Saturday, May 16, 2015

Wyoming. A one-horse town?

In a democracy, everyone’s rights are better protected when multiple competing voices are raised in the making of public policy. But, with the closing of the Wyoming’s American Civil Liberties Union office, the state is another step closer to speaking with a single voice.

Wyoming started down that road as the strength of organized labor slowly diminished. When unions were stronger, they had enough influence to be that voice for the marginalized.

Then came single-member legislative districts. Legislators represented their counties at one time. County lines no longer matter. Instead, the majority party draws lines on a map assuring there is a Republican majority in nearly every district. It’s called gerrymandering and it has institutionalized Republican control.

Additionally Wyoming speaks with only one voice because most moderate Republicans are mute and the Democratic Party is nearly irrelevant. The last time a Democrat was elected to congress in Wyoming was 1976. Then 80% of eligible voters were registered. There was a mere 10,000-vote difference between the two parties, making Republicans more moderate and giving Democrats a chance to win. Today fewer than 55% bother to register and the gap between the two parties has grown to more than 110,000.

As labor, moderate Republicans, and Democrats have lost their ability to speak, people concerned about the rights of working people, minorities and women and issues like criminal justice reform turned to the ACLU. Wyoming’s ACLU provided effective advocacy for those whose rights were abused by government and business, which is why some were delighted to hear the news.

“I’m glad they’re gone,” said Frank Jorge, a libertarian podcaster from Basin. “I think it’s a plus for the state of Wyoming to not have them here.” Jorge, like many conservatives, disagreed with the ACLU’s work on behalf of those Jesus called “the least of these.”

The ACLU drew ire from the right by protecting the rights of undocumented workers, prisoners, and the LGBTQ community. Those conservatives support the Constitution unless someone attempts to apply its protections to the marginalized. The ACLU interfered with that approach.

Wyoming’s ACLU advisory board chair Ron Akin said, “There are very few places to turn to in Wyoming for help if you feel like your rights are violated. Without the ACLU in Wyoming, it’s basically open season on civil liberties and civil rights.”

The blame for the loss of the Wyoming ACLU does not fall on the far right. Blame falls on the shoulders of the national ACLU office. The office was closed, they said, because the national organization has an annual deficit of $15 million. Closing the Wyoming office contributes little to solving that problem while creating enormous problems for those the ACLU represents. Shuttering the Wyoming office reduces the ACLU’s budget gap by a whopping $360,000, less than 2.5%.  The ACLU has an annual budget of more than $100 million and can’t somehow find a way to fund the Wyoming office. For a pittance in savings, they’ve left Wyoming the only state in the Union without a chapter. Shame on them.

But the decision has been made. The ACLU’s doors are closed. Now what? Linda Burt, a Cheyenne lawyer who served ably as Wyoming’s ACLU director for many years, asked, ‘Who is going to do this work?” She answered her own question. “My answer in some cases is nobody, because we are one of the only organizations that do this.”

Steve Klein of the conservative Liberty Group acknowledged the depth of the loss of an organization with whom he is often at odds. Klein wrote, “A big loss to Wyoming. Whether ally or opponent, Wyoming ACLU staffers approach each issue with integrity and zeal. I believe even the best restructuring will take years to catch up to the current chapter.”

Despite other gleeful conservatives, a healthy democracy demands the rights of all people be protected. That simply won’t happen in a state whose leaders speak with a single-voiced ideology.

Burt’s question hangs in the wind. “Who is going to do this work?”

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