“We need 10 more.”
This plea was a recurring phrase used in a Saturday town hall hosted by the State Legislature’s Wyoming Freedom Caucus in Casper.
It was made clear by the 11 legislators speaking during the roughly three-hour event, the Caucus is not content with the status quo in Wyoming politics.
Today's event was the first ever formal town hall hosted by the Freedom Caucus. State Rep. John Bear, R-Gillette, said the Caucus plans to host more town halls all around the state in the future for the purpose of raising awareness about its policy perspectives and the voting records of other legislators.
“Give people an opportunity to tell us their hearts so we can get good representatives and also to raise awareness of how we need more help,” Bear said.
The Freedom Caucus membership currently sits at about 26 members in the State House. Considering the five Democrats and 31 other Republicans in the House, the Caucus is outnumbered by about 10 as a consistent voting bloc. And many of the votes of the 2023 Legislature reflected this. Passage or failure of something was often determined by a vote margin of between 9 and 11 votes.
Secretary of State Chuck Gray, a founding member of the Freedom Caucus spoke at the event. He said there is nothing wrong with being an underdog. “I always say, it’s not when we get there, it’s if,” Gray said. “God is going to reward us if we do the work, and we continue to stand for truth.”
Early Campaign Event
In many ways the town hall was akin to a campaign rally.
“The money (donated) is going to keep people like this in office,” Bear said to the audience, referencing Saturday’s speakers. “And that’s our intent, as well as the 10 people that we mentioned that we need to add to our numbers. So, the more money we have, the more we can go along with protecting what we have and doing more things and hopefully get the majority, so we really need your help.”
Bear announced the formal creation of the Wyoming Freedom Political Action Committee, which will serve as a campaign fundraising arm for Freedom Caucus-supported candidates in future elections. According to the Secretary of State’s office, the WY Freedom PAC registered with the state on April 8 and is chaired by Newcastle resident Karen Drost.
Bear said he’s “always” considering which legislators could be vulnerable to a future election loss.
The most common legislative target brought up on Saturday was Casper Republican representative Steve Harshman. Harshman, chair of the Revenue Committee, was accused of killing or watering down many Freedom Caucus-supported bills during the 2023 session, a claim also levied at other committee chairs more generally.
He was also accused by a few in attendance of intending to bring legislation that institutes a state income tax in the future.
“How does it stop? We need 10 more,” said Rep. Ken Pendergraft, R-Sheridan.
The formation of a Wyoming Caucus was recently announced. Some of the leading members of this Caucus have said they plan to openly consolidate and organize their efforts against the Freedom Caucus.
Freedom Caucus members say one of their driving missions is to challenge legislative leadership and what the caucus sees as the standing political guard.
Bear mentioned the new Wyoming Caucus to the roughly 75 people in attendance on Saturday and told Cowboy State Daily this group is well supported in certain ways.
“We don’t have the machine they do,” he said. “They have to have the liberal media supporting them so we have to raise money.”
Speaking to the audience on Saturday, Bear was open about Freedom Caucus efforts to send news stories to national outlets like Fox News and the Daily Wire.
Bear said he’s not concerned about being outspent by the Wyoming Caucus and its associated Wyoming Caucus PAC as long as his organization can effectively spread the word about legislators’ voting records.
“We don’t believe that we have to raise dollar for dollar,” he said. “The reason is because we believe that the grassroots, the vast majority of Wyoming residents, agree with our stances. So, the money we raise will only be enough to get the word out.”
One of the chief complaints brought up by nearly every speaker on Saturday was that other Republicans aren’t being honest with voters about lawmaker voting records. Bear said he firmly believes the majority of Wyoming residents share views similar to those espoused by the Freedom Caucus members.
“There are no more moderates folks,” Bear said. “There are the conservatives and there’s this big canyon, and there’s everybody else.”
Where the difference exists, he and others said, is in misrepresentations made along the campaign trail.
“We can talk until we're blue in the face, the truth is Christ,” said Rep. Tomi Strock, R-Douglas.
Bear mentioned a few different political ranking websites, all of which come from a staunchly conservative viewpoint. Although he said each of these sites may have certain flaws, their validity is borne out when taken together with the consistency of their rankings.
“There is a huge effort to stop that, to impugn these voting records and to keep people from being transparent about who they are once they get into the Legislature,” Bear said. “So that’s the purpose of the Freedom Caucus, is to shed light on that.”
There were various pieces of literature scattered throughout the Hilton Hotel conference room, including legislator ranking lists and signup sheets for the Freedom Caucus newsletter.
Thermopolis resident Cheryl Aguiar was in attendance on Saturday and said she agreed with the Freedom Caucus message that there is a lack of transparency at the State Capitol.
“I’d much rather spend the day with a real Democrat than a fake Republican,” she said.
Almost every legislator who spoke on Saturday also brought up a bill that they felt should have passed into law. Gov. Mark Gordon vetoed it after the recent legislative session
Rep. Daniel Singh, R-Cheyenne, talked about Senate File 131, a bill Gordon vetoed that would have prohibited unsolicited delivery of absentee ballot request forms.
Under current state laws, any bill that is sent to the governor in the last three days of the Legislature doesn’t need to be acted on by the governor until 15 days after the body gavels out. What happens in this scenario is the Legislature is prevented from being able to convene and take a vote to override the governor’s veto.
“That triumphs over the people’s will,” Singh said.
Singh said he is considering bringing legislation to address this in the future.
Larger Than Life
Bear had a nickname or certain persona for almost every one of the speakers on Saturday. He referred to Rep. Jeanette Ward, R-Casper, as the “Joan of Arc” of the State Legislature.
Ward is one of the most conservative state representatives. She brought legislation this past session that would have prohibited employers from enforcing COVID-19 vaccine mandates and a bill that would have exempted Wyoming from having to follow guidelines set by the federal Centers For Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.
Rep. Sarah Penn, R-Riverton, brought a few similar bills. She said that people think Freedom Caucus members are “weird” for fighting in defense of individual freedoms.
Accepting federal funding is a major sticking point Freedom Caucus members have consistently opposed.
“We’re inundated with federal funds,” said Rep. Pepper Ottman, R-Riverton.
Despite signing on to various Freedom Caucus letters and speaking at Saturday’s event, Pendergraft reiterated to Cowboy State Daily that he is not a Freedom Caucus member. A few other legislators have also declined official association with the Caucus even though they usually vote with its members.
“The only people I want seeing about how I vote is my constituents,” he said. “It’s perceptions.”
Bear said this perspective isn’t new, as he believes he’s had a target on his back since he entered the Legislature in 2020.
“That’s what the Freedom Caucus does, it pushes back against leadership, and that’s an uncomfortable thing to do,” he said. “It’s an uncomfortable position to be in.”
Little mention was made on Saturday of a controversial meme recently posted by Rep. Karlee Provenza, D-Laramie. Earlier in the week, House Speaker Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, decided to take no disciplinary action against Provenza.
Bear said he wasn’t surprised by that result, but Rep. Tamara Trujillo, R-Cheyenne, had a more pointed response.
“Her post causes us death threats every day and that’s unacceptable,” Trujillo said.
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com