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Wyoming Senate takes a stand on civility

Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne) during the 2022 Legislative Session. The Senate stripped Bouchard of his committee assignments over his conduct. (Mike Vanata)

By Mike Koshmrl, WyoFile

At some point during the Wyoming Legislature’s just-completed budget session, one representative walked up to another and asked why his cohort had to be so mean.

Rep. Bob Wharff (R-Evanston) was on the receiving end of that question, posed by Rep. Cyrus Western (R-Big Horn), and he recollected the exchange to WyoFile. The representative from Evanston stood his ground.

“I told him, ‘The problem is, we are fighting a battle, we are at war,’” Wharff recalled. “These people are attacking our Second Amendment rights. If we don’t stand up and push back — and I honestly believe this — if we don’t defend our Second Amendment rights, all our other rights go out.”

Western relayed his view of the conversation: “I said it in the context of watching other legislators being very uncivil or disrespectful toward other legislators.”

The view that decorum and decency has declined within the Wyoming Legislature in recent years was pervasive among eight senators and representatives that WyoFile talked to for this story. Civility slipping in the statehouse isn’t a uniquely Wyoming problem. Nationally, pundits have bemoaned the decline of political discourse, which has become more confrontational — a phenomenon most prominently exhibited by former President Donald Trump’s communication style.

That was the backdrop of a Senate vote last week to punish one of its most firebrand members for allegedly using intimidation tactics in violation of Senate rules. In a 19-10 vote, the chamber stripped Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne) of his committee assignments, a stringent formal punishment that veteran members of the Legislature could not recall occurring during their tenure.

Sens. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne) and Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) exchanged words without facing each other in the entrance hallway leading to the Wyoming Senate floor. The two senators were not on particularly good terms. “Look at the way he looks at me, that sneer,” Bouchard said of Hicks. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

“When you go out on social media and impugn every member of the Legislature by calling them a swamp, slimeball, liars, that is not conduct becoming of a Wyoming state senator,” Senate Vice President Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) told WyoFile.

Over the line

In the days before the Senate took action, a lobbyist lodged a complaint against Bouchard, who’s gained a reputation for making inflammatory statements.

“We’ve had numerous instances where people said that I just don’t feel comfortable going to testify, because I know I’m going to get confronted,” Hicks said. “Now we’ve finally had a formal complaint to that effect.”

Hicks said the complaint was “completely immaterial” to the Senate relieving Bouchard of his committee assignments. Previously, he was a member of the Labor, Health and Social Services Committee; the Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources Committee; and the Management Audit Committee.

“The most compelling reason that an action was taken was a long pattern [of behavior],” Hicks said.

On the floor, Senate President Dan Dockstader (R-Afton) described Bouchard’s actions that were in violation of Senate rules. Bouchard, he contended, showed support for “vulgar and threatening” attacks on other Senate members, and he used “intimidating tactics” against other senators and members of the public.

“All this impugns the integrity of the legislative bodies, which leads to a lack of respect for the Senate and the House,” Dockstader said.

On the floor, Bouchard defended behavior others construed as intimidation before his fellow senators cast their votes. He read the text of a social media post that concerned the complaint: “I told the hospital lobbyist that video is coming on their COVID fear tactics.”

Bouchard explained that his intention was to cut a video from existing footage of the lobbyist testifying — video that’s already online — and he was undeterred by the potential for disciplinary action.

“I’m still going to do it,” Bouchard said. “I don’t think we understand free speech in this chamber if this is where we’re at right now.”

After fellow sentators voted to take action against him, Bouchard called the punishment “stupid.”

“It sets a bad precedent,” he said. “I’ll be able to float around more committees now. And maybe, since I’m not a committee member, I’ll be able to bring my own camera.”

Ripple effect

Some legislators say that discourse within the Legislature has taken a turn for the worse since Bouchard was elected in 2017. That is Rep. Landon Brown’s (R-Cheyenne) perspective, he said, although he didn’t pin the decline of civility on Bouchard alone.

Sen. Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) has been publicly targeted by Bouchard before, but said that he harbors no ill will for his Cheyenne counterpart.

“It’s about the sanctity and decorum of this body,” Driskill said of punishing Bouchard’s conduct. That decorum, he said, is part of the way the Legislature does business and the old guard tolerated “no coloring outside the lines” when he was a freshman legislator: “You stayed well within the lines, or you could expect to be in the president’s office.”

Rep. Bill Fortner (R-Gillette) supports Wyoming Legislature policies that are designed to maintain decorum and respect among legislators. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Rep. Bill Fortner (R-Gillette) said that he’s supportive of rules and customs that are geared toward maintaining civility in the Legislature, so long as they’re applied equally to everybody. Those rules — like not naming fellow legislators on the floor, and always addressing the presiding officer — were an adjustment for the oil field welder after he was elected in 2020, he said.

“When I talk to people, I might not use the best choice of words,” Fortner said. “My slang might just offend somebody … and if a guy is offended I say, 100%, I need to apologize to him.”

In House Speaker Eric Barlow’s (R-Gillette) view, decorum and respect amongst representatives has not declined significantly in his chamber, made up of a larger pool of lawmakers that hasn’t seen as much turnover as in the Senate.

“Let’s be clear, we always want things to be better,” Barlow told WyoFile. “But do I think there was a marked degradation [in civility]? I don’t believe there was.”

Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper), a 20-year veteran of the Legislature, said there’s been a long-term erosion in civility in the statehouse, but he pinned that dynamic on the effect of social media banter and on societal shifts more generally. If there was any internal factor that has hurt legislator relations, he said, it was the 2010 arson that destroyed the Hitching Post Inn, where almost all of the Legislature’s 90 members once spent their evenings while in Cheyenne.

“You ate dinner every night with somebody else, and you had to talk to them,” Harshman said. “I just don’t think there’s any opportunities for that anymore. The gavel goes down, and everybody just vanishes.”

Being disrespectful to others comes easier, he said, when you don’t know them.

Harshman added that it’s worthwhile to look farther back into history when judging the current state of incivility. As long ago as 1913, he said, the Wyoming House of Representatives was so at odds that the Democrats and Republicans refused to put their pictures within the same frame. And the print of the Democratic representatives from that year has a tear in the middle.

“That picture got smashed over a member’s head, they were so pissed on the floor,” Harshman said.

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.