhaps that is the difference between his decorative decision, and the county’s.

Local conservation consultant and Conservation Alliance board member Luther Propst said the attention Teton County GOP gave the occasion is at least as political as the occasion itself. Propst is a Southerner from a political family with a degree in political science. “I’ve been a student of political dirty tricks my whole life.” This, he said, was a “very effective dirty trick.”

But Vogelheim says he has more important issues to worry about now, like roads, sidewalks and potholes. Those are the issues we should be focusing on now, he told PJH.

For the record: Trump and Pence’s photos are both presently displayed in the entrance to the county building. There’s no obligation to hang them, but tradition, some say, goes a long way. “The only thing that guides it has been tradition,” Vogelheim said.

The Historical Society photos still hang in the chambers, and might for a long time. “It was my understanding that it was going to be a rotating-type display, and they’d come in and change the pictures,” Daigle said. “Three years later, the pictures haven’t changed.” PJH

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