Wyoming Democrats hoping to retain a seat in the state House held for six years will have to go through a Republican challenger determined to flip the district.

With Rep. Charles Pelkey, D-Laramie, stepping down from his post in House District 45, it is up in the air whether the district will stay blue or go red for the first time since Pelkey’s 2014 election.

House District 45 has gone back and forth between Republican and Democratic representation. The seat was held by Republican Matt Greene after he defeated Democrat Seth Carson in 2010. Carson had occupied the post since running unopposed in 2008. The 2006 cycle, however, saw Carson defeated by Republican Kevin White by just 10 votes. White in 2002 had taken the seat that had been held by two different Democrats since at least 1996.

Jean Anne Garrison, a Laramie Democrat, is looking for her party’s nod as she goes up against local activist Karlee Provenza. Pelkey gave Provenza his endorsement, but Garrison is mounting an active campaign, or at least as much as she can in an unprecedentedly strange campaign season.

Republican Roxie Jackson Hensley in her second run for the HD 45 seat is looking to turn her fortunes around. In 2018, Pelkey won comfortably over Hensley in the general 1,784-1,185. In 2016, however, Republican Tom Schmit came within inches of ousting Pelkey, and even was ahead before absentee ballots were included in the count, showing the district could easily go either way.

Jean Anne GarrisonJean Anne Garrison feels like it’s a natural progression in her life to run for public office.

Garrison wears a lot of hats, as she is a University of Wyoming professor, as well as the director of the Center for Global Outreach and the Office of Engagement and Outreach. Given her family background of always paying attention to the news and a propensity toward getting involved, Garrison said her first run for office seems like the obvious next step.

The priorities for Garrison’s campaign are education, affordable health care and diversifying Wyoming’s economy, she said. While she’s not familiar with the finer details of every policy issue, Garrison said she’s ready to do the work needed to accomplish her goals.

“During a campaign like this, you need to learn people’s concerns,” Garrison said. “I really believe in being a straight-talker and when I say something I believe it. When I don’t know the answer to a question, I will find the answer and get back to them.”

Wyoming’s grim financial outlook is the top issue facing Wyoming, according to Garrison’s campaign website. If elected, Garrison said she’d be prepared to work across the aisle with the Republican supermajority in tackling the projected $1.5 billion revenue shortfall that led to Gov. Mark Gordon telling state agencies to be ready for 20% cuts. It could be difficult, as many conservatives are eyeing cutting education, avoiding tax increases and resisting Medicaid expansion. But Garrison said she’s confident she can advocate for her agenda effectively.

“When we come to spring of 2021, we’re going to be making tough decisions about programs that most people value,” she said. “You need to recognize that to make the decisions, the choices, to move the policies forward, you have to work with people.”

The state won’t be able to cut it’s way to a balanced budget, Garrison said, and as such needs to look at alternative revenue streams. Wyoming’s long dependence on extractive industries are in decline, and Garrison said it’s time for residents to ask tough questions about whether they need to pitch in more for services.

“I think you can back to the fundamental fact we don’t have corporate income tax, we have areas in sin taxes, areas where you could say it’s as simple as have everyone pay their fair share,” Garrison said.

Additionally, she said it’s time for state government to give localities the authority to raise revenue beyond the current statutory limits.

Garrison said she is excited to have a primary challenge ahead of the Nov. 8 general election. As a long-time member of the League of Women Voters, Garrison said it’s a good thing for voters to have a choice.

“I’m excited to see energy behind women candidates, and I think it’s a good year,” Garrison said.

Roxie Jackson Hensley

As a small business owner, Roxie Jackson Hensley said she has the knowhow to balance Wyoming’s budget and set the state’s small businesses up to succeed in replacing lost revenue from declining extractive industries.

“I’m certainly optimistic the oil, gas and coal revenues will get back to a level we’ve seen in the past, but in Wyoming I’ve lived through three boom and bust cycles,” Hensley said. “It’s time to look outside the box. What better person than someone who has run a business and balanced budget and can get down to do the work to entice other businesses into the community?”

Many in Laramie will recognize her first name from the Roxie’s on Grand on the corner of Third Street and Grand Avenue. Along with her husband, Hensley owns a total of four Wyoming businesses, including another bar and restaurant in Glenrock, a ranching enterprise in the same area and an engineering firm. Additionally, Hensley wears hats as an attorney and a member of various community boards.

Hensley said Wyoming’s small businesses are the backbone of its economy and that their success could be the state’s economic salvation. Those experiences, Hensley said, have taught her about the unintended consequences of government policy, especially on small businesses. Hensley said she wants to avoid more drastic cuts coming as a result of a double whammy from the pandemic and a decline in extractive industries with a “middle of the road” approach. Still, she said increasing taxes would be a “last resort.”

“I’m running in the hope of finding ways to reduce these consequences without hurting the environment or Wyoming way of life — the surgical approach,” she said.

Some of the policy areas Pelkey focused on such as juvenile justice would be carried on by Hensley should she be elected, she said. Where she would be distinguished, Hensley said, is in the economic policy side of things.

“I want to look at how we can fix regulations so it’s not so hard for businesses to put money back in their places and they can hire more people and invest in other companies to bring to Albany County,” she said.

Ultimately, Hensley said she has the personal qualities that can bring long-needed change to state government.

“I have moxie, I have a lot of energy, I have a lot of people, I have courage and I’m not afraid to say what needs to be said,” Henlsey said. “When I am focused and want to do something, I’m going to do it.”

Editor's note: The Boomerang ran an article about Provenza's campaign on April 21. Click here to read it. 

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