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The power is in the precinct
Primary saw healthy pool of candidates as change is in the wind for county Republicans

The next time the Campbell County Republican Party Central Committee meets, there will be quite a few new names, as well as some familiar ones, in the room.

Strangely enough, unusually uncontested precinct level contests drew considerable attention during the primary election.

Often, precinct committee races have one person who runs unopposed. In other cases, no one files for a race, so committee people are either selected by a write-in vote or appointed by the party chair.

In 2018, 99 people filed for the precinct races. In 2020, 122 people filed.

After the primary election, the list of precinct committee people has changed noticeably.

“There are a lot of new faces,” said Campbell County GOP Chairwoman Vicki Kissack. “That just means there are other people and opinions and ideals being represented in the community. I believe change is good.”

The precinct committee people won’t start their terms until the start of 2021, but there will be an informational meeting later this year.

Leading up to the Aug. 18 primary, there were two opposing ads that each included a list of precinct committee people to vote for. One was paid for by the Frontier Conservatives PAC, and there also was an “Actual Conservative Voter Guide,” paid for by Jeff Raney. These people were endorsed because “of their commitment to the Platforms of the Republican Party.”

The Frontier Conservatives’ ad listed 89 precinct committee candidates, including eight write-ins. They were all endorsed because “of their commitment to a return to civil discussion and fair operation of government,” the ad read. Of the 81 people who had filed for the primary, only 13 were not elected to their precinct.

Raney’s ad had 46 names, including nine write-ins, and 19 of them were elected Aug. 18.

Darren Lynde was the only precinct committee candidate who showed up on both lists. He was elected.

The “Actual Conservative Voter Guide” had a much better track record in the state races and county commission, with five of its six endorsed candidates for the state Legislature winning or moving on to the primary, as well as two of three candidates for county commission.

The excitement over the precinct committee races was something that Campbell County Clerk Susan Saunders had never seen in her four decades of working in local elections.

Precinct committee people make up the central committee, which helps fill vacancies in elected seats and votes on the party chair and state committee people. It also develops the party’s platforms and resolutions.

In the last three years, the GOP central committee has been involved in the process of filling three vacancies in elected seats: county treasurer and two commissioners.

In addition to being the top two vote-getters in the commission race, Del Shelstad and Colleen Faber were voted to represent their precincts. Fellow commissioners Bob Maul, Rusty Bell and D.G. Reardon also were elected to precinct committee seats.

Bill Fortner and Troy McKeown, who both won big in their races for the state House and Senate, respectively, were not elected to precinct committee seats. Both came up short by just a few votes, with Fortner losing to Maul, 94-91, and McKeown coming in third behind Lynde and Ken Barkey. Current legislators Scott Clem, Roy Edwards and Eric Barlow won their respective precincts.

There are still some precinct committee seats left to fill. The Elections Office has up to 40 days following the election to present the write-in precinct information to the party chair.

The primary election had a 66% voter turnout, including a 72% turnout for Republican voters.

Kissack said the way the Gillette City Council “handled the Shay Lundvall issue” helped increase the turnout, as did the conversations going on across the country.

“What’s happening nationally with the rioting, negative dialogue that happened against conservatives, Christians, rural America, it’s just been basically the perfect storm, and the people showed up to let their voices be heard,” she said.

She added that there was a lot of belittling and name-calling going on.

“Frankly, there are people who are preying on the community and treating them as if they’re undereducated and unengaged, and this last election proved them wrong,” Kissack said. “I’d really like to see people being valued more for their differing opinions.”

Norine Kasperik will be back as a precinct committeewoman after a short break. She first became a precinct person in the early 1990s, eventually becoming the party chair in the late 1990s. Several years ago, she and her husband Nick stepped away from the central committee to take a rest.

“I was outside of the process for these last several years, and there’s been a lot of changes,” she said. “Some I’m OK with, and some I don’t know.

“As I thought about it, this time around, I thought I needed to be back in that process,” she said.

This year, she filed and was again elected to represent her precinct.

“I’m excited to have our first meeting,” she said. “There’s room for a lot of diversity of thought.”

Kasperik credited the Campbell County Republican Party for doing a good job of getting people involved and interested in local politics.

“It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing that we had so many contested races,” she said. “There’s nothing like having more choices to make people interested.”

