CASPER, Wyo. — At the chairman's call for opposition voices, Linda Bergeron was first to the lectern.
She cleared her throat.
"In looking this over, it looked like it was federal funding, is that correct?" Bergeron asked.
Commissioners conferred. A Wyoming Business Council representative offered input. Verdict? Yes. Federal dollars would, indeed, fund the grant application up for approval by the Natrona County Commission.
"Again," Bergeron said — because she had raised this point at county meetings before — "my concern is we have a $16 trillion deficit."
"We need to be very, very careful, unless we just continue to spend. Because it will affect us all," she added.
Commission Chairman Ed Opella thanked her for her comment. Bergeron nodded and retreated, hoisting her laptop back to her post among the rest of the audience.
Minutes later, the five-member commission approved the grant application. But not without a vote of opposition from Commissioner Matt Keating, who agreed with Bergeron — the country's debt is too big, and this grant not responsible spending.
Bergeron was one of two Constitution Party contenders for Natrona County commissioner in November. The burgeoning third party gained ballot access in Wyoming for the first time in 2012, and its U.S. House candidate, Daniel Clyde Cummings, earned enough votes in November's general election for the group to remain a registered third party in the state through 2014.
Bergeron's fiscally focused mindset echoes the party's hyper-conservative platform, which exalts private property rights and outdoes even the most conservative Republicans in its call for limited government.
Looking ahead, Wyomingites can expect to see more of the party's Preamble-citing, Thomas Jefferson-quoting supporters.
By all accounts, the Constitution Party is just getting started.
Natrona County congregation
Despite a meager vote harvest in the general election — Bergeron and Constitution Party compatriot Troy Bray garnered about 5 percent and 4 percent, respectively, of the Natrona County vote in the commissioner race — Constitution Party candidates consider their names printed on the ballot a victory in itself.
"Most things start small," Bergeron said. "And we've planted a seed."
The 15 official members of the Natrona County Constitution Party convene about every other month, she said.
There's a niche that needs to be filled in Wyoming, according to Bray, and he doesn't see the Republican Party filling it. He sees an opportunity, he said, for staunch conservatives who are interested in politics and not "so interested in the party label."
"The average Republican voter is pretty conservative," Bray said. "And the average Republican politician isn't."
For Bray and Bergeron, a partywide zeal for private property rights has translated locally into opposition to this summer's countywide fire ban, disdain for the city of Casper's recently approved smoking ban and condemnation of the county's enforcement of zoning codes.
Watching the Obama-McCain debates in 2008, Gareth Robertson said he felt "sick inside." He couldn't believe the two candidates were his only choices.
"Why isn't there a party that just stands for the Constitution?" Robertson thought.
Today, Robertson is state chairman of the Wyoming Constitution Party. The group is organized in seven counties — and counting.
"We are definitely in a growth phase," Robertson said.
Earlier in 2012, Constitution Party supporters knocked on doors across Wyoming, gathering signatures from nearly 6,000 registered voters, according to Robertson. By law, any third party seeking ballot recognition in Wyoming must provide signatures from at least 2 percent of voters in the previous year's U.S. House, governor or secretary of state race. The Constitution Party succeeded in doing so.
"If we can't do this ourselves, then we don't deserve to be on the ballot," Robertson said of the group's campaign for signatures.
"We canvassed the state with our own people, our own volunteers."
For a party "that nobody has ever seen on the ballot before," Robertson said, voter support for Cummings — the party's U.S. House candidate — proved that the Constitution Party's message "does resonate with a lot of people here in Wyoming." Cummings garnered nearly 5,000 votes statewide in November's general election.
A cohort of mostly self-taught Constitution aficionados, the Constitution Party calls for the elimination of the U.S. Department of Education, the Department of Energy and the Internal Revenue Service.
The party's platform rejects the "perceived threat of man-made global warming" and calls for an end to U.S. participation in the United Nations.
Also dubbed unconstitutional in the Constitution Party's platform are riders — the common Congressional practice of attaching often small measures to unrelated larger bills — executive orders, and any sort of minimum wage. The party posted candidates for a 2012 presidential ticket, too. In Wyoming, nearly 1,500 people voted for the Constitution Party's Virgil Goode and James Clymer to be U.S. president and vice president; about 250 of those votes came from Natrona County.
The party's plan for the next two years, according to Robertson, is simple: start local. Robertson said he hopes to see Wyoming sheriff's races, town council contests and county commission ballots sport Constitution Party names in 2014.
"As people see who we are at local levels, we can start building our reputation and move into state offices and eventually send people to Washington," Robertson said.
"Because we managed to stay on the ballot, we'll be able to focus on making change happen," said Bray, who said he'd like to see the commission "quit taking every federal grant that comes along."
After his unsuccessful commissioner run, Bray recently applied for a seat on the Planning and Zoning Commission — the same advisory board whose code enforcement he called "an instrument of tyranny" during campaign season. His bid was unsuccessful, but Bray maintains "you can't change the system if you're not inside it."
And for Bergeron, the Natrona County Commission's passing of the grant application in question at the December public hearing didn't discourage her constitutional pursuits; she'll be back to county meetings, she says.
"I have great hopes for the party going forward," Bergeron said. "We created government to protect our property. ... We've gone astray."