Unleashing the Cowgirl State

By on April 11, 2018

How one woman and her allies are reviving Wyoming’s history of equality

‘The Awakening’ by Henry Mayer (1915) symbolizes the awakening of American women during the suffrage movement, that Western states were the first to give women the right to the vote and that women in the Midwest and East were longing for the same. (Library of Congress)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Wyoming has a rich legacy of political firsts. In 1869, it became the first state to grant women the right to vote. Fifty-six years later, it was among the first in the union to elect a female governor: Nellie Tayloe Ross. 

As recently as 2008, more than 20 percent of the state’s legislators were women. But today, the “Equality State” has strayed far from its roots.  In a place where women comprise about half the population, Wyoming ranks last in the nation for female political representation. Women hold 10 of the 90 legislative seats. Minorities (women and men) have even less representation. Two Latinos serve in the Wyoming Legislature, for example, though 10 percent of the state’s population is Hispanic. And more than 90 years since she held the position, Tayloe Ross remains the only woman to serve as governor of the state.

A former Jacksonite under the age of 30 is working to change this.

Twenty-seven-year-old Phoebe Stoner and the organization she heads in Laramie, the Equality State Policy Center, wants to help Wyoming recapture its Equality State title. Stoner has partnered with the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance and Wyoming Women Rise to launch RUN WY. Its goal is to help underrepresented groups, including women, members of the LGBTQ community, people of color and Wyomingites under 35, run for office.

The focus is to provide Wyomingites of disenfranchised communities the skills to win elected office, whether those seats are school board, city council or in the state legislature. Potential candidates and campaign staff will learn how to engage and mobilize voters, craft campaign messages, use digital media and fundraise.

Stoner said it will walk folks through a campaign plan template, demystify all the paperwork and financial filings, explain how to go door-to-door and engage voters.

Participants will also improve their speech writing skills, and “most importantly, feel supported and capable while running for office.”

That’s something Stoner sees as the largest hurdle. Because for those who identify with the communities RUN WY is targeting, it’s rare for them to see similar demographics in positions of power, she said.

“Democracy is about representation, and representation needs to reflect our populations and our different communities, and right now it’s not.” Stoner said.

A Path to Politics

Stoner has long been a progressive activist in a community of conservatives. She grew up in rural Northeast Ohio among the largest Amish population in the world. “My parents were very forward-thinking, which was in constant contrast to the community where I grew up,” she said.

For Stoner, living in Wyoming is slightly akin to being at home among the Amish. “It’s conservative in some of the same ways, which can be challenging.”

But it taught Stoner to be less judgmental when discerning potential allies. She has learned to connect with people based on their values.

It wasn’t politics but science that drew Stoner to Wyoming. She was on track to become a field biologist and came to Wyoming in 2012 for an internship at Teton Science Schools. She went on to teach and work as a naturalist in the valley.

Her enrollment in the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance’s Conservation Leadership Institute (CLI) would carve her path into politics. The free training program teaches participants how to be effective political leaders and community members.

The program begins with the fundamentals of conservation organizing and progresses from there. For eight weeks, participants learn how to communicate their position to elected officials, recruit and train like-minded individuals to promote a cause and run productive meetings.

Among its 120-plus graduates so far are Ali Dunford, founder and executive director of Hole Food Rescue; Tanya Anderson, field education faculty and coordinator of Road Scholar programs at Teton Science School, and Marisa Wilson, communications and field coordinator at the Alliance.

“I discovered the link between conservation initiatives and the decisions made by my local representatives,” Stoner said. It became clear to Stoner how local elected officials’ decisions shaped policies on everything from housing to traffic.

Attending town and county meetings in Jackson empowered Stoner further. “I have a distinct memory testifying in a joint town and county meeting on a zoning issue related to housing,” she said. Her nervousness at the podium began to dissolve as she watched elected officials shake their heads and acknowledge her voice.

“It was a critical moment—the act of speaking up to officials [who were] making decisions on my behalf. I became infatuated with the concept.”

The Jackson sphere is where Stoner also found support. As a progressive activist, she was not the sole voice of opposition: “There were people behind me, I wasn’t alone.”

In 2014, Stoner ran Sara Flitner’s successful Jackson mayoral campaign, her first foray on the campaign trail. The two met when Stoner was coaching Flitner’s sons in youth basketball. Stoner assisted with strategy, meetings and door-to-door campaigning. “Phoebe is confident and passionate. She’s willing to show up, and she doesn’t wait around to be asked,” Flitner told Planet Jackson Hole.

