TORRINGTON, Wyo. — Pete Gosar kept up a steady jog down Main Street in Torrington. He crisscrossed the road to shake hands with people in folding chairs watching the Goshen County Fair Parade.
Gosar never slowed down. Keeping pace with the parade’s gaudy flow of horse-drawn wagons, tractors and classic cars, he handed campaign cards to everyone he could reach.
A former walk-on football player at the University of Wyoming who is campaigning for governor as a Democrat, Gosar wasn’t out of breath. He’s running hard for office — literally.
Gosar took leave from his job as a state pilot, stepped down as state party chair and launched his campaign because no other Democrat wanted to. It’s his second run for governor in this overwhelmingly Republican state, but he doesn’t see himself as anybody’s sacrificial lamb.
Gosar, who grew up in Pinedale, says Wyoming remains a “handshake state.” He means it’s a place where people are willing to vote for the person, if they get a chance to know them and trust them for who they are, not merely for their party affiliation.
He said he hopes to tap into what he sees as public discontent about state government becoming increasingly unresponsive.
Gosar criticizes Gov. Matt Mead and the overwhelmingly Republican Legislature for refusing to accept federal money to expand Medicaid to offer health insurance coverage for the state’s 17,600 working poor.
Expanding Medicaid is a cornerstone of the Affordable Care Act. Mead has said he doesn’t trust federal promises to continue funding if the state expands the program.
“The latest argument that we’re concerned the federal government won’t pay, well, that doesn’t hold any water,” Gosar said. “We’re not concerned about that with highway funds, we’re not concerned about education funds, we’re not concerned about that in the $1.5 billion (every two years) that comes from the federal government.”
Gosar, 46, is a member of the Wyoming Board of Education. He said he hopes state voters will pay attention to what he sees as the lessons of the 2010 election, in which Republican Cindy Hill defeated former state Sen. Mike Massie, a Laramie Democrat, to win the superintendent of public instruction’s job. What followed were state investigations into Hill’s personnel and spending decisions, a bitter feud with Mead and legislators, who passed a law ousting her from oversight of the state Education Department, and her ultimate reinstatement by a divided state supreme court.
Throughout, Hill has denied wrongdoing, and credits the experience as a reason for challenging Mead in the GOP primary.
“It talks about for me, overall, what happens when you don’t choose your candidates based on their merits, and based on who they are,” Gosar said of Hill’s election.
Gosar said he would try to roll back recent legislative action that prohibited the state Board of Education from adopting updated K-12 science education standards, some of which included instruction in human caused climate change, a hot topic in a state that relies heavily on coal.
Gosar also said Wyoming needs to improve worker safety, among the nation’s worst. The state’s Workers Compensation Fund, which holds money that employers pay to cover worker injuries, currently has over $1.6 billion. Gosar said it the state should change the system to make easier for injured workers and their families to get compensated.
This is Gosar’s second run for governor. In 2010, he lost the Democratic primary to Leslie Petersen of Jackson, who likewise had resigned as chairwoman of the state Democratic Party to run. Peterson lost in the general election roughly by a 3-to-1 margin to Mead.
Gosar knows any Democrat running statewide in Wyoming faces long odds. Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by roughly 167,000 to 52,000.
“We have an opportunity to lead in rural health care. We have an opportunity to lead in education, we have an opportunity to lead in economic diversity and try some really remarkable things,” he said. “But only if we’re unified and only if we’re working together on solutions.”