- Associated Press - Saturday, May 17, 2014

ROCK SPRINGS, Wyo. (AP) - Wyoming Democrats now have their champion: Pete Gosar announced Saturday that he’s stepping down as state party chairman and will run for governor.

Gosar, 46, made his announcement Saturday at the Democratic Party convention in Rock Springs. His move fills a major void in the roster of a state political party that has seen increasing difficulty drawing viable candidates in statewide races.

Gosar, who grew up in Pinedale the son of an oilfield worker, said in his campaign announcement that he’s old enough now to look back on his life and see the people who have helped make his life easier. Those who paved the way for him were those who made pragmatism something to be honored in Wyoming and who had common decency and fairness, he said.

“I have appreciated your support for many years, and I look forward to being your next governor,” Gosar told a crowd of scores of delegates at a hotel ballroom.

Gosar ran for governor in 2010. He lost in the Democratic primary to Leslie Petersen, who likewise had resigned from her post as chairwoman of the state party to run. Peterson went on to lose in the general election roughly three-to-one to Gov. Matt Mead, who’s now seeking re-election.

Speaking after his campaign announcement, Gosar said he intends to focus on educational issues in his campaign. “It’s been disarray, and the governor’s played a role,” he said of the state education department.

Gosar said he believes he has time to mount an effective campaign in the governor’s race. He’s motivated by people he’s met recently who were denied health insurance under the federal Medicaid program because the Wyoming Legislature opted again this year not to accept the federal government’s offer to expand the program, he said.

Expanding Medicaid is a cornerstone principle of the federal Affordable Care Act. Early in his term, Mead steered Wyoming into an unsuccessful legal challenge of the entire law. Mead has opposed Medicaid expansion since then, saying he doesn’t trust federal promises to continue to pick up the bulk of the cost of adding more people to the insurance program.

“When there’s no good reason for bad public policy, someone has to answer for that,” Gosar said. “The governor deserves some blame for that. There’s no doubt that if the governor would have come out in favor of some sort of Medicaid expansion that it would have passed.”

Gosar received his pilot training at a community college in New Mexico. He also was a high school teacher and coach in Pinedale. He played football as a walk-on at the University of Wyoming from 1986-1990. He was a two-time academic all-Western Athletic Conference honoree.

Gosar works for the state as a pilot and runs an aviation business with his brother. It’s unclear whether he will take a leave from his state job during the campaign, he said.

Wyoming Democrats haven’t held a statewide office since former Gov. Dave Freudenthal ended his second term nearly four years ago.

Even with Gosar’s announcement, Wyoming Democrats still have a major void in their lineup of candidates with less than two weeks to go for candidates to file.

Robin Van Ausdall, executive director of the Wyoming Democratic Party, said Saturday that she’s heard of no Democratic candidates coming forward to challenge Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyoming. Lummis last month announced she’s seeking re-election to a fourth term to the state’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

With registered Republicans outnumbering Democrats roughly three-to-one, Van Ausdall said mounting a competitive, statewide congressional campaign would be a daunting challenge.

“We’re running against incumbents who have millions in the bank,’ Van Ausdall said. “They have a lot of support from national, out-of-state interests. It’s a lot.”

But all those daunting disadvantages aren’t stopping Charlie Hardy, a former priest, running as a Democrat against incumbent Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.

“I have 75 years of accumulated youth, and I’m not going to stop being a person for the people,” Hardy said. “I’m thinking about challenging Sen. Enzi to a 10-kilometer race.”

Hardy said Wyoming Democrats won’t have the well-funded campaign chest that Republicans have. But he added: “We have heart in our human chests. That’s more important, and that’s the way we’re going to win.”

The Wyoming Republican Party has suffered deep divisions over a bill the Legislature passed and that Mead signed last year. The law stripped the superintendent’s office of most of its powers and vested them instead in a director appointed by the governor. The state Supreme Court early this year ruled the law was unconstitutional.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill is challenging Mead for the Republican nomination in the governor’s race this year along with retired Cheyenne physician Taylor Haynes.

Many state lawmakers, including its Republican leadership, said they wanted to reorganize the state’s educational system because they were dissatisfied with Hill’s response to legislative directives. The state spends heavily on K-12 education, but many lawmakers have said they don’t believe test scores and other measures of student achievement reflected that investment.

Republican delegates came close at their state convention in early May in Evanston to approving a censure motion against Mead that accused him of acting unconstitutionally in approving last year’s education reform bill.

Van Ausdall said she believes that the Democratic Party can capitalize on divisions within the Republican ranks this year.

Mike Ceballos, 58, of Cheyenne, a former executive with Qwest Communications, is running as a Democrat for state superintendent of public instruction.

“Within the last three years, I have been mad, frustrated,” Ceballos said. “And the biggest thing is that this has just been unnecessary. We can’t afford to let that go on for the next four years, so in January we need to make a change.”

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