One year later, at age 25, Stoner was one of three finalists for a seat on the Board of Teton County Commissioners. “It was exciting to advance so far in that process,” she said. “I started to see that I could have an impact.”

That same year Stoner coordinated the #JacksonPoll, a project where CLI participants led nearly 80 volunteers to canvas 1,100 doors and discuss views on conservation, housing, transportation, and other key issues with Jackson voters. She also coordinated the follow-up project, #PhonebankHouseparty, a similar phone-based initiative. CLI participants called registered voters in Teton County to better understand what issues mattered to them.

Skye Schell, the executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, said Stoner’s vision and organizing acumen immediately struck him. “I was impressed with her passion for both conservation and getting community members involved. The first time we met, we schemed up ideas for getting more young people voting in Jackson and then over the years put some of those ideas into action.”

Other folks took notice. In 2016, incumbent Teton County Commissioner Natalia Macker asked Stoner to serve as her campaign committee chair. Macker wanted to hire a woman because they are often underrepresented in campaign management. “They are usually relegated to fundraising roles and I wanted to address that in my campaign,” she said. “We need women willing to put themselves in difficult positions professionally to push the needle forward.”

For Macker’s campaign, Stoner oversaw fieldwork and volunteer recruitment, canvassing, social media, mail campaigns and newspaper ads. She also helped Macker with strategy, rehearsing speeches and identifying gaps.

Stoner also ran Jackson Rep. Andy Schwartz’s campaign the same year and continues to work with him as a lobbyist to the Wyoming Legislature, where he says she has made great strides.

Schwartz explained that he sits on the budget committee, tracking expenditures and revenues. “Citizens are lost. They don’t know what is going on with expenditures,” he said. “Phoebe wants to come up with a simplified document … to explain it. The legislature agrees that is a bold task. It isn’t designed to be easily understood.”

Stoner, however, is not discouraged. “I realized the enormity and glaring large-scale problems happening on the state level and I was drawn to working on that bigger scale, on challenging measures,” she said.

Stately Ambitions

Jackson’s high cost of living and historic housing crisis would eventually nudge Stoner to leave the valley. “I couldn’t afford a ski pass or rent in Jackson long-term,” she said. “I was living paycheck to paycheck.”

When the Equality State Policy Center (ESPC) in Laramie needed to fill its executive director position in 2016, Stoner was quick to apply. But unlike the political sphere in Jackson, she frequently must stand on her own there.

Founded in 1993, ESPC and its coalition emerged as an informal group of progressive nonprofits in an ultra-conservative state, Stoner said. The organizations banded together in the interest of a stronger voice.

Now the coalition is comprised of 29 organizations. Their collective voice provides a supportive space for its members. This year, ESPC recruited two nascent groups to join: Juntos and Wyoming Women Rise.

Juntos is a nonprofit that advocates for immigrants, Latinos, Native Americans, African Americans and other marginalized groups. The organization works to support victims of discrimination and racial profiling. On May 1, 2017, Juntos organized a May Day March in solidarity with laborers across the country. Planet Jackson Hole reported that about 200 people walked from downtown Cheyenne to Governor Matt Mead’s office to deliver a letter asking that he formally protect Wyoming’s undocumented workers.

Wyoming Women Rise, meanwhile, is a non-partisan, nonprofit organization that empowers women in the state to become leaders on local and state levels. “We provide educational resources and opportunities, including campaign trainings for women to encourage them to be more active in the state’s political scene,” said Samantha Case, WWR’s founder and board member.

ESPC’s coalition members are divided into three pillars: social justice, conservation and labor. Members range from the Wyoming American Civil Liberties Union and the United Steelworkers to the Sierra Club and the Wind River Native Advocacy Center.

“The coalition provides a safe landing space for progressive nonprofits to come together and leverage their individual voices,” Stoner said. While individual organizations may be easy to dismiss politically, Stoner said their collective voice is harder to ignore.

Uncovering Truth

One of ESPC’s hallmarks is its legislative accountability report. It has helped citizens understand lawmakers’ votes and their financial contributions. “In the early 90s, this was pretty revolutionary,” Stoner said, when even voting records were difficult for the public to obtain.

Stoner has played a central role in transforming that report into The People’s Review, a more streamlined and digestible version of the original report. It unpacks lawmakers’ voting behaviors, urging people to engage in politics and hold their legislators accountable.

Accountability, Stoner said, has long been a huge problem in Wyoming, but one landslide victory she is celebrating this year is the live streaming of content from legislative interim and committee meetings. “We’ve fought this entire year to get those recorded,” she said. “Before that, recordings had to be requested and tapes were often scrubbed.”

