THE BUZZ: Endorsement Furor

By on November 8, 2016

Jackson assumes ‘big city’ political sensibilities, but not without clamor.

Confusion ensued recently when a fire department manager endorsed a county candidate. (Photo: Town of Jackson)

Confusion ensued recently when a fire union president endorsed a county candidate. (Photo: Town of Jackson)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Political endorsements can be a powerful show of support for candidates. A stamp of approval from the right celebrity, fellow or former politico, or other high profile citizen or organization can go a long way toward swaying voters by providing a perceived common cause. It’s a proven winning campaign strategy; a transitive property of allegiance at work in exponential form.

This election season local candidates were busy seeking endorsements like never before. Just about every high office hopeful solicited, received, or gave endorsements. For some, it stirred controversy, raising questions about potential hushed alliances.

Greg Epstein sought a seal of approval from the valley’s courageous firefighters when he reached out to Jackson Hole Professional Firefighters Local 5067. An endorsement from president of Local 5067 John Tobey caused confusion last week. Tobey represents the union attempting to form in Teton County—a group of full-time professionals that is not currently affiliated with the majority of volunteer firefighters and paramedics with the Jackson Hole Fire/EMS department, whose chief is Willy Watsabaugh.

The county responded with a press release stating Epstein’s endorsement was misleading and that the Democratic county commissioner candidate had struck an agreement with someone who did not have the authority to represent the entire department. In fact, according to the county, Tobey could only speak for about 14 percent of the overall members of Fire/EMS, an organization made up of some 70 volunteers in addition to the paid pool who support operations.

“We just wanted to just make sure there was no misunderstanding,” said county administrator Alyssa Watkins, who issued the county presser. “County policy prohibits on-duty endorsement of political candidates.”

Watkins said county officials had received phone calls, emails, and observed social media posts that indicated some people in the community were confused. Tobey, however, felt the press release was unnecessary and, in itself, politically motivated.

“I wonder if they have any of that [correspondence] on record, because I’ve talked to zero people who were confused by the story,” Tobey said, referring to the news story claiming Epstein had the backing of the fire department. “Is there another candidate, perhaps, who is more closely aligned with the values of the current county administration?”

Tobey was likely referring to Trey Davis-R, whose wife, Audrey Cohen-Davis, is the town attorney. Cohen-Davis shared a Facebook post of her husband’s with the statement: “PLEASE read about the candidates and vote for the individual that will represent this community wisely. It’s not about the hype and tricking voters; it’s about electing a person that is not a game player and who will make good decisions for us and not themselves!!!”

The post was later removed. Davis said he was not behind the county press release and the whole situation caught him by surprise.

“Not at all,” Davis replied when asked if he was involved with the county kerfuffle. “I’ve known for probably a month and a half now [about Epstein’s endorsement from Tobey]. I talked with Willy [Watsabaugh] and Kathy [Clay, fire marshal]. I knew they were not fans of Greg Epstein. That’s the only people I cared about is them. A lot of my friends are firefighters. I know they don’t endorse Greg or anyone else. It was kind of misleading. I was pretty surprised about it all.”

Epstein said his intent was not to mislead anyone.

“A long-time friend suggested I learn more about the firefighters. If I am elected, I plan to continue learning about all the various entities serving Teton County so I can help represent them properly,” Epstein said. “I’ve been doing my homework, and meeting with many staff members and organizations throughout the valley to prepare myself for the position of county commissioner if elected. I’m 100 percent grateful to have the support of a valuable community organization which is committed to serving the public and the mission of Jackson Hole Fire/EMS.”

Tobey, as well, was appreciative of Epstein’s initiative. “Greg was the only candidate that approached us. He had a lot of really good questions. I in no way represented myself as anything but the representative of Local 5067. I answer to the chief, he’s my boss.”

Still, Davis, for one, thought it odd for a county commissioner candidate to seek an endorsement from a private organization that is currently suing the county.

“There is some infighting between people who formed the union and volunteers, and there’s a helluva a lot more people who are volunteer firefighters than the eight people who endorsed him,” Davis acknowledged. “When you get an endorsement from a group that is suing the county who you want to work for … that kind of blew me away. I think that might come back to bite him in the ass.”

Local 5067 was initially recognized by the county, but on the advice of county attorney Keith Gingery, county leaders pulled that and chose to “unrecognize” the union. Gingery based his reasoning on an informal opinion issued by the state attorney general weighing in on a similar case in Campbell County. Litigation is proceeding and a February court date is set for February when a District Court judge, John Fenn, will hear both cases in conjunction in Sheridan.

All aboard the endorsement train

Other candidates have found the endorsement route a useful one. County commissioner hopeful Nikki Gill-R garnered favor with state senator Leland Christensen, former Republican party leader TR Pierce, fly fisher Jack Dennis and valley rancher Bob Lucas.

Natalia Macker-D reaped endorsements from former county commissioners Hank Phibbs and Leslie Petersen, outgoing State House rep Ruth Ann Petroff, state rep Andy Schwartz, and a newly formed PAC representing women under 40 called WUFPAC. Sheriff Jim Whalen also pledged his support on Facebook.

Davis bagged the backing of Christensen and Petroff, along with current county commissioner Paul Vogelheim, former Jackson mayor Mark Barron, former commissioner Paul Perry and primary opponent Lisa daCosta. Davis said he was most proud of a pledge of support he received from local barber Mike Randall, who is a Democratic precinct leader.

Meanwhile, in the mayoral race, Sara Flitner sought favor with businesswoman Clarene Law, architect Bruce Hawtin, and Petroff. Challenger Pete Muldoon has the public support certified financial planner Richard Bloom, Roger Hayden of Wyoming Wildlife Advocates and valley fixture Carla Watsabaugh.

Unsolicited, former county commissioner Sandy Shuptrine-D, who was defeated in the primary, declared her favs headed into the general election.

“Having attended almost all of the candidate forums, as well as having more than 40 years of local and state public service, I urge you to vote for Natalia Macker and native Greg Epstein for Teton County commissioner,” Shuptrine wrote in a Planet letter to the editor. “Davis’ advertised platform includes less meetings, which I can promise him will not happen … Gill holds promise but lacks experience outside of her position in her family’s management of large land holdings in South Park, a situation that easily could cause her conflict of interest…”

A few candidates even gave their own endorsements. Jessica Sell Chambers, who ran for town council, boldly announced she would be voting for Jim Stanford in addition to herself. “Stanford is a man of integrity and drive and is committed to the people of Jackson,” she wrote. She added, “Pete Muldoon has a heart of gold and a sharp intellect.”

Both Stanford and Chambers also shared their national leanings. Stanford blasted the Republican ticket, writing: “At best Donald Trump is a disgusting embarrassment. At worst he’s an unhinged lunatic with zero qualifications to be president.”

Chambers also shared her voting intentions in the presidential race. “Hillary Clinton is the obvious choice for me, especially when the alternative is someone who sounds and looks a lot like fascist leaders from the 1930s and 40s who questions climate science, and who continues to treat women and workers improperly.” PJH

A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to John Tobey as a fire manager. He is a firefighter/paramedic employee of the joint town-county Fire/EMS and president of Local 5067. The Planet regrets the error. —eds.

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