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By Leo Wolfson, Cowboy State Daily
In one of the few “purple” areas of the state, a race in Albany County is emerging featuring candidates representing the entire political spectrum in House District 46.
Incumbent Republican Rep. Ocean Andrew (R-Laramie) will face off against challenger Richard “RJ” Lennox in the GOP primary. Whichever candidate wins this battle will take on Democrat Merav Ben-David, who is currently running unopposed in her primary. Ben-David was the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in 2020, losing to U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis.
Albany County, Ben-David’s home county, voted for President Joe Biden and nearly voted for Ben-David, who only lost by 1% to Lummis there. Lummis overwhelmingly won the overall vote against Ben-David by more than 46%.
“Skin In The Game”
Home to the University of Wyoming, Albany County hosts a sizable demographic of younger adults. The focus of the House 46 race reflects this, with each candidate putting a large emphasis on their vision for Wyoming’s future.
“I think the biggest benefit of that is that someone in their 20s has the most skin in the game,” said Andrew, the youngest legislator in the state at 28-years old. “How I as a legislator choose to affect the future of our economy, the future of our education system, and the future of our state in general will have very direct implications for everyone who is part of my generation.”
A Washington native, Andrew has lived in Wyoming since 2013 and runs a successful food truck business. A firm believer in local control, Andrew said the best route for Wyoming’s economy is to cut out government over-regulation and “support our small local businesses by not allowing large out-of-state corporations to create more legal barriers to entry.”
In the 2020 House District 46 race, Andrew easily knocked off Democratic challenger Tim Chestnut by nearly 19% of the vote. In his primary that year Andrew faced even less challenge, beating his opponent by nearly 46% of the vote.
Andrew is one of the more conservative lawmakers in the legislature, earning an 80% rating from Wyorino.com.
Due to redistricting,House District 46 changed its boundaries this spring picking up swaths of land northwest and east of downtown Laramie. This was land previously located in House District 14, the district of Rep. Trey Sherwood (D-Laramie). Sherwood narrowly won her 2020 election by 85 votes. She will pick up portions of conservative-leaning House District 47 in her reelection bid this year.
Due to redistricting, Ben-David was moved to House District 46 from House District 14. She said was happy with Sherwood and would have never considered running against her, but the proposition of being represented by Andrew changed everything for her.
“I think Ocean Andrew, like many other Republicans in the legislature, is toeing the party line,” Ben-David said. “Wyoming people would rather hear about Wyoming-specific issues.”
Ben-David said “made-up issues” like critical race theory, transgender athletics and cryptocurrency are national topics currently distracting Wyoming politics. A professor and researcher at the University of Wyoming, Ben-David said more focus should be given to retaining young people in Wyoming, who she said have a narrow range of jobs to choose from.
“I can count on one hand how many students I’ve had that have found a job in Wyoming,” she said. “They want to stay but have to leave because there’s no jobs.”
Ben-David believes Wyoming needs to harness renewable energy in the future, which is one of her key platform topics. She said it’s time for the state to move on from oil, coal, and natural gas, and start embracing wind and solar energy. She said declining fossil fuel revenues have made the state dependent on COVID-19 relief money.
“We’re burying the state in the 1950s without looking forward,” she said. “We need to build our own economy. Right now we don’t have one.”
Ben-David said focus needs to be put on the small towns of Wyoming. She didn’t have a clear solution for what may happen to mine communities like Kemmerer if coal goes away but said town residents should look to other opportunities and alternative energy sources like helium so they can adapt for the future.
“There’s a lot of things we can do,” she said. “We need to find a new ride.”
No matter which candidate is elected in November, House District 46 will have a legislator with experience in education.
Both Ben-David and Lennox have spent most of their lives working in education, while Andrew is a member of the legislature’s Education Committee.
Andrew and Ben-David express conflicting views on the teaching of critical race theory in schools. Ben-David supports it and wants teachers to have the primary decision making to what is taught to students, while Andrew opposes it, but wants the decision of whether it’s taught or not made on a local level.
“The problem with our education system is that we live in a polarized society and we are never going to be able to cram everyone’s values into one system,” Andrew said. “Trying to do so makes the system ineffective for our students and miserable for our teachers, this is what we are seeing now. As a state, we need to fund students and not systems.”
Andrew supports private school choice programs that allow parents and teachers to directly choose what type of schooling children receive.
“Middle Ground Candidate“
Lennox grew up in Cheyenne and worked in the legislature as an intern while attending the university in Laramie. He worked in education in California for 23 years but returned home to Wyoming in 2018.
Now a small business owner, Lennox describes himself as a “middle ground candidate” who leans conservative on most issues and will vote to support reasonable and needed legislation.
He agrees with Andrew when it comes to opposing big government.
“I’m all for limited government,” Lennox said. “We’re independent in Wyoming, we can get this done. We don’t need government in our lives. Let them do their thing, let them be who they are.”
He said he also agrees with Ben-David on certain issues and wants to reach across the aisle if it means getting things done for his constituents.
“I’m fully aware of the death nail that could mean in the campaign,” he said.
Lennox finds bipartisanship sorely missing in politics today. His top concern, he said, will be listening to the needs of his constituents and responding to their concerns. This is one criticism he has of Andrew, who he said has been “missing in action” when it comes to always responding to his constituents.
“I’m going to guarantee you, I’m going to be talking to you,” Lennox said. “Finding out what your needs are. I’m going to be someone available to you and I’m going to be listening, or someone who is on the same page as you.”
During the 2022 session Andrew sponsored one bill and co-sponsored five.
“I was privileged to play small parts in large efforts in my first term,” Andrew said. “My main accomplishment from this experience was gaining a solid understanding of the legislature and how it operates with which I was able to help my constituents more successfully engage in the process. Public participation is essential to good government and people want to participate, but they often just need a little help navigating it.”
Although Lennox’s views may not represent every voter in his district, he said he wants to be as transparent as possible about where he stands on issues so the voters know exactly who may be representing them.
“I’m going to be an absolute neighbor available to you,” he said. “You may say, ‘Look RJ, this is ridiculous, this is the policy, this is the laws,’ and I’ll be forthcoming and listen to that. You may say after the vote, ‘Hey RJ, I’m not feeling that.’ But at least when the vote happens they’re not shocked. They’ll say, ‘He listened to his constituents.’”
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