Brenda Schladweiler said she ran for her precinct about 10 years ago and lost to Cathy Raney. This year, she filed because she wanted to give voters a choice. She ended up winning by 14 votes over Raney.

She recalled years ago when Marjorie Rainwater told her that “the power is in the precinct.”

“I believed her then, I believe her now,” she said.

Ronda Boller came in fifth in the race for county commissioner, but she was reelected to represent her precinct. She and her husband John were the only ones who filed, so they both were unopposed.

“You always have the opportunity to go to your legislators, but to actually say, ‘This is what we believe as a party,’ that’s where that starts,” she said.

Boller said she thinks the central committee “is going to be a little different. A lot of the people now are elected, not appointed.”

Still, they should agree on most issues, she said.

“All the Republicans I know, they do believe 80-90% of the platform represents them,” she said.

The fact that she showed up on the Frontier Conservatives ad does not necessarily mean she’s a Frontier Republican, she said. She’d heard that her name was going to be on the ad, and the group “just decided I was a Frontier Republican,” she said.

She said she likes the group’s premise of civility in politics, but she isn’t sure whether that will actually happen.

The first central committee meeting Shelstad attended was a four-hour marathon in 2018 where three finalists were selected for a vacant seat on the county commission.

“I had no idea what that whole process was like. I didn’t even know what a precinct person was,” he said.

The next couple of years, he learned more about the process, attended some meetings as a proxy and learned the importance of the position.

“If you don’t like what’s going on, get involved and try to fix it,” he said. “It’s a great way for your voice to be heard on a local level.”

Shelstad said he ran for his precinct this year because the Frontier Republicans are “wanting to change things” in the local GOP.

“Both sides of the fence have some points,” he said.

He said while he supports 100% of the Republican Party platforms, he doesn’t look down on those who don’t. As long as people can agree on 80% of Republican platforms, that sets a good foundation to “work on the (remaining) 20%,” he said.

Next year, the central committee will be tasked with electing a new chairperson. Kissack said she will not run for chair again.

“I believe it’s time for a new chairman,” she said.

Kissack said that since 2017, the local party’s executive committee “has really embraced the normal working man and woman of Campbell County, (showed them that) they matter, their voice matters, their vote matters.”

Some work needs to be done in the next few months, Kasperik said.

“We all watched the election, we know it wasn’t always a pleasant process,” she said. “There’s some fence-mending that’s going to have to happen.”

“I really think the biggest issue is to try to come together as a party,” Shelstad said. “There’s strength in numbers, (and we have to) figure out a way to build a bridge between the two groups.”

With the future of the fossil fuel industry not looking good right now, and with revenues and budgets expected to decrease, now is the time to be united, Schladweiler said, because “we have too many problems in Campbell County to not work together.”

“We’ve had it pretty good in Campbell County for a long time, but we don’t have those same conditions right now,” she said. “That’s something we should all be able to work on together.”

“Maybe we don’t all agree on everything, but if we sit down long enough and start talking, we can hammer it out and come up with some really good ideas,” Boller said.

Legacy residents, families going on 5 months of no contact

It has been five months since the Legacy Living and Rehabilitation Center implemented strict visitor restrictions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

People may have grown accustomed to the changes, but that doesn’t mean it’s any easier for the residents and their friends and families.

Linda Bricker of Gillette still can’t hug her 92-year-old mother, Nina Bannister, who is a Legacy resident.

She is not alone.

Bricker can communicate with her mother and sees her twice a week through a window and writes letters. But Bricker is worried that with COVID-19 hanging around in the near future, visitor restrictions will continue, which could mean not being able to hug and hold Bannister for at least several more months.

That can be a lifetime for some of those who call the Legacy home.

“I fear that I will never be able to touch her on this side of heaven,” Bricker said. “I don’t see COVID going away,” Bricker said. “I don’t see them letting up on the restrictions.”

The Legacy and other senior healthcare facilities in Gillette like Primrose Retirement follow the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services about visitation.

For most of the past five months, they have not allowed visitors except through a window or for compassionate visits where people can see loved ones during their last two days of life.

For a brief period of time, the Legacy did allow limited physical visitation where people could see each other through a fence outside the Legacy. It has since reinstated a policy of no in-person visits because of a recent uptick in coronavirus cases in Campbell County. That included a recent case involving a staff member testing positive for the novel coronavirus.

