By Leo Wolfson, State Politics Reporter
Monday’s inauguration and swearing in of Wyoming statewide officials was the first in at least five decades held at the Capitol Rotunda, and the first since 1999 held at the state Capitol.
The swearing-in events had originally been planned to be held outside the Capitol, which would have been the first in more than 50 years in Wyoming.
But with a strong wind and frigid temperatures forecasted for Monday, the Wyoming Inauguration Committee made a decision Friday morning to move the event into the Capitol Rotunda, said Inauguration Co-Chairman Dave Picard.
“The challenging aspect of the Rotunda is that we can’t sit a lot of people,” he said.
Picard said there were about 200 people in the Rotunda room, packed from wall to wall. There also was a small section of overflow seating on the second floor and a few people, including Senate President Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, who stood on a staircase overlooking the inauguration stage.
But the venue was appropriate in many ways, with the renovated Rotunda space sporting new paint on the walls and sculptures in each of the room’s corners, representing justice, courage, truth and hope.
There have been more than 40 inauguration ceremonies in Wyoming history, but Monday’s was the first in at least 50 years held in the Rotunda. It was the first public inauguration at the Capitol since the 1999 inauguration of former Gov. Jim Geringer for his second term.
The first ceremony was held in 1890 for F.E. Warren, the state’s first governor.
Geringer and former Gov. Dave Freudenthal were in attendance. Former Gov. Mike Sullivan and U.S. Sen. John Barrasso also had planned to attend but couldn’t make it because of the weather.
When Nellie Tayloe Ross was sworn in as Wyoming and the nation’s first female governor in 1924, she was accompanied by Warren and other former Govs. Robert Carey and Sen. John B. Kendrick.
Picard said some past inaugurations featured a big lunch after the swearing in events, with the gala not beginning until 10 or 11 p.m. This year’s gala began at a more reserved 7.
Per Gov. Mark Gordon’s request in 2019, he and other top officials were first sworn in during a private ceremony held at 5:30 a.m. in the morning at the Rotunda with only the state Senate president and speaker of the House in attendance.
Because of construction at the Capitol building at that time, lawmakers wore hardhats and face masks as they took their oaths of office in a work zone. A more traditional formal public swearing in was held later in the day at the Cheyenne Civic Center.
Picard, who also ran the 2019 inauguration, said the ceremonies have been held in a number of settings throughout the years, all at the behest of the incoming governor.
The committee doesn’t start planning the event until after the November election.
“We’re always saying, ‘What does the governor want to do?’” Picard said.
Many inaugurations during the 1940s and 1950s were held in the state House chambers. Because of renovations in that space, fewer people now can attend such an event than in those years.
The choice of spiritual venue for the morning prayer service is also up to the governor and hasn’t always represented their own religious views or the views of the other elected officials.
For instance, in 1995 when Geringer was sworn in for his first term, he chose a Catholic church to hold the prayer service despite being Lutheran himself.
But on Monday, Gordon stuck to his roots, choosing St. Mark’s Episcopal Church for the prayer service attended by about 250 people. Gordon is Episcopal and had the reverend from his hometown church in Kaycee speak.
A Wyoming Eucharist Prayer also was delivered by Rev. Paul-Gordon Chandler, bishop of Wyoming.
“It’s a specific Wyoming Eucharist,” Picard explained.
After Monday’s swearing in, the top five electees met with about 500 members of the public in the Capitol Connector hallway downstairs.
“It’s a nonpartisan event for the people,” Picard said of the day.
Time To Party
When Gordon popped champagne at the Wyoming Inauguration Gala on Monday night, the bubbly overflowed from both the bottle and champagne flute he was pouring into.
Even when Picard stepped in to assist, the pair couldn’t stop the powerful carbonation.
Like the overflowing champagne, emotions bubbled over at Little America Hotel and Resort in Cheyenne among the crowd of around 1,100 people.
Some of Wyoming’s biggest political movers and shakers were there, as well as lobbyists who move behind the scenes. Many traded in their traditional Western wear for tuxedos, coiffed hair and stunning gowns.
A Regal Event
The stars of the show were Gordon, Secretary of State Chuck Gray, State Treasurer Curt Meier, Superintendent of Public Instruction Megan Degenfelder and State Auditor Kristi Racines, the five statewide officials sworn into office earlier in the day.
Each brought an entourage of family and friends, further cementing their identities as celebrities within the Wyoming political landscape.
Former U.S. Sen. Al Simpson, another Wyoming political powerhouse, spoke virtually with his wife Ann at his side. Simpson attended the 2019 gala, but could not make it this year.
The inauguration is a time lawmakers can socialize a little before getting down to the business of debating bills and policy, Simpson said. He also said politics is about being able to disagree without getting personal.
“If I didn’t agree with someone at the end of the year or some other part of an epiphany, if you can’t forgive a person it’s letting them live in your head rent free,” Simpson said. “The swearing in starts and then the swearing at begins.”
His father, Milward Simpson, was sworn in as governor nearly 70 years ago in 1955.
Most of state legislators also were there.
Getting To Know You
It was an opportunity for many legislators to get to know each other under friendly circumstances, a sense of camaraderie that could be soon fleeting with the upcoming legislative session beginning next week.
A number of lawmakers Cowboy State Daily spoke with throughout the course of the day Monday remarked how they need to meet and get to know many of their colleagues. Nearly half of the Wyoming House of Representatives will feature new members.
Many of these freshman legislators are more conservative and bill themselves as independent thinkers rather than followers of the perceived political establishment in Wyoming.
But to get their bills passed, these legislators will have to do a certain amount of coordinating with other representatives and leadership in the House and Senate.
The more conservative wing of the Republican Party now makes up nearly half of the state House. Fifteen freshman representatives have already aligned themselves with the Wyoming Freedom Caucus, one of the largest factions in the Legislature.
Although cooperation and unity were the themes of Gordon’s inauguration speech earlier in the day, coordination was what it took to make the inauguration party happen, requiring months of extensive planning.
“I’m pleased and blessed to take part in this, if it’s a blessing to not get sleep for two months,” Picard said.
How It Happens
Picard is about as close as it gets to being an inauguration expert, working on former President George W. Bush’s inauguration teams after he was elected in both 2000 and 2004.
Picard’s wife Annmarie is his co-pilot for the inauguration events and did most of the speaking during Monday night’s gala. Gordon chose the pair to lead the committee.
The Inauguration Committee is a nonprofit group that receives no state funding. Pickard said this year’s inauguration events cost more than $400,000, completely solicited through sponsorships and private donations. Any excess money raised is donated to charitable causes.
“It’s much like all the citizens of Wyoming, we rely on donors to make it a big public event,” Picard said.