Bill Sniffin: Mike Enzi Goes Down In History As One Of Wyoming’s Greatest Leaders

If Wyoming were to build a Mount Rushmore celebrating its greatest leaders, a strong case could be made to put the late Mike Enzis image up there on the wall.

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Bill Sniffin

July 30, 20217 min read

Enzis and sniffins

By Bill Sniffin, publisher

If Wyoming were to build a Mount Rushmore celebrating its greatest leaders, a strong case could be made to put the late Mike Enzi’s image up there on the wall.

Here in the Cowboy State, we use terms like “still waters run deep” — that is the type of compliment one would give the late senator.

Our great friend died July 26 from injuries he suffered in a bicycle accident that occurred July 23 in his beloved hometown of Gillette.

I reached out to his wife Diana who said: “We are all still reeling from the shock and loss but we know Mike is with the Lord. We hold the vision of him fishing in heaven in our hearts  Memories are precious and we have many.” 

His funeral is Friday, Aug. 6, 1 p.m. at the Pronghorn Center at Gillette College, just off Enzi Drive. 

As a longtime journalist in Wyoming, it has been my good fortune to become good friends with many of our state’s greatest leaders. 

I first got to know Mike when he ran for the U. S. Senate in 1996. 

He came into our newspaper office in Lander. He was a big friendly guy. I confided that I may need to cut the interview short because I needed to go coach my son’s baseball team.

“Well, heck, let’s go now,” he said. “Can I tag along? Frankly, that sounds like a lot more fun.”  

He hung around for the entire practice and even hit a few balls to our infielders. We sat in the dugout for 20 minutes afterward for a quick interview. He always referred to that as one of his most pleasant stops during his many campaign seasons.

When my wife Nancy won the Jefferson Award, we went to Washington D. C. and, again, spent way more time than was allotted with him in his office.

My first coffee table book was “Wyoming’s 7 Greatest Natural Wonders.” Enzi jumped at the chance to write the section about the North Platte River System. 

Enzi’s first lines in the book were: “My North Platte – It’s More Than Just a River. It’s a Link to Our Past – And the Path to Our Future. By Mike Enzi, Fisherman and U.S. Senator.” Very eloquent, as always.

He fished that great river in all parts of the state as he and Diana travelled around every weekend meeting with constituents and solving problems.

Solving problems?  Heck, he was an accountant.  His national nickname was “America’s Accountant.”  No man did more in the last 24 years to try to balance the federal budget and get national spending under control than Mike Enzi.

He was a doer. He was an expert at getting bills passed. Nobody else even comes close. He was responsible for the Senate passing hundreds of  bills during his four terms, getting them signed by four different presidents.

Talk is cheap when it comes to reaching across the aisle to the other party during these divisive times, but Mike Enzi was more successful at it than anybody else.

He and Diana invited Nancy and me to lunch last Nov. 18.  They were making a sort of farewell tour around the state. At Cale Case’s Summit Restaurant — inside the Inn at Lander — I suggested they try the fish and chips, which they agreed was delicious. 

Here are some highlights from that conversation:

He was very complimentary of his successor, Cynthia Lummis. Here is what he said:

“There are three lessons that I want to pass on to Cynthia.

“I will show her how to sell a bill, how to use the 80% tool, and how to watch for opportunities that are not in the normal job package,” he told me. But the most important thing is how to sell, he said.

“Everybody has to sell,” he said. “Some of us have had more chances to study how to sell. We started a shoe store.  I sold shoes for 28 years. We knew how to recognize and treat our customers well.”  

Over the years, Enzi developed a great friendship with the late Ted Kennedy, the most liberal member of the U. S. Senate.  Enzi was considered the most conservative.

Together they passed meaningful bills about solving the AIDS crisis in Africa, bills that helped OSHA, and addressed problems with pensions.  Mike told me that Kennedy would always tell folks “have Mike handle it. He can get it done.”  He chuckled when he told that story, but there was obviously a lot of truth in it.

Enzi said his most important asset “is my 80% tool.” 

He said he discovered it in the Wyoming Legislature and perfected it in his frequent dealings with Kennedy. It was liberal versus conservative.

He described the process: “We would draw up a list of what we thought we would be working on. You should only do 80% of the issue unless you can find a new way to do the other 20%.

“It’s the other 20% that holds up a bill.  We finally talked people into accepting the 80% and continue working on the 20 percent,” he said.  “People who want a perfect bill often are the ones who kill it.”

“It is not Republican. It is not Democrat.  It is a third way,” is how Enzi explained it.  “And when we disagree, we disagree agreeably.”

Mike and Diana Enzi had a wonderful marriage.  They were inseparable. Mike said he also applied that “80% rule” to their marriage, which explains how they got along so well in their 50-plus years together.

Mike loved sports and enjoyed watching kids play sports, especially his son Brad and grandson Trey.

Jim Angell, the editor at Cowboy State Daily and a former Associated Press correspondent for Wyoming, passes along this anecdote from watching Enzi in the Wyoming Legislature:

“Mike’s reputation as a major basketball fan is well known. And there was no player he was a bigger fan of than his son, Brad.
“While Mike was serving in the state Senate, there was a vote on some big issue coming up. Mike had warned legislative leaders he would not be in the chamber that Friday afternoon because his son, a senior, was playing his last basketball game for Gillette High School. Mike had seen every one of his son’s basketball games and there was no way he was going to miss this one.

“The debate dragged on and on and finally, Friday evening, the final vote was taken. It was a tie. Only member of the Senate missing was Mike Enzi. He was in Gillette.
“When Mike returned to the Capitol on Monday, several of us in the media asked him about why he was gone. I don’t remember the exact words, but it was something to the effect that politics is transitory — family is forever. My respect for Mike went to a whole new level. 
“And Mike was right. The issue came up again and he cast a vote and the thing was decided. And it made no difference at all that it happened 72 hours later than some had wanted.”

The town of Gillette, the state of Wyoming, the United States, and the world are all better places because of the lifelong dedication of Mike Enzi.

A giant has left us.

His shoes are impossible to fill.

Godspeed, Mike, friend to us all.

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Bill Sniffin

Wyoming Life Columnist

Columnist, author, and journalist Bill Sniffin writes about Wyoming life on Cowboy State Daily -- the state's most-read news publication.