Audette Fulbright is a newcomer to Wyoming. She’s one of those bright, creative people most American communities welcome. She is the new minister at Cheyenne’s Unitarian Universalist Church. Reverend Audette is from South Carolina, graduated from seminary in California, and served a congregation in Virginia. Someone like Audette has choices about where to live. Last year she chose Cheyenne.
Last week she made a newcomer’s mistake. Audette had the audacity to actually write legislators voicing concerns about some of the legislation making its way through this session. In all honesty, there’d be something seriously wrong with anyone who didn’t have concerns about a lot of the legislation under consideration this year. But I digress.
One legislator Audette wrote was Hans Hunt, a Republican rancher from Newcastle. It’s always interesting when one politician actually says what others believe but are smart enough not to say (ala Todd Akin). Hans wasted no time telling the good Reverend what he thought about her and her opinion.
“I’ll be blunt,” he wrote, “if you don’t like the political atmosphere of Wyoming, then by all means, leave. We, who have been here a very long time are quite proud of our independent heritage.” He said it offended him “to no end when liberal out-of-staters such as yourself move into Wyoming, trying to get away from where they came from, and then pompously demand that Wyoming conform to their way of thinking.” The he told her not to let the gate hit her on the backside. “So, to conclude, if you’re so worried about what our legislature is working on, then go back home. Sincerely, Representative Hans Hunt-House District 02”
To be clear, Hans was only putting into an email what many of his colleagues and a lot of his constituents believe. It’s kind of like, “Fewer people choose to live in Wyoming than any of the other 49 states…and if you’re so damned smart, how come you moved here?”
Our legislators certainly capture the nation’s imagination. Whether it’s an email like Hans sent, a bill to criminalize the enforcement of federal law or another to legalize the eating of road-kill, neither the Wyoming Business Council nor the Tourism Office have budgets big enough to overcome the loud national guffaws.
During campaigns, legislative candidate wring their hands about how to diversify the state’s economy. They expound on bringing new businesses to Wyoming to create jobs and broaden the tax base. They fail to realize there aren’t enough photographs of Old Faithful erupting or Devil’s Tower rising to overcome the damage they do to the state’s image in those 40 days.
Richard Florida of George Mason University in Washington, D.C. Florida researches economic development strategies for states. His book The Flight of the Creative Class, argues persuasively the answers are what he calls “the 3 Ts” of economic development - technology, talent and tolerance. Florida says while all three are necessary, “the third one, tolerance, is essential.”
He argues “truly successful societies go out of their way to be open and inclusive.” There’s a strong relationship between economic vigor and openness to immigrants, artists, gays, and all levels of socio-economic status. It’s neither harmless nor humorous when Wyoming legislators advertise their intolerance.
From bills targeting Muslims under the guise of prohibiting the use of Sharia law in our courts to the bigotry exposed in debates over the rights of gays and lesbians, Wyoming legislators communicate to the world that we may be “open for business’ but only if you are “our kind” of guys.
Legislators should set aside their prejudices and take advantage of Wyoming’s natural beauty and history to draw diverse talent from around the world. Talented people and creative thinkers want to live and work in communities open to them and others. No matter how pretty the scenery, they won’t come and have avoided a state that adamantly bucks the national tide which daily moves inexorably toward tolerance.
Wyoming has too many Hans and too few Audettes for its own good.