There’s a lot more to state Rep. Clark Stith, R-Rock Springs, than the typical stereotype of a local politician.
A small-town lawyer who focuses mainly on bankruptcies, Wyoming has become as much a part of his identity as anything else after five years in the state Legislature. This year, he was named House speaker pro tempore, the body’s No. 3 leadership position.
Although he talks with a frankness and poise that only decades of speaking in courtrooms and in front of judges can train, the perceived pedigree that could come with public recognition doesn't coincide with Stith's demeanor.
Perhaps that's because of where he came from.
‘I Woke Up Outside Under A Bridge’
One night when Stith was 25 years old, he found himself homeless.
"I woke up outside under a bridge and saw a rat crawling in front of me and thought, ‘Law school couldn't be much worse than this,’" Stith remembered. "So, I applied to law school."
Today, his law office can be found upstairs in an unassuming building in downtown Rock Springs, a small, white-lettered sign on the door the only advertisement alerting a passerby to his services.
In his spare time, Stith spends time with his family, enjoys reading up on Constitutional law and participates in his men’s book club. He used to be an avid motorcyclist, but had to sell his Harley Davidson a few years ago because of a bad back.
Out of all the hats he wears, Stith said he enjoys the state legislator responsibility most of all. It’s the power to not only creatively craft laws, but also help society that he values most.
“When I’m doing the Legislature, I feel like most like who I am,” he said. “I really feel like I’m using the skills that I’ve developed. I feel like I’m putting them to the best use.”
Sweetwater Republican Rise
Stith moved to Wyoming and Rock Springs in 1997 after attending law school in Washington, D.C., and working for a short stint in international law.
He made his first run for the Legislature in 2000. At that time, Democrats outnumbered Republicans in Sweetwater County by about a two-to-one margin. Sweetwater had long been a Democratic stronghold in Wyoming, propelled by a powerful union presence spawned by the mining and railroad industries of the area.
Stith lost by a sizable margin, but didn’t drift far from the political theater. He was named chairman of the Sweetwater County Republican Party the next year.
“In my first speech to our small band of the faithful back in 2001, I said, ‘Look, the values of the Republican Party of self-reliance, individual liberty and freedom — those are all Wyoming values, right? Those are Republican values,’” Stith recounted. “‘We have a lot of people living here in Sweetwater County whose values are Republican, they just happen to be registered Democrats. Let’s get them changed so that their political party lines up with their actual core values.’”
The county party embarked on an aggressive campaign to recruit new voters. As the years passed, Republican Party registrations began catching up to the Democrats.
“For the new registered voter registrations, for every new Democrat that would be registered there would be four Republicans,” Stith said.
By the 2010 primary, Republicans eclipsed Democratic registrations for the first time in Sweetwater County.
They never looked back and now there are twice as many registered Republicans as Democrats. After the 2022 elections, Sweetwater lost its last remaining Democratic representative in the State Legislature. It also has no Democratic county commissioners.
“Obviously that had to do with a lot of things that I had nothing to do with, but I was happy to be able to play a part in building up the Republican Party,” he said.
But Stith doesn’t consider Democrats enemies and is happy to get their support if he can, mentioning their support for the supplemental budget that passed in the 2023 legislative session.
At a time when political emotions are stretched and animosity between — and even within — Wyoming political parties roils under the surface, Stith said he’s not a fan of name calling and labeling in politics.
During the most recent session of the Legislature, any number of names were lobbed at lawmakers along the political spectrum from “RINOs (Republican in name only)” to “liberals” to the “extreme right.”
“While it can simplify things, it’s not necessarily productive when you’re trying to get something done,” Stith said.
He also mentioned an ongoing battle to define what the word “conservative” means and who most embodies the term.
Most Conservative, Or Most Extreme?
Stith believes that some legislators who consider themselves the most conservative are really just the most extreme.
He brought up the example of Rep. John Eklund, a relatively mild-mannered Cheyenne Republican who rarely grabs headlines but is consistent in his traditional conservative views.
Now the Legislature’s Republicans are peeling off into a pair of camps, the Wyoming Freedom Caucus and fledgling Wyoming Caucus, of which Stith is a member. These two caucuses represent the largest factions within the Republican Party, between its hardline conservative and more traditional wings.
Stith said he doesn’t think voters care much about either of these groups, but they do care about issues. He hopes the 2024 session will be defined by substance rather than shouting matches and labels.
Although Stith may not be the most conservative Republican, the Rock Springs representative has a strong Libertarian streak to his views, believing in the use of government as little as possible, but also the necessary use it provides.
Certain members of the Freedom Caucus argued against various spending proposals supported by the Wyoming Caucus, which its members said would save money in the long run.
Stith is hopeful that in the upcoming 2024 session, legislators won’t vote for or against bills purely based on who sponsors them. He believes this happened during the most recent session and cited two examples.
First was House Bill 78, a parental rights law Stith sponsored that proposed adding educational institutions to Wyoming’s existing parental-rights statute. The bill took the existing parental rights statute, which the Wyoming Supreme Court has ruled doesn’t apply to judges, and applies it to judges and K-12 schools.
“Frankly, I thought it was plain vanilla,” Stith said.
Rep. Mark Jennings, R-Sheridan, brought a parental rights bill in 2017, but the state Supreme Court ruled a few years later that the law was toothless.
“The judges said that if the Legislature had intended it to apply in child custody cases between married people, the Legislature would have said so,” Stith said. “And so I thought, well, let’s say so.”
Stith’s bill never got past the House Judiciary Committee, caught up in partisan squabbling between Republican factions, he said.
But a parental control bill that specified procedures and requirements for school districts to provide parents notice of information regarding students and the rights of parents to make decisions regarding their children made more progress. This bill died after House Speaker Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, wouldn’t pull it out of his drawer.
Another bill Stith points to as an example of legislative favoritism was Cheyenne Republican Sen. Anthony Bouchard’s “Chloe’s Law,” which would have made it illegal for doctors to perform transgender surgeries on minors in Wyoming.
“There were some who thought that … the bill was less worthy because he was the sponsor of it,” Stith said. “Even if I have disagreements with Anthony Bouchard, I want to evaluate each bill on its merits rather than get wrapped up in either name calling or letting personal disputes get in the way of getting policy up.”
But it was Stith’s House Appropriations Committee that Bouchard criticized for allegedly watering down his bill so much it became meaningless.
Optimism For 2024
Although he has criticized the Freedom Caucus in the past, Stith said its members have brought some quality bills. He believes much of the noise created around the divide between factions of the House distracted from the actual work that got done.
“When you strip away all the tempest in the teapot, when you strip away all the drama, we actually got quite a bit done,” he said.
Besides the budget, Stith expects many of the same hot-button social issues will reemerge in the Legislature in the upcoming session, such as transgender surgeries, parental control and school choice.
Stith hopes the 2024 budget session will involve considering what Wyoming’s economy will look like 10-15 years down the road, a time when he believes coal revenue will be substantially lower than it is today.
He wants Wyoming to focus on factors within its own control rather than taking aim at some of the more macro level disputes raging throughout the world like environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) scores and gas prices.
Stith believes the best avenue for growth in Wyoming is invention, which could be incentivized by the subsidizing of patents. Even though this runs contrary to his Libertarian beliefs of small government, he’s willing to look past that for the greater good of Wyoming, he said.
Wyoming trails Colorado and California for patents per capita by significant margins.
“I think long term, we ought to focus on sponsoring innovation and invention so that we can create homegrown businesses relying upon technology that is created here,” Stith said. “We need to grab the horns of our future as much as we can.”
Leo Wolfson can be reached at: Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com