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Passion for the Climb
Improbable Politician: A Wyoming Story
By Gary Trauner ’80
The crowd in Cheyenne, Wyo., was in a frenzy, shouting slogans, waving signs, and generally exhibiting the type of exuberance Alan Greenspan might call “irrational.” As I bounded up on stage, reflexively thrusting my clenched fists into the air, a brief thought flickered through my head — “How did I get here?”
It was March 8, 2008 — the day of the Wyoming Democratic Caucus (i.e., Presidential Primary Day). Clearly, the Obama/Clinton rivalry had stoked interest, even in the reddest of the red states. Bill, Hillary, and Barack actually all managed to find Wyoming on the map, stumping in person because for once, our measly 18 convention delegates might matter. Me? I was running for Wyoming’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, and my plan was to barnstorm to caucuses around the state in one daylong, 1,000-mile jaunt. Yet even I am taken aback by the size and fervor of the crowds — our organizers were scrambling to find space for thousands at gatherings that might attract 100 people in years past.
So how did I get to this point? Was it the nightly discussions (arguments?) around the dinner table about the news of the day with my parents and two brothers? Or maybe it was the late-night discussions (arguments?) with friends my freshman year in front of a roaring fire in 102 East Andrews? (Yes, back then the fireplaces actually worked — seems the administration hadn’t yet decided we were too irresponsible for our own safety.)
Whatever the roots, my passion to provide a better future for my two young boys and future generations had led me to this improbable spot. In 2006, as a businessman and neophyte politician who had never held elected office higher than school board chair, I decided to run for Congress. At roughly 100,000 square miles and 500,000 people, Wyoming is vast and relatively empty; it’s the least populated state in the country, with more domestic livestock than humans. Even more daunting, as a Democrat, I was facing a party registration disadvantage of more than 35 percent (did I mention “reddest of the red?”) and the historical fact that Wyoming had not sent a Democrat to Washington in 30 years.
No wonder the typical reaction to my announcement, from friends to locals to Wyoming party leaders in D.C., was, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” Nonetheless, against a six-term incumbent who had never truly been challenged, I came within 1,000 votes (roughly 0.4 percent) of perhaps the biggest upset in the country in the 2006 election. Let’s just say that I’ve learned all about recounts, electronic voting machines, and the politics of vote counting — and it’s not pretty. And again in 2008, while consistently running ahead in the polls, I fell short in a state that gave President Obama the lowest vote percentage of any state in the country.
Moral victories don’t cut it in politics. I ran to win — to help put in place policies that I believed might make a difference for current and future generations. By that definition, I failed.
Yet, clearly, my efforts were not a total loss. My reasons for running are encapsulated in one particularly poignant campaign story. The night before I was due to speak to a group of Wyoming businesspeople, I received a call at my hotel from my oldest son, 12 at the time. He was audibly shaken to the point of crying, telling me he had just seen a TV commercial in which my opponent was making stuff up about me. We had a long talk about my reasons for running, and I explained that I was trying to change exactly what had so disturbed him. The next day, my team told me to ignore my son and talk to the audience about the issues they wanted to hear about, such as immigration, minimum wage, etc. I stuck to the script until the end, when I just couldn’t contain myself any longer. I related the story of my son’s call to the audience, and told them, “It doesn’t have to be this way. The way you campaign is the way you are going to govern. Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, or whatever, I don’t care. And if we are to make this world a better place for my children and yours, we can no longer afford the politics of deception and destruction. The lesson I want to teach my children is not ‘win at all costs’; it’s that integrity matters.”
I am still approached by people —
many of whom did not vote for me — who tell me they were proud of the way I ran my race (apparently, however, party label is just too much to overcome).
Just before I sat down to write this column, I opened a letter from a young 9- or 10-year-old boy named Addison, whom I had met in Cody, Wyo., near the end of the last campaign. Three months after the election, Addison took the time to hand-write a note thanking me for running and reminding me of my words to him during the campaign — “Never give up and never stop trying.”
As my eyes moistened, I silently thanked Addison and promised him I would live up to those words and his dreams.
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