By Leo Wolfson, political reporter
One of the most dramatic races in the state legislature may be in House District 44 in Cheyenne. Two candidates are related to each other. Another is trying to win the seat back. Two of the four candidates are making their first foray into politics.
House District 44 is a working class area in South Cheyenne that leans left historically, but has also demonstrated strong potential to swing right, especially in recent years. In 2018, Democrat Sara Burlingame won the district by 69 votes. In 2020, Republican John Romero-Martinez beat Burlingame by 48 votes. Prior to Burlingame, Democrat James Byrd represented the seat for 10 years.
Three Republicans and one Democrat are vying for the seat this year. The field will be whittled down to two candidates after the primary elections on Aug. 16.
Due to redistricting, the district lost a chunk of land in the southern, downtown portion of Cheyenne. It picked up voters in a slightly more conservative corridor southwest of the I-80/I-25 juncture.
The incumbent, Romero-Martinez, describes himself as centrist to center-right politically, willing to work with both sides of the aisle to get things done.
Romero-Martinez, 45, ran unsuccessfully for the House in 2016 and 2018. Before that, he was involved in student government at Laramie County Community College and started a nonprofit organization at the age of 16. He also campaigned for former House 44 Rep. Floyd Esquibel, a Democrat, while growing up.
“I’ve always been involved in local politics,” he said.
Adamantly pro-life, Romero-Martinez said the issue he’s most passionate about is abortion.
“From conception, a woman has her own body and a child has their own body,” he said. “The only difference is the umbilical cord, where the mother serves as an incubator center.”
He sponsored and co-sponsored three abortion bills in this past year’s legislature and five during the 2021 session. Although HB 149, a bill he sponsored to prohibit abortions based on selective reasons and disabilities, died in the Senate, the House passed it.
“I’m super involved in looking at policy,” he said. “I take a deep dive when it comes to important policy of the (Republican) party.”
Despite it getting very little traction in the legislature, Romero-Martinez was also proud of the religious freedom bill he crafted. He is also a vocal supporter of Medicaid expansion.
“It became a nice joint labor House thing,” he said of the 2021 Medicaid expansion bill. “It’s something we’ll look at for a few more years.”
Romero-Martinez leans to the left when it comes to labor rights. He wants third-party minimum wage laws improved in Wyoming. These are typically used by temporary worker hiring agencies. He also wants to abolish a law that allows employers to terminate their employees for any reason at any time. This is the at-will employee clause.
He also believes all past Native American and Hispanic treaties need to be recognized in Wyoming. He believes this combined with outlawing abortion would mean a stronger economy. This past year, he crafted a resolution requesting Congress to acknowledge and promote verified land designation history and support collaboration with all heirs of treaty lands.
“How do you move economically forward when you cut out certain communities out of a piece of the pie?” he asked.
The Former Incumbent
The issue of abortion is where Romero-Martinez and Burlingame most differ. She is pro-choice. Burlingame believes it is unconstitutional for a governmental authority to tell a woman what she can and can’t do with her body.
“I believe women in Wyoming are smart when you give them the ability to make their own reproductive choices, they make the right ones for themselves and family,” she said. “It’s not the business of the legislature to tell a woman how they should start their family. Conversations that take place with partners, a clergy member, those are never questions you would ask a legislator.”
Burlingame said the state is at an important juncture right now after having received more than $2.4 billion in federal grant funds for the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In the past that money and those opportunities have gone to other parts of the state,” she said. “South Cheyenne is due for really strong representation.”
Burlingame is the director of LGBTQ advocacy organization Wyoming Equality. In her advocacy for this community, she has often brought up values such as local-control and Constitutional rights.
Burlingame said certain divisive national issues have become misappropriated as important topics for Wyoming in recent years.
“I’m going to be listening to my constituents, not national talk radio and trying to score political points,” she said. “I think that’s a really boring way to do politics and think it’s a shame electing people has become obsessed with that.”
