It's Been 'Very Trying' For Douglas, Wyoming, After Mayor's Unexpected Death

Longtime Douglas city councilwoman Kim Pexton had known and served with Mayor René Kemper for years. But taking over as mayor after Kemper's unexpected death in March has been "very trying for everybody," Pexton said.

Leo Wolfson

June 08, 20235 min read

Former Mayor René Kemper, left, and Kim Pexton, who was elevated to mayor after Kemper's unexpected death in March.
Former Mayor René Kemper, left, and Kim Pexton, who was elevated to mayor after Kemper's unexpected death in March. (City of Douglas via Facebook)

To say the death of Douglas Mayor René Kemper in March was unexpected would be an understatement for those left to move on personally and as a city.

Especially in a small town like Douglas, Wyoming, everybody knows everyone and public officials, while elected, also are often longtime friends.

Since Kemper died of cancer, the eastern Wyoming city has been through a lot, especially for new Mayor Kim Pexton, who served with Kemper as a city councilwoman until her appointment to fill the suddenly empty mayor’s office.

“It’s been very trying for everybody because it was such a sad situation,” Pexton said.

But the cliché that “teamwork makes the dream work” proved itself for the Douglas City Council and city staff in elevating Pexton, who was council president and mayor pro tem.

They’ve also leaned on the experience of City Administrator J.D. Cox.

City of Douglas sign 6 8 23
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Unusual Challenge

Although Kemper had cancer since at least May 2022, Pexton said the council was unprepared for how imminent her death would be. 

“We knew she was battling, but we didn’t know to what extent,” Pexton said.

Kemper remained very engaged with city matters until about February, Pexton said, when it started to become evident the disease was taking over. It was a far cry from the amount of effort she had put into the job before, a responsibility she also juggled with a full-time job.

“It was a difficult time for us, but we all felt for her,” Cox said.

In small cities like Douglas, the mayor and council typically serve a policy-making role, with a city administrator or manager overseeing the day-to-day duties of running the city. Even so, Cox said Kemper worked closely with the city administration.

The council and city staff did their best to give Kemper the space she needed as she battled cancer.

Not How She Wanted To Become Mayor

After she died, the council had to quickly convene and elect a new mayor. Pexton was chosen after a special election.

It wasn’t the way she had envisioned becoming mayor, an office she had considered running for in the past.

“It has been a different process,” Pexton said. “But all of a sudden you say, ‘Wait a minute, we still have a city to run.’”

Cox had only started working for the city 10 months prior to Kemper’s death, and City Council had two recently elected members.

In other ways, the city government was up for the challenge. Pexton had served on the council since 2016 and Cox’s administrative career spans more than 20 years. Douglas is the fifth local government he has worked for.

But Cox said he never experienced anything like Kemper’s passing within a local government. 

René Kemper, left, and Kim Pexton are sworn into office in 2019 respectively as Douglas mayor and city councilwoman. Paxton is now the mayor after Kemper died in March.
René Kemper, left, and Kim Pexton are sworn into office in 2019 respectively as Douglas mayor and city councilwoman. Paxton is now the mayor after Kemper died in March. (City of Douglas via Facebook)

Unusual, Not Unheard Of

A few Wyoming lawmakers have died while in office over the years.

In 2017, the Powell Mayor Don Hillman died, but had already been replaced by an acting mayor. Former state Rep. Roy Edwards, R-Gillette, died from COVID-19 complications a day before Election Day in 2020. He was running unopposed for a fourth term in the Legislature.

And while in office in 2020. Former Wyoming U.S. Sen. Craig Thomas died while serving in 2007.

Pexton said one particular challenge the city faced shortly after Kemper’s death was deciding whether to make a 1 cent special purpose tax permanent. Lacking a new council member, the four-member panel faced the risk of engaging a tie vote, which would have killed the proposal and prevented the council from bringing it up again.

The council decided not to vote on it, deferring to the Converse County Commission to decide whether to bring the issue before the voters.

Kemper’s Legacy 

About two weeks before her death, Kemper offered her resignation to the City Council. The council rejected it.

Cox visited Kemper at the hospital the day before she died, along with some other city officials.

“We were able to thank her for her service to the community,” he said. 

Cox, who was hired by Kemper, thanked her for bringing him and his family to the Douglas community, an experience he describes as “a joy.”

He and the entire council attended her funeral and were brought to tears over what Kemper had meant to them and her city.

Pexton and Cox said a dark cloud hung over the city in the weeks following her death. A small memorial was put up in her honor outside Douglas City Hall.

“It was kind of a shock to the entire community,” Pexton said. “Douglas really did like René.”

Kemper had been reelected for a second term in 2022 with an overwhelming majority of the vote. She had lived in Douglas for more than 30 years.

But like all things in life, progress doesn’t stop, and neither has Douglas.

“We’re headed on our way,” Cox said.

Council Mourns Together

When Kemper died, she took with her a significant amount of institutional knowledge that no transition effort, no matter how organized, could ever replace.

But Cox and Pexton said the challenge brought the city council together, coping through their shared loss together.

“Communication has been the key for us,” Pexton said. “We’re making sure we’re all on the same page and always reaching out to the community members.”

On Wednesday, Cox and Pexton headed to the Wyoming Association of Municipalities conference in Cody. During an earlier meeting with the organization shortly after Kemper’s death, Pexton said she was embraced with open arms by WAM members.

She said it was another example that Wyoming is just one small town with long streets, and “it meant the world.”

Leo Wolfson can be reached at

Share this article



Leo Wolfson

Politics and Government Reporter