By Leo Wolfson, Cowboy State Daily
The Wyoming Democratic Party is aware of where it stands within the state’s political pecking order.
“Sometimes it feels like we have too small of numbers to get it done, but if we don’t get it done, no one’s going to do it,” Party Chairman Joe Barbuto said during the party’s state convention Saturday in Rock Springs.
Barbuto is passionate about the cause of Democrats within the state, believing people in Wyoming count on the party “whether they know it or not.”
“We’re the party that’s still fighting for everybody in Wyoming, regardless of their political affiliation, we want them to have that access to opportunity, that ability to pursue happiness,” Barbuto said.
The Democratic party in Wyoming arguably faces a more difficult uphill battle than in any other state. In the last presidential election, former President Donald Trump won by a wider margin in Wyoming than in any other state.
“Being a Wyoming Democrat isn’t easy, but it’s the right thing to do,” Barbuto said. “I don’t know how any self-respecting person could be a Republican person right now.”
Barbuto described Frank Eathorne, chairman of the Wyoming Republican Party, as a “domestic terrorist” during the convention, because of Eathorne’s attendance at the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.
Although the Wyoming GOP holds a dominant share of the votes in the state currently, it is not free from infighting, with many members of the party accusing the others of not being real Republicans.
“You got super conservatives vs. people that are off-the-rail extremists,” said Dean Ferguson, interim communications director for the Wyoming Democratic Party. “That’s what his whole bunch is that won’t let in the so-called ‘RINOs’ in their own convention because they’re not pure enough.”
There are many within the Wyoming Democrat Party who believe their party is capable of getting more votes than it has received in recent elections.
It was fewer than 16 years ago that Wyoming voters re-elected a Democrat in Dave Freudenthal to be governor. Prior to Freudenthal, two of the three governors preceding him were also Democrats.
“We elected Democratic governors, we elected Democratic legislators,” Evanston resident Sharon McPhie said. “Even then, both parties talked. You were able to sit down and have conversations.”
McPhie said she has seen the Democrat party drift a little toward the center in an effort to find middle ground with Republican voters.
Decline Of Dems
What Barbuto has experienced first-hand in his home of Sweetwater County is in many ways emblematic of what has happened to the Democratic Party statewide in Wyoming.
A former state representative, Barbuto served for four years in the Legislature from 2008-2012. He was narrowly defeated by Rep. Mark Baker, R-Green River, in 2012 and lost an even closer comeback attempt against Baker in 2014.
Sweetwater County, like the state, has slowly drifted to the right politically. Following former President Bill Clinton’s win in the county in 1996, Sweetwater voted for Republican presidents in every subsequent election. In 2020, Trump took 73% of the vote in the county.
Barbuto said in Sweetwater County, many of the older Democrats, loyal to the party because of the New Deal programs ushered in by former President Franklin D. Roosevelt, passed away no younger Democrats stepped up to take their place.
Rock Springs, the county’s largest city, is a town built on coal and railroads. When those industries started to decline, Barbuto said Republicans struck a chord with the public.
“I think you’ve seen a really organized message from the right, from the Republican Party, about what’s happening, particularly with energy and some of those social issues where they have been successful at pointing the finger at Democrats,” Barbuto said. “That’s not always an honest message. In fact, a lot of the time it is misinformation.”
Party Has Lost Touch
But Mark Martin, a longtime Rock Springs resident and Democrat, said his party has lost touch with the middle class. He said many of the union battles the Democrats championed in the 20th century aren’t being recognized by a new generation of workers who weren’t alive when these battles were being fought. Martin said one of the local coal mines has lost more than half of its union membership.
“The Democrats, they’re just not reaching those people,” Martin said. “That’s what got them, there wouldn’t be unions if it weren’t for Democrats. But this younger generation has no idea.”
Barbuto did point out Democrat gains made in Albany, Teton and Fremont counties, and said claims the party has lost touch with rural Americas aren’t accurate. Some of the state’s most rural counties also have some of the party’s most passionate Democrats he said.
