As the leader of one of America’s reddest states, Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon ’75 navigates his responsibilities with consideration for residents and what is best in changing times
Johnson County, in north-central Wyoming, was once the sort of place where a cattle rustler or desperado like Butch Cassidy could ride off into the hills and rest easy that no lawman or gun-for-hire would ever pester him.
The county, one of the least populated parts of the nation’s least populated state, remains an area few outsiders have ever seen, save perhaps from an airplane at 35,000 feet. As the state’s governor, Mark Gordon ’75, tells it, Wyoming has three distinct regions: Cheyenne-Laramie in the southeast, Jackson in the northwest, and then the rest of Wyoming. Johnson County, Gordon’s home area, lies out there in “the rest of Wyoming.” Gordon was thus a bit of an anomaly when applying, at age 13, to New England boarding schools.
“Cowboy,” as he came to be known on the Millville lacrosse field, was such a refreshing rustic that, he recalled, when asked in his admissions interview why he wished to attend St. Paul’s, he replied, “I don’t.”
As Wyoming’s governor since 2019, Gordon has a studied chuckle about the contrasting Northeast and Mountain West elements of his background. His parents grew up in Massachusetts and Maine, respectively, and began their married life in Boston before moving to Wyoming. That is where Gordon was raised, on a ranch west of the town of Kaycee (population 284). But the fact he was born in New York City “constantly comes up” when politicking in a state where traditionally you are either “local” or you are “from away.”
People “constantly say, ‘You’re an Easterner,’” he sighs. In response, Gordon emphasizes his rancher bona fides and offers a clever rejoinder. “I have no idea why my mother was in New York at that time, but evidently she thought it was important for me to be with her.”
More seriously, Gordon says the insider-outsider debate has become a bit tiresome. “There are enough new people coming into Wyoming now that it’s a little hard to say, ‘By God, I’m a native and you’re not.’”
The irony is that virtually all of the big issues currently on Gordon’s desk – the state’s energy future, development pressure, tourism, the National Parks and conservation, forest management and firefighting, Native American lands, investment of the state’s massive sovereign fund (bulging with tax dollars from mineral extraction) – have a clear national and even international dimension. Plus, the state gets a large percentage of its revenue from federal dollars, well outpacing the national average. (A headline from the Gillette, Wyo., News Record tweaked its readers about the contradiction: “Wyoming: Where Independent People Rely on Federal Funds.”)
An appreciation of the state’s place in an interconnected world is central to the governor’s job. Even mundane corners of the state bureaucracy, such as the Department of Corrections, have developed a broad reach. In recent years, Wyoming prisoners have had to be relocated to other parts of the country, as far away as Mississippi, due to overcrowding and staff shortages.
However globalized the demands of his office may be, Gordon, with his eye on re-election next year, has to deal with an opposing political reality closer to home. As one of the reddest states in the nation, Wyoming boasts a tradition of self-reliance. This is particularly true among the group of activists who fund and control the state GOP. Potentially the most contested part of any statewide election campaign is the Republican nomination. The eventual nominee invariably trounces paltry Democratic opposition in the general election. This tilts the entire process in a conservative direction. Thus, Gordon’s 2018 campaign website touted his fight “to keep Washington out of Wyoming,” and stressed the rugged individualism in his background: “Growing up on a ranch in Kaycee, when his family or neighbors had a problem, they didn’t look to government to solve it. They rolled up their sleeves, banded together, and got the job done. As governor, Mark will fight to get government out of the way.”
In a crisis, Gordon concedes, this view, when taken too far, can harden into a go-it-alone stubbornness that risks hampering sound policy. Public officials are in a bind in situations demanding government action in a setting where people are resistant. Complicating everything, the current polarized political climate rewards simplistic absolutes, making rational, nuanced decision-making all the more difficult.
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented an especially painful case in point. For governments worldwide, the emergency prompted urgent demands for robust intervention. As the calamity deepened in the early spring of 2020, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, called on all states to issue stay-at-home orders. Yet, in Wyoming, with a large percentage of white, rural, and Evangelical voters reflexively suspicious of big government, many people fiercely rejected any imposed strategies, such as mask mandates and social distancing protocols. There has been a “tremendous amount of pushback” for each step the state has taken to address spikes in COVID cases, Gordon says.
We have really tried to adhere to the science all along, and that hasn’t always put us in the easiest light,” he adds. “It’s been a challenge.
Gordon’s response to the crisis has fallen somewhere between the imperatives of public health and political feasibility. His policy has evolved as the case numbers have fluctuated, and he has moved with deliberation at moments of political peril. When asked how he navigates, Gordon says with a laugh, “Very carefully.”
