By Leo Wolfson, political reporter
Two Wyoming legislators are speaking out against Secretary of State candidate Chuck Gray’s claims that Gray was the reason a voter ID bill passed in 2021.
Gray, a Republican representative from Casper, was the lead sponsor on this bill. Reps. Evan Simpson, R-Afton and Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, have come out publicly in recent days, saying Gray mostly took credit for a similar bill Simpson had written.
“It was clear we had different motives,” Simpson wrote in a letter to the editor in Cowboy State Daily on Thursday. “Mr. Gray wanted the glory and prestige of being the “author” of the bill; I simply just wanted a clean bill that would pass the legislature (t)his time and be easy to implement.”
Gray has made the voter ID bill one of his crowning achievements while campaigning for Secretary of State. The bill fits squarely within his platform to strengthen election security, promising to remove ballot drop boxes and make ballot harvesting a felony if elected.
Gray crafted voter ID bills in 2019 and 2020 that did not pass. Zwonitzer said these bills failed because they were too restrictive and did not have the support of lobbying groups such as AARP, which represents senior citizens. This is a demographic that often does not have up-to-date driver’s licenses, one of the requirements Gray was pushing for in his earlier bills.
After two years of waiting, Simpson said he wanted to get a voter ID bill through that could pass, so he drafted his own in 2021. He did not consult Gray prior to doing so. Gray had already created his own voter ID bill that session, for the third year in a row.
“I did the research on voter ID laws and drafted a bill that was straight forward and effective,” Simpson wrote.
Simpson said when Gray caught wind that he was drafting a similar bill, the Casper representative was not happy.
“It was at that time that I received a phone call from Mr. Gray,” Simpson said. “He was upset and quite condescending. He demanded to know what I was doing. He had drafted yet another bill and felt that he had earned the privilege to be the sponsor.”
Zwonitzer said it’s common for two similar bills to be created in the same legislature but said the sponsor of these mirror bills typically collaborate with each other. They work on the bill that has the best chance of passing.
Simpson said Gray agreed to have Gray remove the verbiage from his bill and insert the main language from Simpson’s bill and coordinate with AARP and other lobbyists, with Gray taking lead sponsorship.
“This was a decision I now regret seeing how he is taking all the credit for writing and passing the voter ID bill,” Simpson wrote, saying these claims raise questions about his honesty and integrity.
Zwonitzer, chair of the House Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee, said Gray also called him and demanded Zwonitzer pull Simpson’s bill. Zwonitzer said he thought Simpson’s bill was better, so he refused.
Zwonitzer said he spoke with Simpson about the matter, and the two had concerns Gray might vote against Simpson’s voter ID bill.
Angry And Combative
Simpson said after refusing to give in to Gray’s demands during the first call, Gray called him a few days later and continued to “badger” him about dropping his bill, becoming angry and combative.
“I told him I would hang up if he didn’t calm down to discuss the issue,” Simpson said.
Zwonitzer said this behavior is consistent with the way Gray typically carries himself in the legislature. He said Gray has never been concerned with the traditional decorum expected of the body, lacking emotional empathy, tactfulness, and interpersonal social skills.
“He’s very self-centric, not a mover-shaker,” Zwonitzer said. “He’s more, ‘agree to my demands,’ and if you don’t, ‘why don’t you agree with me?’ He’s not very smooth.”
“It’s his way or the highway,” Zwonitzer said.
Zwonitzer said also plaguing Gray’s bills, is his reputation within the Legislature. Zwonitzer said about 50% of the state’s legislators refuse to work with Gray on any bill.
“He’s burned that many bridges,” Zwonitzer, the most senior member of the House, told Cowboy State Daily on Friday morning.
But Gray does have the support of Rep. Mark Jennings, R-Sheridan, Rep. Jeremy Haroldson, R-Wheatland, and Rep. John Bear, R-Gillette. Gray is also supported by most of the House Freedom Caucus, State Treasurer Curt Meier and former President Donald Trump.
Gray has often cast his opponents and his leading Secretary of State opponent, State Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, in a negative light as “insiders.”
“In the last days of our campaign the (U.S. Rep.) Liz Cheney/Tara Nethercott establishment and the Cowboy State Daily are pulling out all the lies they can,” Gray told Cowboy State Daily Friday morning.
Rep. Landon Brown, R-Cheyenne, also spoke out against Gray on Thursday.
“Be smart, recognize that Chuck is not qualified for this level of authority,” Brown said, endorsing Nethercott. “His inability to work with his own colleagues in the House proves his inability to accomplish anything.”
Zwonitzer did compliment Gray as being intelligent and passionate about his job and said Gray will let old disagreements pass with people who agree to work with him in the present.
Gray responded to Zwonitzer and Simpson’s account of events without addressing their comments and instead said it was a personal attack by Cowboy State Daily.
“Wayne Hughes, who is funding the secretive PAC attacking me, is the main investor for the Cowboy State Daily paying the editor and reporter printing lies about me,” he said.
The “secretive” organization Gray refers to is the Wyoming Hope Political Action Committee, which Cowboy State Daily owner Wayne Hughes Jr. donated money to. This PAC has endorsed Nethercott and given $10,000 to her campaign, which meets disclosure laws.
Gray has been under scrutiny for alleged failures to comply with federal disclosure laws for the U.S. House race before he dropped out to run for secretary of state. Gray has denied these allegations and said he got the funds in an inheritance from his grandfather.
Recent Wyoming disclosures show he also has 95% of his campaign funding from a single source with $500,000 coming from his father, who himself is reportedly out of compliance with the Secretary of State business division for failure to file statutory business disclosures.
In describing the mission of Wyoming Hope, chairman Diemer True said it’s approach is, “Let’s back right-minded, proven conservative candidates who can govern effectively for Wyoming people.”
Attack The Media
Criticizing the media or saying the media is involved in a conspiracy against him for questions or stories that Gray doesn’t like has been a standard response for the candidate.
According to WyoFile, Gray declined to answer questions about his past employment, professional experience, or other qualifying attributes for the Secretary of State job. He has repeatedly criticized the Casper Star Tribune, which he describes as the “Red Star,” for that publication’s coverage of him.
Gray described a Federal Election Commission complaint filed against him as an attempt by the Casper Star Tribune and the complainant to smear him and his candidacy. Former Wyoming Secretary of State Max Maxfield, filer of the complaint, has endorsed Nethercott’s candidacy.
Gray will typically only answer questions when they are sent to him over cell phone, which is what he instructed Cowboy State Daily and WyoFile to do following a debate held in Casper earlier this month.
Zwonitzer, who is supporting Nethercott, said he has found her to be an easier legislator to work with.
“With Nethercott I have more of a long-term relationship,” he said. “She builds bridges and works towards more respectful interactions. It’s a different approach.”