Eric Nelson and Pam Brown stood out at a Natrona County legislative forum Monday night for a very simple reason: they were the only candidates out of eight in the room whose opponent actually showed up for the event.
Nelson and Brown will square off in the Aug. 19 Democratic primary in House District 36 to see who will face the incumbent Republican, Rep. Gerald Gay. In a statement read by the League of Women Voters, who sponsored the event at the Natrona County Public Library, Gay said he was in Thermopolis attending a Joint Travel, Recreation and Wildlife Committee meeting.
So Brown and Nelson, seated at opposite ends of a long table, had the opportunity to distinguish themselves for their respective opinions while the other was in the room. It was a civil competition, unlike several of the other candidates, who spent considerable time either criticizing their absent opponents’ voting records or defending themselves from attacks by their unseen party rivals.
Both candidates maintained they would bring common sense to Cheyenne, and they basically agreed on several issues they favor: Medicaid expansion, marriage equality, considering medical marijuana and using the state’s General Fund to help the Game & Fish Department.
However, the Democrats in the HD 36 contest also managed to convey different priorities.
Nelson, an attorney, stressed the need to look at state government’s $1.8 billion Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account, better known as the “rainy day fund,” to finance one-time projects and fix the state’s crumbling roads and bridges.
“Saving is great,” he said, “but we need to look at smart ways to invest in our people and our infrastructure today.”
Brown, who is self-employed, focused mostly on education, and described herself as a representative of the “working class” in her district. She peppered many of her answers with anti-federal government remarks that were also part of nearly every Republican candidate’s reply.
In blasting the controversial Common Core curriculum that’s been approved by the Legislature, Brown said, “It’s not helping our kids. It’s making them stupid.”
She later added, “I don’t believe Washington, D.C., should tell us how to educate our kids in Wyoming.”
Nelson, 42, didn’t directly discuss Common Core, instead focusing on standards in general. He pointed out Wyoming has had school standards since 1979, and that students here need to be able to compete for jobs with others throughout the nation and the rest of the world.
But he also noted that the Legislature should be doing things like funding school construction and not trying to “micromanage education.”
Referring to the Legislature’s last-minute decision in March to ban the state Board of Education from considering the Next Generation Science Standards, he vowed, “I’m not going to dictate standards for students in a footnote to the budget.”
Asked if state government has grown too big, the 51-year-old Brown said, “We have too many committees to check things out.”
Nelson agreed with another Democratic candidate who spoke just before him, Laura Longtine of HD 59, who said people often confuse spending with the size of government. Nelson said as the state’s population increases, it will naturally have to pay more to provide essential services.
Many Republicans said they want to see the state take over the federal lands in Wyoming, but Nelson said there is no mandate to do so, and noted “Sagebrush Rebellions” have come and gone in the West since the 1980s. Brown said she needs to study the issue further before making up her mind.
Brown strongly defended the state’s minerals industry and accused the feds of overregulation. Asked if oil and gas companies should be made to disclose more of the chemicals they use in the controversial fracking process, she said, “They already have too much regulation. They don’t need any more problems.”
Nelson said simply that the mechanics for disclosure of chemicals used by companies is in place, and “it doesn’t need to be tweaked.”
In their final summations, the HD 36 opponents talked about how they would work as lawmakers if they win the primary and then the general election.
“I want to represent the people of Wyoming and do what they want me to do,” Brown said.
“I would listen to all of the arguments, and make decisions based on facts, not ideology,” Nelson concluded.