His most notable action was last summer’s cancelation of the famed Cheyenne Frontier Days tourism and heritage extravaganza, “because the crowd sizes [would be] so enormous.” The state’s five other large signature rodeos were also scrapped. The closures came after weeks of the governor’s well-publicized consultations with rodeo officials, economic development executives, local political leaders, law enforcement, the medical community, and others. The impression of collective decision-making, culminating in an announcement featuring Gordon amid a phalanx of red-shirted rodeo officials, permitted him to strike a posture of reluctant acceptance. He expressed “disappointment” with the cancelation and hastened to emphasize that it was the committee overseeing the event, and not the state, that had ordered the shutdown.
Overall, a less-restrictive approach, more in line with GOP orthodoxy, has proven both good policy and good politics, Gordon says, considering Wyoming as a whole is sparsely populated. He has stressed “Wyoming values,” which means “taking care of yourself and practicing the common sense we expect.” Government stay-at-home orders and other stringent measures more suited to densely packed regions have not always been necessary. Instead, “We have really emphasized, as did most Republican governors, personal responsibility,” he says. “Being a Republican, again, it’s a lot about government closest to the people. So we have really relied on counties.”
Accordingly, county health officers in the more developed parts of the state, like Teton County, home of Jackson Hole, have been comparatively strict in their policies, he says. By the late fall of 2020, however, the spiking rates of COVID cases and deaths did force Gordon to impose restrictions on public gatherings, and he later issued a statewide mask mandate. He rescinded that order in March, again making Wyoming one of the few states without a mandate. (In November of last year, both Gordon and his wife, Jennie, tested positive for the coronavirus. Both had only mild symptoms and recovered fully.)
Wyoming’s official nickname is the Equality State. It was the first state to grant women the right to vote in 1869. (More accurately, women got the right to vote because the state needed women citizens to meet the population thresh- old for statehood.) The governor’s parents, Crawford and Catherine Gordon – known as Crow and Kay – moved there in 1947 and settled on what became the Gordon Ranch. Crow had developed a passion for rodeo and the cowboy life since the 1930s, when, on summer vacations from prep school and Harvard, he worked as a ranch hand in Dubois, Wyo., near Yellowstone.
Crow’s love of the outdoors and a deep interest in the lore and history of Wyoming got passed on to his son. And they had something else in common – they were both persistent joiners. Since the moment he returned full-time to Wyoming after earning a history degree from Middlebury College in 1979, Mark Gordon has been, as was his father, constantly active in professional, social, and community circles, first in Johnson County, and then, eventually, statewide.
While cattle ranching and working in the oil and gas industry, Gordon waited until 2008, when he was 51, to make his first run for elected office. That year, he lost in the Republican primary for Wyoming’s at-large U.S. House seat. In a sense, his political career had long been assembling incrementally for decades, one school board meeting, one Elks Club dinner, one Stock Growers Association event at a time. His four years on the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City prepared him to be appointed state treasurer in 2012, to fill the remainder of the term when the incumbent died in office. He was elected to a full four-year term as treasurer in 2014, and then he ran successfully for governor in 2018.
The Governor and I spoke via Zoom in early March. We had been a year apart at St. Paul’s, and had known each other slightly. He and I chatted briefly about mutual friends, laughed at the recollection of stilted coat-and-tie dinners at Mr. Ligon’s table in the Upper, and shared the sad news of Clifford Gillespie’s death. We had both played for Coach Gillespie and carry unforgettable memories. Gordon stays in touch with the School sporadically, he says, mainly through a handful of good friends from his form, a couple of whom even came out to Wyoming in summers during college to work alongside him on his family’s ranch. He noted with some amusement that he had recently leveraged his St. Paul’s ties to get a phone audience with John Kerry ’62, President Biden’s climate envoy.
In fact, our discussion focused extensively on clean energy. Coal is a major industry in Wyoming, but in recent years that sector has been devastated as America makes the transition to renewable energy sources. The morning of our conversation, the New York Times carried a long article on Wyoming titled, “A Coal Capital Slowly Warms Up to Windmills.” As the piece pointed out, and as our interview made clear, Wyoming is undergoing a painful change as one legacy industry is dying out and another is struggling to replace it. Mining jobs are vanishing, several coal companies are in bankruptcy, and communities that have long depended on those companies are suffering.
“We don’t stick our heads in the sand on that reality,” the Governor says. On the other hand, clean energy alone does not solve the climate crisis, and the sprouting windmills leave an unsightly “footprint on open spaces,” Gordon notes.
As with the pandemic, the dynamics of the energy transition leave Gordon in a familiar place, somewhere in the middle, trying to manage a workable balance.
“We love all of our energy,” he says, ticking off a long list of Wyoming’s abundant resources. “We care about all of it.”