Guest Opinion: A Seat of Opportunity

By on May 16, 2018

Jacksonites must pay attention as Sen. Leland Christensen exits the building

JACKSON HOLE, WY – It was a happy day when I learned that Teton County lawmaker Sen. Leland Christensen–R, Alta, would not be returning to the Wyoming State Legislature.

The two-term state senator announced earlier this year that he would leave his post because he’d decided to run for Wyoming Secretary of State. Then he scrapped that idea and decided to run for State Treasurer instead.

Secretary, Treasurer—who cares, right, as long as you get to wear a fancy suit and feel powerful in rooms that smell of rich mahogany.

Anyway, it’s not that Christensen was Wyoming’s absolute worst state legislator—far from it. In fact, in the context of Wyoming’s ultra-conservative State Senate, he was sometimes almost a moderate.

However, the reason I’m happy Christensen is leaving the Legislature is because I believe that Jackson can do so much better.

During the 2018 election, you will have your chance.

To be clear, I’m not endorsing anyone for Christensen’s seat. (I will note, though, one person thus far has announced his intent to run: Rep. Mike Gierau–D, Jackson.) As the director of Better Wyoming, a nonpartisan 501c3, I’m actually forbidden by law to support or attack candidates. And I honestly feel neutral about Christensen’s bid for Treasurer, considering the field.

What I can do, however, is point out some of the shitty things Christensen has done during his tenure in the Legislature, in hopes that it will prompt folks in Jackson to pay closer attention to who you’re electing to the State Legislature, and to encourage you to never send someone like Christensen there again.

To start with: Y’all like weed, right? I thought so. Or, even if you don’t like weed, you think it’s irrational to throw people in prison and ruin their lives for smoking or possessing it, correct? Good. Glad we’re on the same page.

Except, Christensen is not on the same page. Even as libertarian and left-leaning Wyoming state legislators have recently found common ground in the effort to reduce Wyoming’s draconian punishments, Christensen has led the resistance against commonsense cannabis reform.

In 2017, the Wyoming House approved a bill by a vote of 52–6 that would reduce minor marijuana possession penalties. But Christensen used his position as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee to gut the bill. The measure would have, among other positive things, made possession of three ounces of weed or less punishable by up to 20 days in jail and a $200 fine—instead of the current penalty: a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. It is one of the harshest in the nation.

Christensen, an ex-cop, effectively handed over the bill to law enforcement lobbyists and asked them to change it as they saw fit. The lobbyists removed every progressive element of the proposal. The bastardized bill failed to pass a concurrence vote when it was presented back to the House.

Christensen has also led the charge to criminalize “non-plant forms” of marijuana—edibles, oils, etc. Currently there is no law on Wyoming’s books that specifically governs edible weed. This doesn’t mean it’s legal, but it means police and prosecutors’ hands are tied when they bust folks for possession. Even large quantities only result in misdemeanors.

Thankfully, the effort this year to pass an edible cannabis bill failed. Perhaps that was because Christensen’s attention was focused elsewhere: on a proposal that would imprison and levy insane fines against pipeline protestors like those who protested the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota.

Senate File 74, which Christensen sponsored, was the brainchild of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). That’s the Koch brothers’ right-wing mega donor lobbying outfit. But Christensen pushed for SF-74 because, he said, it was a “top priority” for groups like the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police.

Christensen’s allegiance to law enforcement has consistently shaped his decision-making—in a bad way. In 2017, the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Christensen oversees as chairman, elected to kill a bill to help innocent people get out of prison because a lone prosecutor opposed it. This year, he cast the deciding vote against a popular, bipartisan measure to make it easier to expunge juveniles’ criminal records. It was apparently too “soft on crime.”

It strains the imagination to think that the majority of people in Jackson agree with these and other things that Christensen has done. Nevertheless, y’all kept sending him back to the Legislature to do more harm.

I understand that Christensen is an agreeable fellow, and a friend to many in the community. I get that he’s devoted lots of his time and energy to public service.

But the stakes are too high in the Wyoming State Legislature to squander the opportunity to elect progressive candidates. Jackson is one of the few places in the state where it’s possible to send legislators to Cheyenne who can speak up against the madness.

In 2018 and beyond, Wyoming needs Jackson to elect better legislators than Christensen.

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