CASPER, Wyo. — Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street activists don’t agree on much when it comes to politics. But they do agree on one thing: the 2012 elections will be vitally important to the future of America.
The task now for Wyomingites involved with the two major grass-roots political movements are strategizing what role they should play in those elections, and how they can convert supporters’ passion into policy changes.
Both movements pride themselves on being decentralized, so the various groups around the state will each have to decide for themselves what path they should take.
The decisions they make will define the future of their cause: whether they will remain defiant outsiders or work to change conventional politics from the inside.
During the past four years, the Tea Party movement has found fertile ground in Wyoming — not surprising considering the state’s tradition of self-reliance and suspicion of big government.
In the 2010 elections, Tea Party gains in Wyoming were significant but limited. Independent gubernatorial candidate Taylor Haynes, a favorite of activists, came in third place with 13,796 votes, even though he ran as a write-in candidate. But the election was won by Matt Mead, a moderate Republican with lukewarm Tea Party support.
A number of Tea Party-supported candidates were elected to the Wyoming Legislature, in many cases upsetting veteran legislators. While their presence was noticeable and brought some legislative victories — notably a new law allowing concealed weapons without a permit — other Tea Party-influenced bills went down in defeat, including a bill declaring the new federal health care law unconstitutional in Wyoming.
Since the 2010 elections, the Tea Party in Wyoming has gone into a sort of hibernation, said Steve Klein, staff attorney with the Wyoming Liberty Group.
That’s likely to change soon, Klein said, as Tea Party arch-nemesis President Barack Obama is up for re-election and the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule this summer on the constitutionality of the federal health care law.
“I think come summertime, you’re going to see probably a much bigger resurgence,” Klein said.
Tea Party activist David Kellett, a computer technician from Powell, said once the Republican presidential nominee is chosen, Tea Party organizers in northern Wyoming plan to campaign heavily for him against Obama.
They also plan to get involved in local races too, Kellett said, though they’ll choose who to back on a case-by-case basis.
“What we have to do is show how strong we are,” Kellett said, “and make it certain to anybody who’s elected or running that if they don’t have our support, they’re not going to get into office.”
But Janie White, a co-founder of the Wyoming Patriot Alliance, a Cheyenne-based Tea Party group, said her group won’t endorse any 2012 candidates and will remain strictly nonpartisan, just as it’s always been.
Instead, White said, the Wyoming Patriot Alliance will continue to offer voters information on the candidates and continue to conduct classes on the U.S. Constitution.
“We’ve tried to stay as neutral as possible,” she said.
Occupy Wall Street
Meanwhile, the months-old Occupy Wall Street movement has also made inroads into Wyoming.
While smaller than the Tea Party movement, Occupy groups have been just as vocal with protests this fall in Casper, Cheyenne, Laramie, Pinedale, and elsewhere against corporate greed and the government’s lack of response to the struggling economy.
But with the arrival of winter temperatures and the ever-present Wyoming wind, Occupy activists in the state are hunkered down until spring and are planning their next move.
Occupy Cheyenne organizer Forrest King said his group’s 20 or so members are now deciding key questions, such as whether they should endorse candidates and whether they should lobby for or against specific bills during next month’s legislative budget session.
“We all understand that this isn’t New York City and that we’re not going to get national coverage with anything we’re doing,” King said. “So we’re trying to focus more, like, community-wide, raising awareness of the issues.”
King said that he was “fairly confident” the Occupy movement will lead to political changes in Wyoming, given how far they’ve come in just a few months.
“If you look at the civil rights movement, you know, and things like that, they had way less momentum than this movement has already,” King said. “As long as we can stay organized and keep it moving, we will affect change.”