Mary Ann Stuckey, who has been a resident at the Legacy for more than a year, has dealt with the tough situation by visiting with other residents and participating in activities.

“There’s one lady on my wing that said, ‘You can come back any time, Mary Ann, I just love to visit with you,’” she said. “That takes my mind off of what’s going on around me and it helps me a lot.”

Bannister is not as sociable as Stuckey and other residents, Bricker said. Her mother is more comfortable just being around family.

Bannister has been at the Legacy since February after she became unable to take care of herself.

The transition, exacerbated by COVID-19, has been terribly hard on the family, Bricker said.

The unknown

When in-person outdoor visitation will be allowed again is unknown.

“Resuming those is 100% dependent on (the) case count in Campbell County, and at this moment in time the cases continue to rise. Therefore, outdoor visits are on hold,” said Dane Joslyn, a Campbell County Health spokeswoman. “We also truly do understand the desire and wish and need to have face-to-face visitation and greatly empathize with families and residents.

“Ultimately, the barometer that dictates visitation is the number of local case counts, and they continue to rise. Due to this, we will not be implementing indoor visitation anytime soon.”

Residents can still communicate with loved ones through technology like video and phone calls. There also are window visits. Those offer “the safest option for residents to see their loved ones while avoiding exposure and preventing transmission,” Joslyn said,

The window visits aren’t bad because “it’s like one-on-one,” Stuckey said, adding that it would be so much better if her family “can come in my room and act silly, sit down and have a nice visit. But we do what we can.”

Bricker understands that the Legacy can’t take any chances with the health of residents, some of whom are highly vulnerable to the novel coronavirus.

But she would like to be able to visit and embrace her mom, even if it means wearing arm’s-length gloves and/or only touching her with her knees.

“I think it would help a lot,” she said.

A plan

The Legacy is doing what it can to help alleviate concerns and frustrations, which could in the future include allowing visitors like Bricker to use arm’s-length gloves to hug their loved ones.

The facility recently submitted a proposal and prototype for a “hugging booth” to the Wyoming Department of Health. The prototype would use shoulder-length gloves and a plastic or another material barrier on the frame.

“The finite details are yet to be confirmed, but that is the general concept,” Joslyn said. “This will be implemented if and only if it meets infection prevention measures defined by (the Wyoming Department of Health) and other agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.”

If the visitation policy does not change, Campbell County Health should at least consider looking into finding a warm place for visitors to be in during their window visits “so we don’t have to stand outside to visit our loved ones,” said Steve Bricker, Linda’s husband.

The Legacy is doing what it can to make visits easier or more convenient for when the cold weather comes. While it does not have definitive answers now, it is researching options, Joslyn said.

“We do know that the Wyoming Department of Health understands the difficulty of visitation related to inclement weather and is trying to determine what is the best next step,” she added.

Jonni Belden, Legacy administrator, said the facility has also submitted a State Loan and Investment Board coronavirus relief grant application, part of which would go toward creating an outdoor visitor’s shelter that would have heating and allow visitors to see their loved one in the same room.

People would have to be at 6 feet apart in the closed structure and wear a mask, but could not touch one another.

The state board was scheduled to consider the grant along with requests from other health care facilities across the state at Thursday’s meeting.

If the grant request is approved, Belden said she anticipates the shelter will be in place in six weeks, “just in the time for the first snowfall.”

If not, the Legacy is going to look at different options. Either way, until the cases go down or stabilize in the county and there are none in the facility then the no visitation policy will continue.

Anything that can be done would be a godsend for the Brickers and other families.

“I don’t know what the answer is. It’s such a tough deal,” Linda Bricker said. “Our loved ones are losing hope. They are just truly losing hope.

“As far as my mom goes, she is a Christian, she knows where she’s going, but it’s not normal to (want to) die. You want to live. They hold that hope out.”

Dillon Porter of Edgemont, South Dakota, practices TIG welding on 2-inch pipe as a student at Western Welding Academy.

Seven school board candidates eye COVID-19, budget as biggest issues facing next board

A budget crisis brought on by a downturn in the energy sector compounded by the coronavirus pandemic is the top issue on the minds of the seven candidates who have filed to seek one of four seats up for election on the Campbell County School District Board of Trustees.

