By Leo Wolfson, Cowboy State Daily
Gov. Mark Gordon was a no-show at a recent gubernatorial debate hosted by the Washakie County Republican Party in Worland, generating some criticism among organizers and attendees of the event.
“To everyone else it sounded like he wanted an excuse to not be there,” Tami Young, Washakie County GOP chair, told Cowboy State Daily. “To most people it sounded like he wanted an out.”
Gordon, seeking his second term in office, was invited to attend the June 30 debate with his GOP primary opponents: Brent Bien, James Quick and Rex Rammell. Bien and Rammell attended.
Gordon did not commit to attend the event beforehand and a spokesman for his campaign said the funeral of a fallen U.S. Marine and another event kept him from attending.
Nonetheless, Jay Richard, a Worland business owner, said Gordon became the punchline of a number of jokes throughout the evening at the debate attended by roughly 200 people at Worland Middle School.
Both Richard and Young said it’s no secret Worland and Washakie County, among the most conservative areas in the state, aren’t hotbeds for Gordon support. Still, both said they were offended by the lack of notice given by the governor that he would not be coming.
“He knows we’re a conservative county, maybe he’s afraid of the conservative Christians,” Young said.
Gordon narrowly won the Republican primary in Washakie County in 2018, beating competitor Harriet Hageman by 26 votes.
Young said although she wasn’t likely to support Gordon before the event, he’s definitely lost her vote now.
Gordon attended the funeral of fallen U.S. Marine Seth Rasmuson of Buffalo the afternoon of June 30, but that event started in the mid-afternoon and the debate began at 7 p.m. Buffalo is about a two-hour drive from Worland.
Young and Tom Wiblemo, a Gordon campaign spokesperson, also said Gordon had a long-standing commitment that evening that was scheduled prior to receiving notice about the Worland forum.
Wiblemo did not respond to a question about what this engagement was, nor was Young ever told.
“Since we know how packed everyone’s calendars are, we were still attempting to rearrange Mark’s schedule so he could be there,” Wiblemo said in a Wednesday statement. “Because of unforeseen circumstances, we were not able to move that commitment to earlier in the day.”
“Lack Of Effort”
Young said she was also frustrated because there was a lack of effort made by the Gordon campaign to find a different date to schedule the debate. Although Gordon never confirmed his presence, Young said she never received any notice the governor would not be making it.
“We said, ‘Give us another date so we can make a debate that fits your schedule,’” Young said. “That’s why we were frustrated.”
In a June 14 email sent to Young, Wiblemo said “it’s nearly impossible to find a day that works for everyone so (the campaign doesn’t) expect you to wait for us to set your forum.”
Wiblemo said Gordon is participating in as many forums as possible, including two in mid-June, one of which was televised. Gordon is officially confirmed for another televised Republican primary debate July 28 on Wyoming PBS.
A Wyoming PBS U.S. House debate held in Sheridan the same night as Worland’s gubernatorial debate also drew some attention away from the Worland debate. Young she said was not aware that event was happening until a few days before Worland’s debate was to take place. Richard said the timing of that event played to Gordon’s favor by deflecting attention away from his absence.
During the debate between Rammell and Bien, Rammell said he felt he won by exposing Bien’s lack of experience as a Wyoming resident.
Bien grew up in Wyoming but did not return until three years ago after finishing his military career as officer-in-charge of the U.S. Marine Corps base on Guam. Bien did not immediately respond to Cowboy State Daily’s request for comment.
“Brent hasn’t been in Wyoming long enough to understand the issues,” Rammell said. “I knew when he was going to debate the issues he was going to fade. He doesn’t understand how deep the issues are.”
Richard, a Bien supporter, did not agree with Rammell’s conclusion about the debate, saying Rammell talked too much. In contrast, Richard took no issue with Bien giving one-word answers and saying “I don’t know” to a few questions.
“Sometimes a simple yes or no is adequate,” Richard said.
“He Is An Employee”
Young said the forum had a loose slate of rules with candidates generally given two minutes to answer questions, but more time was given if the moderator Taylor Haynes, a 2018 gubernatorial candidate, deemed it necessary.
“The governor is more than a candidate, he is an employee,” said Haynes in a June 29 Facebook post prior to the debate, imploring people to call Gordon’s office to get him to show up. “For him, if he wants to be reelected, it’s a performance review as well. As our employee, we can demand that he show up.”
Young said it was a goal of debate organizers to ask questions that dove beyond the surface to allow the audience to get to know candidates on a deeper level.
Young agreed with Rammell that he had a strong debate. Many leaders within the Wyoming Republican Party have officially and unofficially shown support for Bien.
Young and Richard said they are not supporting Gordon because of his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If he had handled it more like the governor of South Dakota, I probably, definitely would vote for him again,” Young said.
Richard said Gordon didn’t want to waste time with a “couple knuckleheads,” a reference to an earlier remark Gordon had made about a lack of COVID mandate compliance in Washakie County.
Young was also bothered by the lack of support Gordon showed for a bill designd to prevent members of one political party from changing affiliation to influence the other party’s primary election outcome.
Gordon did not vocally lobby for the bill’s passage and it never made it to his desk to sign into law, dying in the State House where it failed to receive a first reading vote.
Rammell said he and Bien have an agreement where if one of the candidates appears to be trailing by a significant margin to the other, they will drop out before primary election day.
Although he admits he would finish behind Bien if the primary election took place today, Rammell said he is starting to gain momentum on the campaign.
“This is like a thoroughbred race and we are going into the final stretch,” he said.
“Scared Of Me”
Rammell said Gordon is afraid to show up at debates he is attending because he knows the governor’s weak points. He also questions Gordon’s dedication to the race and desire to be re-elected.
A repeat candidate in a handful of elections, Rammell sees the current race as his best one yet. He earned around 42,000 votes while running in the 2010 Idaho Republican gubernatorial primary.
“I think he’s scared of me and that’s the truth,” Rammell said, describing Gordon as a “green new dealer” with an inconsistent energy policy. “He knows I’m not afraid to point out his weaknesses.”