These days, getting elected as a Democrat in Wyoming isn’t easy. While the Democrats have won the governorship as recently as 2006, it could be a long while before they win it again. The Republicans currently have a lock on every elected statewide office and have monopolized the congressional delegation for years. And the GOP holds an overwhelming lead in the state Senate (26-4) and in the state House (60-9).
In other words, the political hand dealt to Mary Throne ’82 — the Wyoming House Democratic Floor Leader — is far from ideal.
“It’s really hard to overcome the dislike of President Obama,” Throne said. “And the national energy policies are not good for Wyoming — that’s really the source of most of the angst. All that makes it very hard for a statewide Democrat.”
That said, Throne and her fellow party members are able to pick their spots. Education policy is a good example. Even as other Republican-led states have been urgently backpedaling from the Common Core — the set of standards created by and adopted by a majority of states, then later touted by the Obama administration — Wyoming lawmakers have minimized the flack and forged ahead with implementation on a bipartisan basis.
Last year, after some voters in Wyoming expressed concerns about the Common Core and a set of related science standards, lawmakers — reflecting support among the school districts that had just implemented the program — moved in this year’s legislative session to mend the process rather than ripping it out root and branch.
Fine-tuning the K-12 standards has been a “bright spot” of the legislative session, Throne said in a recent interview at the state capitol in Cheyenne. “The discussion hasn’t been vitriolic. Parents felt like this happened without their input. So we tried to fix it on process side.”
Bob Beck, news director of Wyoming Public Radio, said “there are some outstanding Democrats here, and Mary is one. The way you have to work as a Democrat is to get Republicans to buy in to a plan. A Democratic bill by itself goes nowhere.”
Throne was born and raised in rural Campbell County. She studied history at Princeton and, after earning a law degree from Columbia University in 1988, spent several years working as an assistant attorney general in Cheyenne. In 1999, she went into private practice, specializing in natural resources law, and in 2006 won election to the House. She continues to run her own law firm while serving in the part-time legislature.
Throne said she isn’t close to going with her state’s flow and abandoning the Democratic Party. “Why be a Democrat?” she asked. “We’re less likely to be afraid of a government solution. It’s not that we’re in love with government, but we have a more practical view about what government can do.”
For now, though, she and her colleagues are used to being able to shape legislation, even if they don’t do it all by themselves. “We’re relevant because, even though we are small in number, our ideas get picked up in a number of ways,” Throne said. “In less-partisan areas like education we can play a big role. We aren’t afraid to point out where the majority is failing. That’s what a minority is supposed to do.”
Louis Jacobson is the deputy editor of PolitiFact and a state-government columnist for Governing.