Barbuto also said the national Democratic Party has been making inroads in more conservative, rural states like Wyoming, an effort Barbuto said he and his staff have been vocal about promoting.
“You have to understand there’s a lot that every American shares in common,” he said. “Everybody wants a good job that pays wages they can raise a family on. They want access to health care, they want quality education. That’s not rural or urban or suburban.”
Randy Leinen, chairman of the Crook County Democratic Party, said the party hasn’t been reaching out to former Democrats who achieved success like Freudenthal and former state Rep. Floyd Esquibel, D-Cheyenne, “ignoring” their knowledge.
Declining representation has become so concerning for the party that on Saturday, the 134 delegates present established a five-member task force to address the problem.
“If we don’t lay out those goals and how to build that base and how to move forward and we don’t prioritize this, as a party, we’re done,” said State Rep. Karlee Provenza, D-Laramie, her voice trembling at multiple junctures while advocating for the task force. “That’s grim and I don’t like it. But I desperately need progressives next to me in Cheyenne.”
For Barbuto, better messaging will be the key.
“The thing is about Democrats, I think that sometimes we’re passionate about being smart,” he said. “We want to have the facts and the figures to back up our argument. Whereas, Republicans have been smart about being passionate. They understand the need to pull on heartstrings and appeal to that emotional side of people.”
Barbuto was not optimistic about Democrats’ chances on a national level in the elections this fall, but also said there is still time for his party and Biden to gain some ground with Americans.
“Things happen so fast these days,” he said.
Stand up and pushback
Many counties only had a few delegates present at the state convention on Saturday, while Weston County had none, as there is no active Democrat Party in that county despite 360 people there voting for President Joe Biden in 2020.
Leinen said a Democrat recently reached out to him from Weston County to ask for advice. That gentleman, Leinen said, purchased a firearm for the first time in his life because he felt so threatened for being a known Democrat.
“That’s where we’re at with this country,” Leinen said.
McPhie is another Democrat living in a deeply conservative part of the state in Uinta County. She said it’s difficult to express her political views as people tend to treat her differently when they find out she’s a Democrat. But she added she still believes her voice “should be heard.”
“You get up to the Bridger Valley and you have to be very very careful,” she said. “You can’t put bumper stickers on your car. You can’t put pamphlets out on your street because then you’re going to get looked down upon and you can get yourself into trouble for voicing your opinion.”
McPhie still loves Wyoming though and said she feels safe here. She recently moved back to Wyoming after spending eight years in Nevada. She said it’s the gentle kindness people in Wyoming possess that drew her back in.
“You come to an event like this (convention) and you can share and talk and it is so nice and stimulating,” she said. “You get fired up. Maybe this year someone will make a difference. It makes me excited because I hear people agree with me.”
One of the most eye-catching people at Saturday’s convention was Jason Bloomberg of Cheyenne, wearing a blue vest completely filled with political buttons.
Bloomberg and other Wyoming Democrats gained notoriety in 2016 for wearing shirts to the Democratic National Party convention that read “Black Lives Matter In The Equality State,” gaining national media attention and causing an individual on Twitter to remark that Wyoming had the “wokest” delegation.
Along with that shirt on Saturday, Bloomberg also sported his vest filled with more than 50 buttons promoting progressive ideals and past candidates. The back of his vest was filled with “Trumpbusters” buttons, a parody graphic on the Hollywood flick “Ghostbusters.” In the buttons, Trump is portrayed as a black and white ghost, save for his signature golden blonde hair sitting atop a phantom head.
“We need to not kill ourselves even though we strongly disagree,” Bloomberg said of the spoof button. “I think the Constitution has been violated by the Trump administration. I’m not shying away from these issues, but at the end of the day we still have people who see the world differently than I do and their views are just as legitimate as mine.”
Bloomberg said the Smithsonian Museum reached out and asked him if he would donate his political vest to their collection.
“I said, ‘it depends how the (2024) election turns out,” he said. “Because if I need this again, this is my political chainmail. We’re battling for the heart and soul of our nation.”