By Leo Wolfson, Cowboy State Daily
An organized campaign to elect staunchly conservative individuals at all levels of government is taking place in Johnson County.
David Iverson, a podcaster and founder of the Patriot Conservatives of Johnson County, is recruiting and supporting candidates to run for offices from the legislative level to some of the county’s lowest grassroots seats such as the local fire district board and precinct committee positions within the county GOP party.
“The power that most affects people’s lives is closest to them,” Iverson told Cowboy State Daily in a Monday phone interview.
Patriot Conservatives, also a political action committee, started in July 2021 as a lobbying effort to oppose a tax initiative being proposed to voters in Johnson County last fall.
In 2021, Patriot Conservatives raised $8,487, according to records from the secretary of state’s office.
During the campaign on the tax initiative, which was defeated, Patriot Conservatives filed a lawsuit against the Buffalo Bulletin newspaper, seeking $36 million in damages. The group alleged it was defamed by an item published in the newspaper that questioned the accuracy of statements made by the group. The lawsuit was dismissed.
Iverson said his PAC was renamed as the Patriot Conservatives of Wyoming last month and is now supporting and recruiting political candidates statewide in areas including Laramie County.
“If we truly want to change how our government is operating, it’s going to take our involvement,” said Iverson on his Wednesday show. “Look through the list of offices and see what you can do, I promise you can find something. Whether it’s on a local county board, or it’s the city council, or it’s the county commissioners, or it’s the precinct level.”
Tass vs Crago
The most prominent race taking place in Johnson County is for House District 40, a contest between incumbent Republican Barry Crago and GOP challenger Richard Tass, a rematch of the 2020 HD 40 race between the two.
Tass was elected by the voters in 2018, but lost as an incumbent in 2020 to Crago by a margin of nearly 19%.
Tass said he is more conservative than Crago, pointing as examples to what he called Crago’s opposition to a bill that would have prohibited transgender females from competing in women’s sports and support for increasing the state budget.
He also took exception to Crago’s opposition to an investigation into allegations Rep. Dan Zwonitzer lives outside the House district he represents in Laramie County.
WyoRINO.com, a “voting index” that judges Wyoming lawmakers on how consistent they vote with the Republican Party platform, listed Crago as its RINO (Republican In Name Only) of the month in December 2021. The website gave Crago a rating of 60 out of a possible score of 100 for his voting record at the Legislature this past spring.
“The conservative side of Johnson County is not being represented,” Tass said.
However, Crago didn’t actually vote against the transgender bill, a point misstated by Iverson on his show. The legislator voted not to override House rules so the bill could be heard despite the fact it was not considered within the body’s deadline for the introduction of bills.
Crago said there is no precedent for overriding these scheduling rules and said he would have voted for the bill if it had been considered by the House.
Self-described as “very conservative,” Crago is proud of his legislative record and the work he did on ad valorem taxes for minerals, co-sponsoring a successful bill that will allow for regulation of a company’s oil and gas production until the company pays its unpaid taxes.
Crago also noted the state budget only increased as a result of the massive federal COVID money provided to the State.
Crago also said he did not believe having a private investigative committee look into the residency complaint against Zwonitzer was an effective way to handle the issue. He added he did not think the complaint against Zwonitzer merited removing him from office.
The first-term representative, who is also a deputy county attorney in Johnson County and a rancher, said he is not interested in engaging in negative politics during his campaign. He said if Tass is elected, he will do his best to assist and support him at the Legislature.
“I don’t think we as Republicans should be fighting with each other,” he said. “We should be helping each other. We should have different opinions — that’s what elections are for.”
John DeMatteis, a Tass supporter, is running for county commissioner in Johnson County. He is listed in the secretary of state’s office as the treasurer of the Patriot Conservatives, although he said the secretary of state’s office has not updated its filings.
Although DeMatteis said he is no longer affiliated with Patriot Conservatives, he is still listed as the PAC’s treasurer on the secretary of state’s website.
DeMatteis said the group’s mission is not unique to Johnson County and instead reflects a statewide effort he sees on every level to expose those GOP members who are deemed not to be adhering to Republican Party principles.
“A lot of Wyomingites are voting conservative thanks to (U.S. Rep.) Liz Cheney showing that a lot of these elected politicians are not real conservative,” he said.
Although Cheney has one of the most conservative voting records in the Congress, she voted for to impeach former President Donald Trump and and spoke out against his attempts to overturn the 2020 election.
DeMatteis is one of three candidates running for two open spots on the board of county commissioners. He said the 22 local boards and special districts in Johnson County manage budgets with a combined $80 million in reserves.
Tass described Patriot Conservatives as “pretty fair” in its recruitment of individuals to run in elections, but said they do hold a bias for conservative candidates.
Crago expressed concern, however, that if too many people are targeted for criticism, it might be difficult to find candidates for office.
“I’m afraid we’re going to run out really good public servants if they are afraid of being unfairly treated or over-criticized in a radio show, article or podcast,” Crago said, referring to county clerk and other elected positions. “I’m afraid we’re going to run off really good people — we don’t need to be doing that.”
But as a state legislator, Crago clarified that he finds himself a fair target for public criticism.
The topic of rising property taxes is quickly becoming a hot button issue for the Legislature’s 2023 session, as drastic increases in property values this spring have elevated concerns from homeowners and assessors alike that changes and possible caps are needed in the state’s tax laws.
“Legislation is needed to change our laws,” said Debra Robinson, Johnson County assessor, who has been a target of Iverson’s criticism. “People need to contact their representative to get something done to stop this.”
Crago said he wants the issue discussed, but is unsure if the Wyoming Constitution needs to be amended first in order to be able to enact real change.
Johnson County GOP Chairman Robert Garrison said mistakes have been made on his own home’s assessment in the past and recently penned an open letter to county residents on the need to alter Wyoming’s property tax laws. He also urged all Johnson County residents to appeal their property assessments to the assessor.
“Yes, this will probably overwhelm the office, but it is our only alternative to truly protect what we own,” Garrison wrote.
As of Monday, Robinson said her department had already received a dozen appeals.
Iverson has attacked Robinson on his shows, accusing her of failing to complete required ongoing education as an assessor.
Robinson has not taken the class “Fundamentals of Real Property Appraisal” since 2013, but she has taken other appraisal-related courses since then.
The COVID-19 pandemic halted a class she was supposed to take in 2020, and then when she tested positive for the virus in 2021, it stopped her from being able to take a class that year. Robinson, who is not running for reelection, said she is currently signed up to take classes this summer.
“It’s something he’s (Iverson) doing to create sensationalism,” she said. “I’ve got a board of commissioners, a county attorney, the board of equalization — I would be hearing from them if I was doing something wrong. Don’t start just rambling crap off.”
Robinson said Iverson never reached out to her for questions and clarification before criticizing her on his show.
Iverson said this was true, adding he “didn’t need to because I already got all the information I needed.”