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By Leo Wolfson, State Politics Reporter
When U.S. Rep. Harriet Hageman criticized Wyoming Speaker of the House Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, on social media last weekend, Sommers said it came as a surprise. He said he would have preferred a phone call first.
“I think that would have been the first step, would have been just give me a ring to talk to me,” he said. “To my knowledge, she didn’t do that.”
On Saturday, Hageman retweeted a Twitter post complaining about Sommers keeping bills in his drawer.
“This is about protecting our children,” Hageman said. “In Congress, I’m fighting for these very issues. I hope the Wyoming legislature will do the same.”
It is rare for members of Wyoming’s congressional delegation to weigh in on state legislative affairs, especially in a public manner. Sommers, who has served in the Legislature since 2013, said he has no recollection of a member of Wyoming’s federal delegation publicly speaking out on a State Legislature matter before.
Former U.S. Senator Al Simpson served in the Legislature for 12 years before moving on to Congress. Although he finds Hageman “a remarkable woman,” he said her commentary was “unheard of” and “embarrassing.”
“It’s an egregious overstep and it’s not really well received, certainly by the Legislature,” he said. “And it’s not well-received by the leaders of the House and Senate.
“You don’t just blindside someone from a press release. That’s about as brazen as you can get.”
A significant amount of the outcry against Sommers came from his choice to not allow debate on a school-choice bill that would create a scholarship fund for students to attend private instead of public schools.
There was also frustration expressed about him not allowing debate on a bill that would ban the teaching of gender identity and sexual orientation to children in third grade and younger. He was also criticized for sending a bill that would prohibit doctors from performing transgender surgeries on minors to a committee that made significant changes to the bill.
A spokesperson for Hageman told Cowboy State Daily that Hageman believes these issues are important and Wyoming folks want their leaders to speak out on them.
“During Rep. Hageman’s over 100 public events during the campaign and 6 public town hall events in the two months since taking office, the citizens of Wyoming have consistently wanted to discuss the issues these bills address,” spokesman Chris Berardi told Cowboy State Daily in an email on Thursday morning.
“It was important for the citizens to know that Harriet is concerned and wants action to be taken. The least that the Speaker should do is allow the House to vote on these bills,” he said.
Hageman made her comment in response to a post made by Andy Roth, chairman of the State Freedom Caucus Network, which the hardline conservative Wyoming Freedom Caucus works under.
The Freedom Caucus helped drive a national campaign against Sommers that included social media messaging, Fox News and other national-level media coverage, and pressure from Hageman.
Multiple text message campaigns were sent out from a Washington, D.C. number to Wyoming residents, urging them to put pressure on Sommers. Sommers’ personal cell phone was included in the messages and in one of Roth’s posts.
In his post, Roth complained that Sommers is holding on to these bills in the “most Republican state in America.”
The Freedom Caucus commentary served as a call to arms for certain high-profile conservatives around the country to rally against Sommers. First, Fox News picked up the story.
The Washington Examiner also weighed in on the issue, then came the Washington Post with a story on Monday. The Wall Street Journal and Fox News also published op-eds on the matter.
The Fox News op-ed was written by Corey DeAngelis, a school choice advocate from Texas. DeAngelis, who has more than 132,000 followers on Twitter, posted about the Wyoming topic numerous times in the past week.
A Texas congressman and former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker also opined. When Rep. Landon Brown, R-Cheyenne, told Hageman to stay in her lane on Twitter; she and Walker blasted him.
“It is crazy and all you have to do is tie yourself to (former President Donald) Trump and you can even be crazier,” Simpson said. “Soon we’ll hear from Trump, and I hope Trump understands what’s going on in the Wyoming Legislature and then he can enter the fray too.”
Jessie Rubino, state director for the Freedom Caucus, did not confirm or deny there was a concerted effort to bring the issue to a national audience.
“The actions taken by Speaker Sommers are attention-grabbing on their own,” she told Cowboy State Daily in a Tuesday text. “It’s clearly shocking to conservatives everywhere that the Wyoming Legislature isn’t as “red” as most think.”
Sommers, a rancher, said he “doesn’t intimidate easy,” and usually moves in the opposite direction of pressure. He said his main goal is focusing on what he believes is best for Wyoming.
“I’m a rancher, I lean into the wind,” he said.
Simpson said not only did he not criticize members of the State Legislature publicly, he also never did so in a private capacity.
“Common sense and respect for the other body,” he said. “We never sent any mail to the Speaker of the House or the President of the Senate and if we did, they’d laugh at it.”
Simpson said conversely, when members of the State Legislature would write the federal delegation, he, former Sen. Malcolm Wallop and Rep. Dick Cheney would respond immediately.
Rex Arney, who served in the Wyoming Legislature from 1973-1988, said although there were a few times when the federal delegation may have communicated to legislators about certain matters, a practice he has no issue with, they never applied public pressure like Hageman did over the weekend.
Although Arney believes she has the right to free speech, he said this has its limits.
“I just think it’s out-of-bounds,” he said. “She’s really not speaking as a private citizen but as a U.S. congresswoman.”
Even though both state legislators and U.S. Congress members make up the same branch of government as lawmakers, Arney believes there needs to be a certain separation between the two chambers. He said he has no recollection of any caucus in the Legislature operating in the manner the Freedom Caucus has been conducting itself.
Rubino’s husband Joe Rubino is Hageman’s nephew. Joe Rubino is chief policy officer and general counsel for Secretary of State Chuck Gray, a former Freedom Caucus member.
Former Senate President and Speaker of the House Eli Bebout said although he respects Hageman’s right to free speech and speak her mind, he wouldn’t have approached the issue the same way.
“Harriet is a citizen of Wyoming like anyone else and certainly has the right to comment,” he said. “I’m old school. In my day, we just didn’t speak ill of fellow Republicans.”
Bebout said he also would have conversations with the delegation from time to time about certain state-level issues, but these would take place in private.
“I would do it differently, I probably would have given a call.”
Power of the Speaker
Members of the Freedom Caucus made multiple attempts to pull the two bills out of Sommers’ drawer and another attempt to move the transgender legislation to a different committee.
Rubino said she has no issue with the rule stating that a ⅔ majority is required to override the Speaker but believes the majority of Republicans in the House aren’t sticking to the party’s platform. Bebout also said he believes Republicans should align with 80% of the party platform.
“Failure to garner a ⅔ threshold for bringing conservative bills out of the Speaker’s desk isn’t the fault of the rules being unfair- it’s a testament to the fact that members of our Legislature aren’t as conservative as they claim to be on the campaign trail,” she said.
The leadership of the Legislature is elected by the chambers before the start of the session. Sommers won a narrow election for Speaker at the Republican caucus last November and retained that majority when Democrats cast their votes in the official election in January.
Both the Speaker and Majority Floor Leader hold significant power when deciding what bills are sent to committees and what bills will be hard before the floor for debate.
“They don’t understand the power of the Speaker, that’s why you elect the Speaker,” Simpson said.
The Wyoming Freedom Caucus also complained about substitute bills being made instead of amendments to bills. In a Twitter post on Tuesday, Rep. Jeremy Haroldson, R-Wheatland, said his House Bill 105, legislation that would have repealed gun free zones, was substituted with a bill that “created gun control and made more bureaucracy around it.”
“We need to take and stop this practice in the Wyoming Legislature,” he said.
Simpson said substitute bills are just another fixture of the legislative process.
“I can’t tell you how many times I had a bill and they changed it and then I just hung on by my shorts,” he said. “Now they whine, ‘how could they do that to me?’”
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