By Leo Wolfson, State Politics Reporter
Only days removed from the general election there have been some developments in the Wyoming Legislature as campaigning for leadership positions has begun in both chambers.
The race for speaker of the House will be one to watch as two formidable candidates have arisen, both representing different wings of the Republican Party.
“The state is clearly moving away from moderate, establishment leadership,” said state Rep. Mark Jennings, R-Sheridan, one of the more conservative members of the Legislature. “It’s a transition we’ve had over the last several cycles and it’s time for the Legislature to honor the people’s wishes. The House of Representatives should be reflective of that.”
Around 50% of the House will be made up of freshman representatives this year after a wave of legislators either retiring, electing not to run again or being voted out of office.
The candidates chosen for leadership positions in this body will play an instrumental role guiding the overall focus and types of bills that are considered in the next two legislative sessions. It is possible all of the positions will be determined along lines of legislative ranking versus populist conservative appeals.
Typically, leadership positions are picked by ranking and experience in the Legislature. A break from tradition is one of the largest concerns for Jennings, who also sought the speaker position in 2020, and many members of the House Freedom Caucus in the election for the next speaker.
The House Freedom Caucus is a conservative voting bloc within the Republican Party. Jennings is a former chairman of the caucus, but gave that up membership in the group to run for House speaker.
Speaker Of The House
The speaker of the House is a critical role that carries the most power in that body, in charge of appointing committees, assigning bills to standing committees, presiding over legislative sessions and managing the Legislative Services Office.
Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, is the current House majority floor leader and is running for speaker of the House. Sommers, who has been in the Legislature since 2013, cites his experience working as floor leader, speaker pro tempore and majority whip, and nearly 10 years as a legislator as reasons for why he is qualified for the role.
“I’m a hard worker,” Sommers said. “I’m not going to say I’m not going to make mistakes, but when you work hard, you can overcome mistakes.”
Sommers said if elected speaker, he will engage senior leadership and the entire House body when making decisions.
Freedom Caucus Candidate
Running against Sommers for speaker is Jennings. Jennings has never held a leadership position in the House before and has served in the body since 2015.
Jennings, like many members of the House Freedom Caucus, have opposed those they consider to be “establishment” members of the Republican Party, typically veteran members of the Legislature who tend to be less conservative.
Sommers and Jennings are both popular with their constituents.
“I consider myself a traditional Republican,” Sommers said. “People can label me however they want to label me.”
Both representatives expressed confidence to Cowboy State Daily that they will be chosen by their peers for speaker.
Jennings was more specific about his level of support, saying he has the votes of 29 to 31 of his 57 Republican colleagues.
“I think I have a pretty good chance,” Jennings said.
The speaker of the House and other majority party leadership roles will be selected through a secret vote at the Republican Party caucus meeting Nov. 19 in Casper.
The winning nomination for speaker is then brought to the House floor for a vote, a process Jennings and Rep. Rachel Rodriguez-Williams, R-Cody, described as traditionally procedural, because of the Republican’s supermajority in that body.
“Historically, we have honored the caucus winners,” Rodriguez-Williams said. “Who wins in the caucus, we traditionally support.”
Nomination After The Nomination
Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Casper, an 18-year legislator, said the process hasn’t always been tradition and added there could be votes for other candidates cast from the House floor.
In year’s past when Democrats held a much larger contingency in the Legislature, he said the House floor vote was typically of greater importance.
“Everyone’s duly-elected and everyone gets to vote their conscience,” he said.
Jennings sees Harshman’s perspective on the issue as disparaging of Rep. Jerry Obermuller, R-Casper, who is chair of the Republican caucus.
Harshman, who served as speaker of the House for back-to-back sessions from 2017-2021, said he supports Sommers because of his experience. Although he said he was encouraged to run for another speaker term, Harshman was opposed by former Rep. David Miller of Riverton in the race for that role.
“I was encouraged to do it again,” he said.
A Potential Dem Dilemma
Harshman said he’s not sure if a nomination will come from the floor, but he expects Sommers to win the caucus vote.
There are no rules forbidding a nomination on the House floor for a candidate other than the one chosen by the Republican caucus.
Although there are only five Democratic legislators in the House, their small presence could play a deciding factor if such a vote were to play out.
“Democrats should not be deciding Republican Party leadership when Republicans were overwhelmingly elected by the people for a supermajority representation in the Legislature,” Rodriguez-Williams said.
Sommers is considered a more moderate Republican than Jennings, theoretically making him a more amenable choice for Democrats.
Rep. Mike Yin, D-Jackson, who said he will likely be chosen minority floor leader at his party’s caucus, said although he doesn’t want to speak for his entire party, it’s more likely that a new nomination on the House floor would come for Sommers rather than Jennings.
Both Want Unity
Sommers wouldn’t speculate on who he would support in the event of a different nomination from the House floor and said he is focusing on winning through the caucus. He did mention, however, that this would be a legitimate form of nomination if it were to happen.
“What other people do is up to them,” he said. “There has to be some kind of vote on the floor, I can’t predict what any individual will do.”
Sommers said he is actively working to recruit votes for a race both candidates say will likely be very close.
“I’m working hard to get that support,” he said.
Both Jennings and Sommers stressed they want to unify factions within their party and facilitate productive legislative sessions that consider the desires of all legislators and more importantly, their constituents.
“If I’m elected, I intend to work not only across the aisle but also with the factions within my own party,” Jennings said. “We need everybody at the table.
“I’m going to govern my leadership from the middle of this. I want to bring everyone together. I’m not on a path of destruction.”
But if chosen speaker, Jennings said he will try to enact some decisive changes in the Legislature, such as passing more conservative legislation and putting freshman representatives on multiple committees.