Burlingame is proud of her ability to get more conservative-minded legislators to work with her and conservative voters to support her. She mentioned a neighbor who simultaneously had yard signs in their yard for her and former President Donald Trump.
She said her decision to wait until the months leading up to the general election to talk to all her constituents was what led to her loss in 2020.
Burlingame is running unopposed in the Democratic primary and will face off against the Republican primary winner in the general election.
“I care about the economy, inflation,” she said. “I care about public lands. Even if someone is not a hunter, they may hike, they recreate. There is a lot of uncertainty with corner crossing. What’s going to happen with public lands that are turned over? That’s part of our life.”
In March, Romero-Martinez came under scrutiny for allegedly making indirect threats to the lives of Rep. Andi LeBeau (D-Riverton), Burlingame and himself.
“None of that is acceptable to me,” Burlingame said. “I’m not going to play politics with that or sort of pretend it’s a milder issue than it is.”
Romero-Martinez wouldn’t say much about the incident during a phone interview on Tuesday.
“I have rules in the House I go by,” he said. “I’m going through that process.”
The Incumbent’s Cousin
Also running in the Republican primary is Tamara Trujillo, Romero-Martinez’s cousin. Trujillo said she doesn’t differ greatly from her cousin politically, but does have better attention to detail. Her bread-and-butter campaign focus is education and she is running for her grandchildren’s future. About 20 years ago she ran a Head Start preschool program in New Mexico.
“Public schools need to stick to teaching our kids to navigate the world financially,” she said. “They don’t teach financial responsibility in high school.” “The basics they are being taught in school has nothing to do with going out and financing the first home on their own, getting credit cards to build credit. If we’re going to teach success we need them to learn the fundamentals of life. Without teaching those, people become very dependent to have to navigate those waters.”
Trujillo wants the state to provide better support for school of choice options such as charter schools or implementing voucher programs. Like her cousin, she also supports freedom of religion.
“If people would just be able to accept everybody, even religious people- the world would be a happier place,” she said. I feel that people shouldn’t be looked at negatively for having their own religious beliefs.”
Trujillo, a former employee of the HollyFrontier refinery, said she supports green energy sources like wind and solar and believes most of the world will be using electric cars at some point in the future. But she also opposes moving away from fossil fuel energy in the present or near future in Wyoming.
“Fossil fuels are still a reality for today and tomorrow,” she said.
She is pro-life.
“You need to listen to everybody you want to represent,” Trujillo said. “Your personal views are no longer your views anymore.”
Also running in the Republican primary is Michael Reyes. Reyes said he is more conservative and professional than Romero-Martinez.
“John voted on subjects that show he’s not so conservative,” Reyes said. “I’m an open book. What you see is what you get.”
Reyes said his decision to run had been a long time coming. It was inspired by the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives. Although he considers himself a “major conservative” with a “base of conservative values,” he does appreciate some liberal social perspectives, having been raised in the foster care system.
“I want to make good decisions based on what’s right, not just for the party,” he said.
Reyes, a truck driver who also owns a small repair shop, said Wyoming should continue to harness fossil fuels while keeping an eye on and pursuing alternative energy sources. He also wants to advocate for the cattle industry and others that protect the “Wyoming way of life.”
Reyes, like the other two Republican candidates, is pro-life.
“It’s not a decision I can make,” he said, “There is only one power to make that.”
Reyes has also been involved in community service, starting Wyoming Advocates for Youth and running a volleyball league in Cheyenne.
When it comes to transgender athletics, he believes a third gender division should be created for transgender individuals in which to compete in.
“Wyoming is the equality state,” he said. “That would level out the playing field. It’s not my decision to make, it’s up to them to decide what they want to do.”
He said he has an unquenchable thirst for improving himself and learning and will bring these traits to the legislature if elected.
“I want to do what’s good for the community, do good on a bigger scale,” he said.