Three incumbents and four challengers filed by Monday’s deadline for the four seats. Even if the incumbents all were to win, there would still be a new face on the board, which is always a good thing, said Lisa Durgin, one of the incumbents seeking reelection.

She and Chairwoman Anne Ochs, also running for reelection, are the longest-serving trustees with more than 20 years of service on the board between them. They both say they’re running again because the issues the district is likely to face in the near future require a steady hand that comes from experience.

The challengers, for the most part, have gone out of their way to praise the current board and its decisions on important issues like establishing a second high school, approving armed educators and the district’s reopening plan in response to COVID-19.

They also said they believe they have fresh perspectives and new ideas from which the board could benefit, whether formed as a result of a career in education — be it classroom teaching, administration or higher education — or simply being a parent of a child in the district.

The races will be decided at the Nov. 3 general election.

The incumbents

Durgin, a private business owner who will turn 49 next week, is now in her 12th year on the board and said she thought long and hard before seeking another term.

“I do think there are some budget issues coming up, some fairly large things coming in our near future that are going to take some experience,” Durgin said. “I was just hesitant to bring too many new people in, even though I really believe a good board should have both experienced people and inexperienced, new people.”

Ochs, 68, is in her 10th year on the board and was a teacher and principal in the district for 27 years.

“We’re in the middle of a financial crisis in Wyoming right now, and there’s going to be a lot of decisions that will impact the kids that will be made next legislative session,” Ochs said. “It’s just a really critical time, between the COVID and the financial situation, it’s just important that we have experienced leadership in there.”

Ken Clouston, a 51-year-old physical therapist and CEO of Gillette Physical Health, is in his fourth year on the board and believes that experience will be valuable because big changes are expected.

He said he runs his business on metrics and data and would like to see the district use a similar approach.

“To be a top school district, what do we need to do, and what are our goals, and how do we hold ourselves accountable?” Clouston said. “I think we need to have objective numbers that your staff can see and students can see and the community can see.

“It holds everybody a little bit more accountable. We’re all competitive, and I think it raises the bar for us.”

The challengers

Susan Bennett, 61, retired after 30 years as a classroom teacher, 27 of which were spent in Campbell County. She said she can leverage her relationships from her years in the classroom.

“Things are changing right now, we all know that, we all sense it, we’ve all been in the quarantine and the COVID-19 stuff,” Bennett said. “I just know that the district is facing lots of changes, and I feel I have the expertise and experience that I can lend my help to that and keep the conversation going and collaborate with administration, teachers, students and parents.”

Heidi Herrmann, 38, is self-employed doing environmental consulting for Peabody Energy Corp. and is the parent of a first grader in the district with another youngster who will start kindergarten next year.

“With them being students in the school district, I thought it was important to run for school board to help the continued success of students and teachers,” Herrmann said. “I think it would be good to have a fresh perspective ... coming in as a member of the community who works for the energy industry, whose family is supported by the energy industry.”

She also has a master’s degree in chemistry and said she’s a “very analytical person,” which would allow her “to see the whole picture and make decisions that would benefit the students, teachers and community of Gillette.”

Larry Steiger, 71, retired after spending 32 years in the district as a teacher and principal. He advocates for fresh ideas from a new crop of trustees.

He said that incumbents on their third or fourth terms have been in office too long, comparing it to “the same problem we have in Congress.”

Steiger pleaded guilty in 2011 to a felony fraud charge. He admitted making a false claim or voucher by using a school district credit card to buy a weight bench for use at home. He was given a deferred sentence and after completing four years of probation, the charge was dismissed, along with his guilty plea.

“Well, I have learned from that decision,” Steiger said in addressing the issue. “It was the most stupid thing to happen to me in my life, but I’ve paid my dues. You learn from it, which I have, and now I want to share my expertise.”

Heidi Gross, 59, has been executive director of the Gillette College Foundation for almost seven years.

Her role has prepared her to make tough budget-related decisions when the time comes, because the “biggest issue in the coming years is K-12 funding,” she said.

“I think I am fiscally responsible as the foundation director here at the college,” Gross said. “I managed a very large endowment, so my integrity and my ethics are beyond reproach.”

She oversees the foundation’s 17-member board and also serves on the Campbell County Public Land Board.