By Leo Wolfson, State Politics Reporter
The 34 freshman lawmakers of the 67th Wyoming Legislature may wield the most power of any first-year class in the history of the body based on sheer numbers alone.
Making up nearly 37% of the Wyoming Legislature’s 93 members, the 2023 first-timers may be the largest group of rookies since the 44-freshman class of 1993.
Beyond numbers, state Sen. Bob Ide, R-Casper, said he believes potential of the rookie class to be a political power in the Cowboy State is real.
“We’ve got a lot of good liberty-minded new legislators in there,” he said.
With Great Power …
But how these first-term representatives and senators choose to use their power will be the true determining factor on their impact on legislation.
A handful of legislators told Cowboy State Daily this will be evident by how united the lawmakers stay as a class.
Before the session began, 16 freshman legislators signed a letter released by the Freedom Caucus, a group of hardline conservatives in the Legislature.
“I think those that are willing to step out and do bold things, it will have an impact on what this body does,” said Rep. John Bear, R-Gillette, chairman of the Wyoming Freedom Caucus.
Sarah Penn, a first-term Republican from Riverton, said unity will determine the success of the first-year members.
“As freshmen, and of course the more senior members as well, how we can find unity with each other in order to accomplish the tasks that are going to most benefit us now,” she said.
Penn said there’s potential to find unity on a number of issues. Weeding through various needs and perspectives from all around the state will be the hurdle.
“Just finding those common grounds and from that, hopefully we can start those conversations wherever we may differ,” she said.
All Republicans, Not All On Same Page
The new class of legislators are overwhelmingly Republican. But a week into the new session, it’s clear that not all the Republican freshmen are unified.
Although the majority of first-term legislators align with the more conservative wing of the Republican Party a small, but noticeable, contingency has taken more moderate stances on a few bills. Sometimes, they’ve voted with Democrats.
“I also think the Democrats have a lot of power,” Bear said. “I’m concerned about the Democrats having as much power as they do for five of them (in the House).”
Dems Need Alliances
Of the 93 lawmakers in this session, there are seven Democrats: five House members and two in the Senate.
Freshman Rep. Liz Storer, D-Jackson, said she is focusing on finding allies and common ground with her Republican counterparts.
Senate President Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, said that’s a recipe for success.
“If you’re an effective legislator, you’ll see people, you never expect them talking to each other, they’ll be out here in the hallway talking to each other,” he said.
Where To Align
In the House, members of the more conservative wing makeup close to half the body, most clearly shown by the narrow elections of staunch conservative Rep. Chip Neiman, R-Hulett, a majority floor leader and narrow win by more moderate Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, as speaker of the House.
Tomi Strock, a freshman legislator from Douglas, said she believes achieving a balance of perspectives and more representation for the “grassroots” of her party in the House are already wins.
Republicans have an overwhelming majority in both chambers, so Strock is referring to the factions within her own party.
“It’s not so one-sided now,” she said.
They Have Numbers
Sommers said that based on numbers alone, the freshman will be heard.
“Sheer numbers would say this go-around freshman have more power,” he said.
Driskill agreed, but with a caveat.
“They’re powerful if they figure out how to come together as a group,” he said.
He mentioned how if lawmakers representing Wyoming’s largest cities and one large county were to come together as a group, they would be an almost unstoppable force.
“And in the 12 years I’ve been here, I’ve never seen them be able to get their delegations together,” he said of such and alliance.
Casper Republican Sen. Jim Anderson, who has served in the Legislature since 2013, said if the freshmen carry themselves in a respectful manner and work as a team, their voices will likely carry weight.
“If they approach them civilly and not angry and accusatorial, they’ll probably get something done,” he said. “If they don’t present like that in the beginning, they can move up.”
Rep. Jeanette Ward, R-Casper, has asserted herself as one of the most outspoken freshman legislators, making multiple comments questioning others’ stances on abortion during a discussion on postpartum Medicaid benefits.
Ward also made a comment during a rules discussion in the House on Monday, saying that only half the House members trust the speaker, while the other half only trust the majority floor leader.
Being outspoken hasn’t gone over well with all Ward’s colleagues in the House.
“I find that very problematic,” said Rep. Karlee Provenza, D-Laramie. “That’s not how government should run. That’s not how we base decisions of things.”
Provenza said although she may have many ideological disagreements with Republicans, this doesn’t mean she doesn’t trust them as legislators.
She mentioned the final result of the rule change discussion, where it was decided it would take a two-thirds vote to override the speaker and majority floor leader on a decision to table a bill, a decision she said was a disappointing start for the session.
“It was brought up as we need two-thirds because we need to have civility and respect,” she said. “When I want to pull out of a drawer, it is in no way meant to be disrespectful toward anybody.”
During a Rules Committee meeting last week, Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, remarked how when he entered the state House in 2005, respectful decorum may not have been enough to get legislation done as a rookie.
“There were just unwritten rules of you didn’t dare question the speaker, you didn’t question the majority floor leader,” he said. “There were maneuvers behind the scenes.”
Zwonitzer said in that era, there were usually only a handful of freshman legislators in each session, “so you almost had to conform.”
During the rules discussion Monday, Bear mentioned how automatic deference to leadership has waned.
“Maybe that was because times were different, our culture was different,” Bear said. “Maybe it’s because we have two different views in this body how to move the state forward.
“Whatever it was, in that day, that was considered respect.”
All Needed For Best Results
Bear takes a different perspective these days, finding that leadership works for the body as a whole.
It’s a common trait of first-year lawmakers in all levels of politics to claim that they are going to bring dramatic change to the body and resist outside pressures.
Some hold to this promise to a certain extent, while others less so.
Anderson also said many run their campaigns on a single-issue focus.
“Then they push that issue, you never hear from them again. They push that issue real angrily, make no changes to their bill and all those demands they make,” Anderson said. “They don’t even participate in the rest of the issues.”
He also said it’s important to remember the freshman class will only be united on specific issues.
In the past, he said this has usually been limited to Second Amendment bills, but with the formation of the Wyoming Freedom Caucus, there is more of a consistent voting bloc on conservative issues.
It should be noted that the freshman class may not be as young as it looks as four legislators have served in the body before.
Sens. Dan Laursen, R-Powell, and Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, moved over from the House, and Reps. Dave Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, and David Northrup, R-Powell, previously served in the Legislature.