Wyoming Governor, Dave Freudenthal receives good marks for 1st year

For a Democratic governor to survive in steadfastly conservative Wyoming, it helps to exhibit a good sense of humor, be a straight shooter and wield a brand of politics that leans more than slightly to the right.

In his first year, Dave Freudenthal has done just that, and won admirers from both sides of the aisle.

Associated Press

"Overall I’d give him good marks," said Sarah Gorin of the state government watchdog group the Equality State Policy Center. "There’s an enthusiasm there that hasn’t been seen in a long time."

Bill Sniffin, who lost in the Republican gubernatorial primary, said Freudenthal has lived up to his billing.

"I think the man that we got as governor is 100 percent identical to the man who ran for governor," he said. "He’s a fiscal conservative. He appeals to Republicans and much as Democrats, which is mandatory in order to get anything done in Wyoming if you’re a Democrat."

Freudenthal, an underdog in both the 2002 Democratic primary and the general election, has made it look fairly easy. His GOP opponent was oil and gas businessman Eli Bebout, whom Freudenthal defeated by only 3,789 votes.

"I don’t know yet if it’s a fun job, but it’s clearly an honor. There’s no question about it," he said.

Bumps along the way

Environmentalists grumbled over his appointments. The entire School Facilities Commission quit over his appointment of a new director. Republicans criticized his vetoes. He took heat for reducing requested health spending increases.

"You have good days and you have bad days," Freudenthal said.

Freudenthal tweaked conservationists by appointing a mining executive, John Corra, to head the Department of Environmental Quality. He further ruffled feathers when he hired PacifiCorp executive Steve Waddington as his energy policy adviser.

Gorin said the environment "has probably been (Freudenthal’s) weakest area, although people need to remember that he didn’t run as an environmentalist. A lot of people supported him in the environmental community because the alternative seemed worse."

University of Wyoming history professor Phil Roberts sees many similarities between Freudenthal and Democrat Ed Herschler, the state’s only three-term governor, whom Freudenthal served under.

"I see the same general sense of moderation that I saw in those early Herschler years," Roberts said.

Michael Walden-Newman, director of the Wyoming Taxpayers Association, has been impressed with Freudenthal’s understanding of state government.

"This is obviously a man who is extremely intelligent, a quick study," he said.

Walden-Newman watched Freudenthal testify for nearly seven hours before the Joint Appropriations Committee, and he observed that Freudenthal "was as on top of his budget as his budget director was, and I found that admirable."
Love-hate relationship

Freudenthal wishes he had extra time to travel and promises a concerted effort to visit more communities in 2004.

"I like that. I like people," he said. "You wouldn’t be in this line of work if you didn’t like people."

He trades jokes easily with staff members, reporters, officials and lawmakers.

The 2003 legislative session ended with House members singing "Kum Ba Yah" to him. He quipped to the Appropriations Committee that the state’s $1 billion surplus was the result of an election of a Democratic governor.

But some wrangling is inevitable between a Democratic governor and a heavily Republican Legislature.

He said he tried to make clear that his five vetoes were not for reasons of political grandstanding, just a disagreement over philosophy. He is not concerned that he’ll eventually be overridden.

"I don’t believe you should go along with something you don’t believe in for fear of some political embarrassment," he said.

Sitting as part of the state Loan Board, Freudenthal cast the only no vote for a contract allowing investment of up to $125 million in state permanent trust funds in the private equity market. He went against the four Republican members of the board, including State Treasurer Cynthia Lummis, who had been working on the concept for about four years.

"I’d say our relationship’s not as good as it could be, and I’m sorry about that." But, he said, "I did what I thought was right."

State Republican Party officials criticized him for his stance on economic development and use of homeland security money, which Freudenthal brushed off.

"They don’t usually get their facts straight," he said with a laugh.

Freudenthal has also heard gripes from within his own party.

As for early criticism by conservationists over Corra’s appointment, Freudenthal said, "He’s turning out to where people are coming around saying, ‘Well you know, he’s pretty good.’ "

Some Democrats have pointed out that he hasn’t been political enough in his appointments, choosing too many Republicans.

"I’m doing what I told them I’d do during the campaign, which is I’m going to find good people and appoint them," Freudenthal said.

Diverse background

He grew up on a ranch near Thermopolis, then earned a degree from Amherst College in Massachusetts, which led to an economics job in state government. He later got a law degree from the University of Wyoming, opened a private practice and served as the state’s federal prosecutor.

But nothing prepared him for some aspects of being governor.

"You talk about high points, obviously meeting Willie Nelson was clearly one of them," he said.

At another time, Freudenthal and his wife, Nancy, had dinner with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in Jackson.

"You know, for a couple of lawyers, one born in Cody and one in Thermopolis, to sit and actually talk to a Supreme Court justice – I mean you spend your life reading these cases and all of their words and all that, and then suddenly, there they are and they’re people."

Freudenthal called Scalia a "remarkable guy, witty." And the fact that both are hunters made for instant rapport.

"I had just bought a couple new rifles, so we were talking guns," he said.

For Freudenthal, it’s a matter of keeping it all in perspective. He knows that governing is not a perfect science and the philosophy of his administration is: Try to do the right thing.

"We’re going to make mistakes. We’re going to slip up. But they’ll be mistakes and not designs," he said.

"I’m a temporary occupant of a position of trust, and if I stop acting like that, then they ought to probably show me the gate if I don’t have the good sense to leave on my own."

Copyright © 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Copyright © The Billings Gazette, a division of Lee Enterprises.

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