By Leo Wolfson, State Political Reporter
A campaign finance complaint filed by the Wyoming Democratic Party has upset and offended some people, including state House candidate Republican Paul Vogelheim of Jackson.
“My family’s heartbreak and loss is not political fodder for anyone,” Vogelheim said in a Tuesday email response.
The complaint was filed about Vogelheim regarding a $10,000 contribution he reported receiving from Barbara Carlsberg on July 19 who Vogelheim listed as an immediate family contribution. Carlsberg is the mother of Vogelheim’s late wife Rebecca Carlsberg Vogelheim, who died from brain cancer in 2019.
Wyoming law prohibits people outside a candidate’s immediate family from donating more than $1,500 to any single campaign.
Vogelheim said the Democrat Party’s complaint mentions the aspect of Wyoming law as defining “parent” as a natural parent or a parent by adoption, and that it’s “particularly painful to read that statute as it implies that since my wife died, Barbara is no longer my mother-in-law.”
“Please respect how painful Becky’s passing has been — and respect that Barbara and I together immediately and wholeheartedly encircled our family,” he said, mentioning how he refers to Carlsberg as “Mom.” He said Carlsberg was “devastated” when he found out the news about the finance complaint.
“We share our grief and love for my amazing wife, Rebecca Carlsberg Vogelheim, and Barbara and I have banded together to support Becky’s girls,” he said.
Wyoming’s election campaign finance laws define “immediate family” donations as “a spouse, parent, sibling, child or other person living in the candidate’s household. Since this law makes no reference to relatives outside the nuclear family and Carlsberg does not live with Vogelheim, his reference to his late wife is likely a moot point.
“Whether Becky is alive or not, this has nothing to do with whether Barb qualifies as immediate family,” Vogelheim’s opponent, Democrat Liz Storer told Cowboy State Daily on Wednesday. “I think the issue is whether we’re all playing by the rules. It’s not about political fodder or his wife.”
Vogelheim told Cowboy State Daily on Tuesday he didn’t research the definition of “immediate family” under Wyoming law and falsely assumed this would include his mother-in-law, who he now considers a mother in his family.
“I didn’t even think twice about it,” he said.
On Wednesday, Karen Wheeler, deputy director of the Wyoming Secretary of State’s office, said her department is conferring with the Attorney General’s office on the matter of whether in-laws can be considered immediate family under state election laws.
“These rules are in place for a reason,” WDP Chairman Joe M. Barbuto said in a party press release. “It’s important that they’re enforced and that candidates are held to a high level of compliance.”
Vogelheim said he has returned the $10,000 donation that he never communicated with his HD 23 opponent, Storer, or the state Democratic Party about this issue before the complaint was filed to the Secretary of State’s office with a corresponding press release from the party.
“It’s awful the Storer campaign ended up doing it like this,” said Robbin Levy, a Jackson attorney. “We’re a small state where everybody knows everybody.”
Storer said she had not been communicating with Vogelheim during the campaign and did not know another way to address the alleged campaign infraction. She also does not regret the way this complaint was handled.
“It was my understanding this was the only way to resolve the issue,” she said.
An Unfair Advantage
Storer said the $10,000 donation put her at a political disadvantage. During the primary campaign, Vogelheim raised about $55,000 while Storer raised about $34,000. Vogelheim said he has reached $90,000 in campaign funding with three weeks to go before the general Nov. 8 election. This is likely the most money raised by any state Legislature candidate this year.
Storer gave $101 to her primary campaign for House District 23 while Vogelheim spent $10,000 of his own money.
During the primary campaign, Vogelheim spent $20,546 on his campaign while Storer spent $21,415 on hers.
Storer runs the George B. Storer Foundation, which invests in nonprofits and programs throughout the state. She said she has been trying to avoid spending her own money on the campaign.
Her husband, Luther Propst, is a Teton County commissioner who chairs the board of the Outdoor Alliance, a national coalition of 10 conservation groups. He also serves on the board for George B. Storer Foundation.
Storer said she has given $21,000 to other Democratic campaigns and various local referendum items. She also gave President Joe Biden $2,550 during his 2020 campaign.
Ruth Petroff, a former Republican state legislator from Jackson, said she was bothered by the campaign finance complaint.
“He clearly was not trying to skirt the law,” Petroff said. “I highly doubt if this was legally challenged it would actually rise to some level of offense.”
Petroff said she finds the current elections law ambiguous when it comes to familial donations, a point Storer also expressed some concurrence with.
Levy also said she found the complaint offensive.
“I found it pretty reprehensible,” she said. “It was a political play for some big headline. It’s highly regrettable to try and gain an advantage that would basically exploit Paul’s loss.”
Levy and Petroff both found the complaint an example of dirty politics pervading the state.
Levy, who lost her first husband said the individuals responsible for filing the complaint must never have lost a spouse.
“The mother-in-law is the mother-in-law, she absolutely is family,” Levy said.
Petroff said Becky Vogelheim was a “beloved” member of the community and to target Vogelheim for who he considers close family could backfire on the Storer campaign.
“It could absolutely backfire,” she said. “It injects the family pain for political gain.”
Storer said she doesn’t think the complaint will have a major impact on the final results of the race but finds it to be very competitive.
Vogelheim was a Teton County commissioner from 2008-19. He describes himself as an “Al Simpson Republican” and hosted a campaign event for U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney at his home this summer. Petroff described him as a very popular member of the Jackson community.
Storer has said she would like to see the issues of public housing and rising property taxes addressed at the state Legislature.
The Jackson Hole News & Guide reports that following a recent debate, Vogelheim called Storer “pretty aggressive” for demanding he clarify his position on abortion. Storer said she opposes Wyoming’s trigger ban and wants abortion to continue to be allowed in the state.
“We need someone who’s going to be the best representative for Teton County in Cheyenne,” she said.
The last contested election in HD 23 occurred in 2018, with current state Rep. Andy Schwartz, D-Jackson winning by 25% of the vote. Schwartz has held the seat since 2014.
Many new residents have moved to the left-leaning Teton County since the start of the pandemic. It will be more difficult to decipher the political leanings of these new transplants until after the upcoming election. Petroff said she sees the majority of this voting contingency being middle-aged parents, based on the recent growth of Jackson’s school enrollments.
There have been a few other campaign finance violations filed in Wyoming this election season. In September, the Federal Elections Commission cited U.S. Congress candidate Harriet Hageman for failing to include employer and occupational information for a significant amount of her campaign donors.