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Aug. 5—CHEYENNE — Despite three Democratic primary contenders taking the stage in Riverton to debate Thursday night, it appeared there were only two upholding the party platform.
Lynnette Grey Bull, Steve Helling and Meghan Jensen are vying to become the first Democratic congressional representative from Wyoming in nearly four decades, since former U.S. Rep. Dick Cheney beat Teno Roncalio in 1978. Dick Cheney's daughter, Liz, has held Wyoming's lone seat in the U.S. House for the past three two-year terms, and faces four Republican challengers in her party's primary.
The winner of the Republican primary Aug. 16 will face one of the three candidates who made their arguments at Central Wyoming College to become the sixth Democrat ever elected to the U.S. House from the Equality State.
Candidates who run as a Democrat in Wyoming often adhere to the state party platform on a significant number of issues, such as supporting the reproductive rights of women, economic diversification and state-level tax reforms to grow state revenues, and addressing climate change by investing in clean energy.
Grey Bull and Jensen showcased their dedication to these ideals throughout the debate, and made additional calls for action to oppose white nationalism and investigate the Jan. 6, 2021 riot at the nation's Capitol.
Helling did not.
Instead, he argued many points made by the Wyoming Republican Party. He criticized Cheney and her role in the Jan. 6 congressional committee, claimed the election was stolen, took a pro-life stance and said the state needs to continue to invest in the mineral industry.
"I was not happy with the direction of this country. But more than being not happy, I was mad. I was mad about the Jan. 6 committee, which just goes on and on and on, and has the sole purpose of trying to destroy one man, President Donald Trump," he said when addressing why he decided to run. "Who got us energy independence, border controls, low inflation, moved the Israeli embassy to Jerusalem and did what he said he would do."
Economic diversification and housing
Helling strayed from his Democratic opponents on nearly every issue, including challenges the state faces regarding the economy. He said he believes moving away from fossil fuel suddenly is a mistake, and it may not address climate change.
Grey Bull and Jensen both argued the state needed to take steps to move away from oil and gas, and work to diversify the number of industries rooted in Wyoming. They also emphasized the opportunity for renewable energy in the state, but said there needs to be support for employees who will need jobs in the market afterward.
"Wyoming is in the perfect position to continue that leadership with renewable energies. If you look at the statistics, in the last three years, it's been declining rapidly," said Grey Bull. "I have family who works in the oil field, I have family who works in the coal industry. I've talked to families up in Gillette who lost their houses, lost their mortgages, lost their way of life."
Housing was another issue in itself, and the two women on the primary ballot said a solution had to be found. Jensen said the affordable housing crisis presents dangerous situations, considering the harsh weather in Wyoming, and, if elected, she would bring many different parties to the table to start working immediately. Grey Bull discussed how it negatively impacted the Northern Arapaho Tribe, and how she helped implement the Emergency Rental Assistance Program statewide. She wants continued collaboration to find residents housing.
Helling said he believes that affordable housing issues prevail across the nation, and said there was no easy answer. However, he said it is a complicated issue because many homeless individuals suffer from drug addiction or mental illness, and he doesn't want to incentivize not working by paying more in unemployment.
"We certainly have a homeless population problem, and that exists in every big city that I know of," he said. "Some people just don't want to work. They don't want a home. Some people are happy living on the street."
Jensen pushed back on his response, and said there are often situations where families don't have the resources, such as child care, a place to live or food to eat. That makes it difficult to hold down a job.
"I believe that people do essentially want to work. They want what's best for themselves and for their families," she said. "Sometimes there aren't any social programs out there available, and, if there are, they're months behind."
Abortion and white nationalism
Following the overturning of Roe v. Wade and leaving abortion to the states, candidates were asked if they would support legislation protecting abortion under federal law. Grey Bull and Jensen both said they support Congress passing such a bill, which is a solid position of the Wyoming Democratic Party.
Both women spoke to not only the medical risks women would be left with if they did not have access to abortion and the importance of choice if an individual was impregnated due to sexual assault or incest. Grey Bull said, as an Indigenous woman, especially, it is a sensitive topic, and no person should be told what to do with their body.
Although Helling said he greatly respects women, and "admired women with spunk" — he would not vote to codify the right to an abortion.
"I hate abortion. I have been pro-life always, and I will continue to be pro-life," he said. "Killing unborn children is not the answer to anything."
He also said he does not believe in systemic discrimination or critical race theory, directly following Grey Bull's description of Indigenous women being sterilized unknowingly in hospitals and her argument for representation in politics the entire debate. When asked if white nationalism was a threat to democracy, Helling said it is is a few radical crazies that need to be shut down.
It came in contradiction to Jensen, who said the nation needed to focus on domestic terrorism and the dangers of white nationalism because it tears communities apart.
"We see how white supremacy is impeding upon our politics, impeding upon our leadership," Grey Bull added. "We see an increase of gun violence from people who are white supremacists. We see targeting of people of color. It is absolutely an issue, and it's an issue that we can solve."
Jasmine Hall is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle's state government reporter. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 307-633-3167. Follow her on Twitter @jasminerhphotos and on Instagram @jhrose25.