A time-honored tradition in the Wyoming Legislature involves lawmakers taking a break from legislating to sing “Happy Birthday” to any colleague whose special day occurs during the session.

One such Senate celebration won’t soon be forgotten. In 2015, Sen. Bernadine Craft, a Rock Springs Democrat, was presented with a bouquet of roses while a chorus of 29 men stood and serenaded her. Yes, the Equality State Senate had just a single female member.

Women comprise 49% of Wyoming’s population, but now hold only 15.6% of its legislative seats. It ranks 48th out of 50 states, topping only West Virginia and Tennessee, for female representation in state legislatures. Nationally, 29% of state legislative seats are held by women.

Anyone observing the proceedings from the galleries of the two chambers can readily see the gender gap. There are only eight female representatives in the 60-member House. The Senate now has six female members, a distinct gain compared to when Craft was in office, but still only 20% of the total seats.

Next Tuesday, though, Wyoming has a chance to elect more women to the House and Senate.

Personally, I’m tired of seeing a Legislature where old bald guys like myself are way overrepresented. Having too many of us around is sidelining female voices that should be heard. The Good Ol’ Boys Club needs to have its ranks trimmed, and there’s no time like the present to begin.

I’m particularly sick of hearing conservative male lawmakers lecture the women of Wyoming about what limits the state should impose on their reproductive lives. It’s outrageous and shouldn’t be tolerated by voters, especially since the men doing the preaching are generally a sanctimonious lot who otherwise rail about keeping government out of private lives. No matter the issue, however, the legislative debate would be enriched by having more women involved in the conversation.

I think the long-standing effort by House Minority Leader Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, to get the state to enact laws closing its huge gender wage gap would finally gain traction if more women lawmakers discussed how it has affected them and the lives of their mothers, daughters and constituents. At the very least, out-of-touch male lawmakers wouldn’t be able to keep claiming that the problem simply doesn’t exist in Wyoming.

A few years ago, the Legislature eliminated funding for a program that paid for nurses’ visits to provide essential prenatal care for low-income women. Several women who viewed it as a necessary budget reduction voted with the majority, but perhaps that vote would have been harder for some men to cast if more women were on the floor talking up the program’s tremendous health benefits for mothers and their babies.

Education is obviously an issue of concern for both male and female lawmakers. But the Legislature would benefit from the input of more women who are raising children, since they are on the front lines of what’s happening in our schools. Many have sacrificed their careers during the coronavirus pandemic to stay home and help provide distance learning for their kids. These women are the ones I especially want to hear from when decisions are made about education funding, teacher accountability, school safety and a host of other issues.

How likely is it that the Legislature will have several more women serving next year? I’d say the chances are good, especially in the House, where five of the female incumbents — four Republicans and Connolly — are running unopposed.

Women will lose a seat with the retirement of Rep. JoAnn Dayton-Selman, D-Rock Springs. Her House District 17 seat will be filled by fellow Democrat Chad Banks, who is unopposed.

But four other seats are guaranteed to flip from male to female.

GOP newcomer Pepper Ottman doesn’t face a challenger in House District 34, which had been held by Rep. Tim Salazar, R-Riverton, who is now a Senate candidate.

In HD 44, Rep. Charles Pelkey, D-Laramie, is retiring, leaving his position to be filled by either Democrat Karlee Provenza or Republican Roxie Halsey.

The HD 55 seat now held by Rep. David Miller, R-Riverton, who didn’t seek reelection, will go to either Republican Ember Oakley or Libertarian Bethany Baldes.

Rep. David Northrup, R-Powell, is also retiring, and the HD 50 contest is between Republican Rachel Rodriguez-Williams and Independent Cindy Johnson Bennett.

That means eight women will definitely be in the House when it convenes in January. But there are many more House races with female candidates.

Two freshman female Democratic House incumbents have opponents: Rep. Sara Burlingame, of Cheyenne, and Rep. Andi Clifford, of Riverton. Burlingame faces Republican John Romero-Martinez, while Clifford squares off against the GOP’s Valaira Whiteman and Independent Clinton Wagon.

Meanwhile, seven incumbent GOP representatives will go head-to-head against female opponents: Bob Nicholas, of Cheyenne (Democrat Marcie Kindred), Jared Olsen, of Cheyenne (Democrat Amy Spieker), Donald Burkhart, of Rawlins (Democrat Jacquelin Wells), Tim Hallinan, of Gillette (Democrat Lynne Huskinson), Bill Henderson, of Cheyenne (Democrat Rebecca Fields), Jerry Paxton, of Encampment (Libertarian Lela Konecny) and Chuck Gray, of Casper (Democrat Jane Ifland).

HD 60 represents the final chance for women to pick up a House seat, with Democrat Lindsey Travis, of Green River, facing former Republican House member Mark Baker, of Rock Springs. The position is now held by Rep. John Freeman, D-Green River.

There are fewer opportunities for female candidates in the Senate. Five incumbent women aren’t up for reelection, and the sixth, Sen. Liisa Anselmi-Dalton, D-Rock Springs, has a GOP opponent, John Kolb. Anselmi-Dalton succeeded veteran female lawmaker Craft, who retired in 2016 after a decade in the Legislature.

Two male incumbents have female opponents. Democrat Britney Wallesch hopes to oust freshman Sen. Anthony Bouchard, of Cheyenne, while Libertarian Wendy DeGroot faces the most uphill challenge of all. She’s attempting to upset Wyoming’s longest-serving legislator, Sen. Charles Scott, of Casper, who was first elected to the House in 1978.

Her slogan: “Aren’t you all tired of the same old political BS? I know I am.”

Two other Senate seats are in play for women: SD 10 in Laramie, where Democrat Jackie Grimes squares off against current GOP House member Daniel Furphy, and SD 20, pitting Democrat Theresa Livingston, of Worland, against Republican Ed Cooper, of Ten Sleep.

My prediction is women will win 13 House seats, a net gain of five, while adding one to the six seats now held by women in the Senate. Twenty seats would represent 22% of the 90-member Legislature.

That would be significant progress, made possible by women candidates willing to go the extra mile to represent their communities. I applaud each for her public service. When there is a female majority in the Wyoming Legislature one day, the women of 2020 will have helped pave the way.

Kerry Drake pens “The Drake’s Take” column for WyoFile.com, an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy. The views expressed here are solely his own.

Kerry Drake pens “The Drake’s Take” column for WyoFile.com, an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy. The views expressed here are solely his own.

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