As a lawmaker, Schwartz said he admires the coalition’s progress. “The ESPC has been pushing for transparency against a lot of resistance. There is not a strong desire to let the public see the [Wyoming Legislature’s] inner workings, but Phoebe went to committee meetings and lobbied hard. That was a big deal for her this session.”

ESPC has also launched SHAPE WY to engage citizens in the legislative process. The grassroots lobbyist program offers citizens a direct interface with the legislative process. Twice a year, Wyomingites can join ESPC during a legislative session and experience how a bill becomes a law. Activating and empowering people to influence their representatives is one of Stoner’s passions. “It’s hard to participate and advocate if you don’t understand the rules of the game,” she said.

A recent expanded partnership with the Wind River Native Advocacy Center included 30 participants, and an even split of Native and non-Native folks. Besides the ESPC’s regular curriculum, (how a bill becomes a law, how to advocate, how to build your message), they discussed using narrative and personal storytelling to advocate.

Now ESPC is planning a project in partnership with the Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault with a group of sexual assault survivors, meant to teach them to testify and advocate for better laws for survivors.

Finding Home

Last November, Stoner won a seat on the Laramie City Council. Serving in an elected capacity on a municipal level, she is one of nine voting members who guide decisions and policies that run the city. In the fall, she will run again. So far on the council, she has supported basic governmental services like emergency responders and street repair in Albany County, the poorest county in Wyoming. She has also participated in municipal level conversations around economic development and how to make Laramie a unique hub for tech and entrepreneurship in Wyoming.

Stoner has found her place in Wyoming. “I love living in Laramie and how accepting everyone is,” she said. “People are grounded and down to earth.” It’s a good fit for the former Jacksonite, focused on community and grassroots activism even in a state where Democrats make up just 20 percent of registered voters. “Progressives in Wyoming often feel discouraged as the minority. If we aren’t there to hold the line, the line gets moved further and further back,” she said.

To that end, the Midwesterner has brought some lessons with her. Stoner is a fan of the Cleveland Browns football team. In the last two years, they have only won a single game. “Being a Browns fan and working as a progressive advocate in Wyoming is a direct parallel,” she said. “The Browns get beat up, but every Sunday they put on their uniforms and they try. Thousands of people show up to support them and cheer, and have an inkling that maybe they might win this time.”

Still, Stoner said it is important to create metrics that aren’t purely focused on the big “Win” or “Lose.”

“If we are trying to pass legislation and our only goal is to get it passed, it will be a hard fight and we will get really dissuaded,” she said. “It makes a difference, even if you don’t win, to be one of the only opposing voices.”

Wyoming vs. National Trends

Across the nation, more women are running for office than ever before. Some have touted the 2018 election cycle the “Year of the Woman.” Indeed, more than twice as many women are running for Congress than in 2016, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.

Wyoming organizations are hoping to encourage that same kind of energy when it comes to running for local and state positions while acknowledging the barriers women and marginalized people face.

Women with families, for example, have long had obstacles. To serve in the Wyoming State Legislature, one must take weeks off work and be away from home to attend the session in Cheyenne, as well as traveling around the state during the interim. “For a working or single mom, this would be nearly impossible,” Stoner said. But these barriers often exist for many everyday people, “and can be larger for folks who are part of communities that have been historically marginalized.”

The long-held ideas of who is fit to run for office fuel reluctance too, said Case, of Wyoming Women Rise. “Many women don’t feel the image includes them. When they do see themselves as a potential candidate, they may then hesitate to step forward because they’re unsure how to run for elected office. If more women have access to resources that’ll help prep them to spend time, money and energy on running, they’re more likely to say ‘yes.’”

That’s where Case, Stoner and the JH Conservation Alliance’s RUN WY trainings will come in.

Two RUN WY sessions happen this month, one in Cheyenne on April 14 and two in Jackson on April 16 and 17. Applicants are a diverse mix. For the Cheyenne event, 28 women, four people of color, 11 under the age of 35 and five who identify as LGBTQ have applied.

In Jackson, organizers received applications from nine women, five people under the age of 35, three people of color and one person with a disability.

“There undoubtedly needs to be more female representation in public office, but it is not exclusive to women, or certain women,” Stoner said. “Being a black woman, for example, is very different than being a white woman in Wyoming. There also needs to be better representation from communities of color, LGBTQ, low-income, people with disabilities. The list goes on.”

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