“Now, the freshman class won’t be pigeon-holed on one committee,” he said. “They have the right to be heard and do the same work as everyone else.”
Speaker Pro Tem
The speaker pro tem is considered the No. 2 role in the House and performs the duties of the speaker in that person’s absence.
Anyone in this role is many ways a coordinator and communications agent for legislators and the general public.
Rodriguez-Williams has thrown her hat in the ring for this position. She is entering her second term and serves as a member of the Judiciary Committee.
She said she would want to bring a sense of respectful decorum to the House, something she said was lacking in the recent session.
“I’m bringing life experience as a leader, and I would intend to use those leadership skills to promote a positive atmosphere and maintain a respectful environment among the people serving the Legislature,” she said. “I have shown an ability to agree to disagree with people. I think we can respectfully have different opinions.”
Rodriguez-Williams is a member of the House Freedom Caucus and said she will support Jennings for speaker.
She was the lead sponsor on the trigger bill passed last session, legislation automatically making abortion illegal in Wyoming upon the revocation of Roe V. Wade.
Taking on Rodriguez-Williams is Rep. Clark Stith, R-Rock Springs. Stith is a member of the Appropriations Committee and entering his fourth term in the Legislature.
Stith said he wants to improve the public’s understanding of the legislative process.
“For a lot of people, the Legislature is a black box,” he said. “It’s difficult for people to reasonably figure out.”
Would Support Caucus Pick
Although Stith said he will support Sommers and expects him to win the caucus vote, he said he would work to help the House become more unified if chosen for the pro tem position.
He mentioned how Jennings co-sponsored his protection of parental rights bill last session, a bill Stith said he would like to bring back this year. Stith also said he would support Jennings for speaker on the House floor if he is chosen by the caucus.
“I do team up with Rep. Jennings when we can find common ground,” he said.
Majority Floor Leader
The majority floor leader makes formal motions and works in consultation with the speaker, directing activities on the floor and regulating daily scheduling.
Rep. Chip Neiman, R-Hulett, another second-term member of the House Freedom Caucus, is running for majority floor leader.
Neiman is a member of the Education Committee. Considered one of the rising stars in the Legislature, some have speculated that Neiman may be a 2026 candidate for Wyoming governor.
Running against Neiman is Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne. Olsen is the House majority whip and was just reelected for his fourth term. He is chairman of the Judiciary Committee and Select Committee on Blockchain, Financial Technology, and Digital Innovation Technology.
The majority whip assists the floor leader and ensures that party members are present on the floor to speak or vote on important measures.
Rep. Clarence Styvar, R-Cheyenne, is one candidate running for this position. Styvar is entering his third term and is a member of the Management Audit Committee, Labor, Health and Social Services Committee and Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Committee.
Rep. Cyrus Western, R-Sheridan, also is vying for majority whip. Western is also entering his third term and is a member of the Agriculture, State and Public Lands & Water Resources Committee, Minerals, Business & Economic Development Committee and Select Committee on Blockchain, Financial Technology and Digital Innovation Technology.
Olsen, Stith and Western may attempt to curry some votes when they host an informal social gathering at a Cheyenne bar next Thursday night. New legislators have been invited to while they are in Cheyenne for a training orientation at the Capitol.
Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, has announced his intention to run for Senate president and said he does not know of anyone opposing him for the role or any contested Senate leadership positions.
He’s the current majority floor leader, the No. 2 position in that body.
Driskill said if a nomination for a new Republican speaker comes from the House floor, it’s an action that must be respected, even if the decision will be influenced by Democrats.
“That’s our system,” he said. “Our Legislature is so heavily Republican, we only think it’s about the Republicans, but the Democrats are part of the process.”
Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, is running for majority floor leader. Hicks is Senate vice president and entering his fourth term. He was named chairman of the Select Committee on Capital Financing and Investments on Friday and is vice chair of the Select Water Committee.
Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, is running for Senate vice president. Kinskey is entering his third term and was named chairman of the Appropriations Committee on Friday.
The nomination process for Republican Party leadership in both chambers will take place at the Thyra Thomson State Office Building in Casper. Driskill said the event will likely be preceded by speeches from Wyoming’s congressional delegation and Gov. Mark Gordon.
A secret vote will take place so that party members are encouraged to work with each other moving forward no matter the results.
A nomination from the House floor, however, could unveil this anonymity.
The last nomination process in 2020 took place over Zoom. Jennings said he expects it to take about a half-day.
“It will be interesting because the landscape has changed,” he said.
A number of committee changes also were announced Friday as a result of Sen. Drew Perkins, R-Casper, being named Gordon’s chief of staff.
Sen. Tim Salazar, R-Riverton, has been appointed to the Appropriations Committee.
“I’m pleased to be appointed to this important committee,” Salazar said in a press release. “As a freshman senator, I’m especially pleased since the Appropriations Committee is usually reserved for senior members of the Senate.”
Although Salazar’s appointment is technically only guaranteed to last through the end year, Driskill said he will play an important role in making budgetary decisions for the upcoming session.
“It gives Sen. Salazar a chance to get his feet wet,” Driskill said, a possible indication that he as the likely next Senate president is using the interim period as a tryout for legislators who have received promotional appointments due to Perkins’ departure.
Kinskey is replacing Perkins as Appropriations chair and Hicks is replacing Perkins as chair of the Select Committee on Capital Financing and Investments.
Sen. Cheri Steinmetz, R-Lingle, will be appointed to the vacant seat on the Select Committee on Capital Financing & Investments and Hicks will replace Perkins as a member of the Investment Funds.