Senate contest gets hot
Frisbie, Christensen clash over health care, wolves and experience.
By Cara Rank, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
October 13, 2010
While candidates for Teton County’s main seat in the Wyoming Senate agree that improving the economy and creating jobs are priorities, they disagree on other issues from health care to same-sex marriage to wolves.
Democrat Tom Frisbie would oppose suing the federal government over health care reform, but Republican Leland Christensen would likely vote to join a challenge.
“I am for the state participating with the federal plan,” Frisbie, 62, said. “I am against this state joining the other 20 states in the lawsuit.”
Christensen, 51, said he’s hesitant to support the reform.
“We don’t know what the full impacts are,” he said.
Voters will choose between Frisbie, a Wilson resident, and Christensen, who lives in Alta, during the Nov. 2 general election. One of the men will fill the seat in Senate District 17 that retiring Sen. Grant Larson has held for 16 years. The district covers most of Teton County and part of Fremont County.
Frisbie and Christensen don’t agree on much, health care being their first point of contention. While they both believe health care needs to be accessible and affordable to everyone, they differ on how that end should be achieved.
Frisbie, who spent years in the insurance industry, said he believes the state should participate in the federal reform. Health care is the main reason he entered the race.
“The state has taken this ‘No one tells us what to do approach,’” he said. “It has done nothing but hurt the citizens over the years.”
Frisbie is critical of draft legislation that would set aside $2 million to litigate against the reform.
“Instead of sitting down and figuring out a plan, they voted to set $2 million aside,” he said of an interim legislative committee. “Yet Wyoming doesn’t have any reasonable plan.”
Challenging the reform means the state would lose funding and the ability to participate in reform programs.
“This solves nothing, wastes time and burns taxpayers dollars,” he said.
Christensen said he’s not ready to support the federal reform because there are too many unknowns.
“Even at the local level, we are going through this as a county,” he said. “We talk about what is the health care plan, what will the national plan do to the county. We don’t know, because it hasn’t been defined. While there are benefits, it’s not going to be free. How are we going to pay for it?”
Unlike Frisbie, Christensen said the $2 million for a lawsuit could be a good investment.
“It goes back to what is the outcome of the investment,” he said. “Do we need to put up dollars to fight, or can we afford [the reform] in the long term?”
Christensen said what’s more important for solving the health care crisis is creating jobs that allow people to get off Medicaid and afford a health plan.
“If people are employed, they’re not as likely to need Medicaid,” he said. “You also have more people putting into the system than taking out.”
If he is elected, Christensen said, a priority for him would be creating jobs. Locally, the best way to do that is to invest and promote the tourist economy. Statewide, tourism has grown 5 percent during the past decade, he said.
To ensure a booming tourism economy, lawmakers need to ensure people take care of the natural resources, such as the Snake River, that draw people to Wyoming. Lawmakers also need to invest in infrastructure such as pathways.
Additionally, Christensen said, he supports the Wyoming Business Council and the grants it gives to businesses. Such efforts have brought a handful of technology companies to Teton County, he said. They’ve also paid for infrastructure work, such as a network of trails near Snow King, Teton Pass and Teton Village. More efforts such as those will create jobs and improve the economy, he said.
Frisbie said Christensen’s positions are no-brainers.
“Who would come out and say they weren’t for that?” Frisbie said. “One of the favorite political statements is ‘Let’s create jobs.’”
What’s more important is saying how he would to do that, he said.
Frisbie said he believes in creating a culture that attracts businesses. Currently, Wyoming is viewed “as one of the most conservative and intolerant” states in the union.
“If you are a young entrepreneur looking to start a company and bring people and families into the state, you will look at tax incentives and look at the environment,” he said. “But you will also look at the political climate and whether it’s an open society or a very closed-minded society.”
How Wyoming is perceived around the country affects the kinds of businesses drawn to the state, he said.
That’s one reason why Frisbie believes having a state senator who is pro-choice and supports same-sex marriage is important.
While admittedly not “for abortion,” Frisbie believes the state should prevent unwanted pregnancies through education, he said.
Yet, “I think that when that decision is made, it’s between a woman and her doctor,” he said.
Frisbie also said the state should not restrict marriage to between a man and a woman.
“Those issues come up every legislative session,” he said.
But Christensen said talking about abortion and same-sex marriage detracts from more important matters in this election. Abortion and same-sex marriage are not pressing issues in Wyoming at this time, he said.
“When you get into those kinds of comments, those kinds of challenges, it distracts from the real work, important work that is being done. This is about jobs, about the economy, about people being able to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads. When we jump into some other arguments, we’re doing a disservice to the public.”
Christensen did say that, while he’s “much more pro-life,” he thinks there are times when abortion “is a reasonable consideration.”
Regarding same-sex marriage, he said he supports the current state law, which bans it.
Another important issue to both candidate is wolves.
While he started out believing wolves should be declared trophy game, Christensen said he has changed his mind, a move prompted by Gov. Dave Freudenthal, a Democrat.
Now, Christensen said, he is leaning toward supporting the state’s plan that would classify wolves as predators in 80 percent of Wyoming. Predator status allows wolves to be killed on sight at any time, by any means, including the use of poison, den explosives and aerial gunning. This provision in Wyoming’s plan has been rejected by the federal government and the courts. The draft Wyoming plan would have little impact in this region, where the wolf would be considered trophy game and managed by Wyoming Game and Fish, Christensen said.
“It’s the rest of Wyoming,” he said. “How do we work with the rest of the state on that? Clearly the rest of the state has a concern about the trophy status. I have gone from the trophy status to being much more open to Wyoming’s plan. I haven’t decided which is better, trophy status in this region or across the whole state.”
Frisbie wants a regional approach in which Wyoming, Montana and Idaho partner with the federal government on a plan. Consistency is important, he said, for “good science” and financial reasons.
“I think once the territories have been defined, again, on a collective basis, then hunting on a trophy-game basis makes sense,” he said. In that event, wildlife managers would still take control of situations in which wolves prey on cattle and sheep.
When it comes to who is better suited for office, Christensen questions Frisbie’s credentials.
Christensen has been a county commissioner for six years. He said he has a track record in dealing with tough development decisions such as expansion of Teton Village and Grand Targhee Resort. He’s worked on multi-million dollar budgets and on environmental issues such as the Snake River Headwaters Legacy Act.
“I’ve done it,” Christensen said. “My opponent doesn’t have that, hasn’t been involved in the community anywhere near that level. Where was he when we were fighting for the Snake River headwaters? He wasn’t involved. What’s he done for pathways?”
Frisbie said that though he hasn’t been as involved as much as he would have liked during the past five years because of family illnesses and running a small business, he has sat on several boards. They include Jackson Hole Little League, Teton County/Jackson Parks and Recreation, Teton County Youth and Family Services, the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce and the Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust.
When Frisbie sat on parks and rec, the board oversaw the pathways department. He was the one who suggested making pathways its own department, he said.
Frisbie said that while he may not have experience in public office, he’s the candidate with the most business sense.
“I’ve been in business, balancing budgets, doing the day-to-day activities,” he said. “Leland’s been in government his whole life. He says he’s going to create jobs. Well, how do you create jobs?”
Before he was elected to the county commission, Christensen worked in the Teton County Sheriff’s Office. He also has run a logging business.
“I’ve hired people, had to lay people off,” he said. “We had to make payroll. We had to pay taxes.”
Frisbie also questions why Christensen would run for the state Senate during the middle of his second term as a county commissioner.
“He was elected to a four-year term, and because of his political aspirations he saw the availability of a Senate seat,” he said. “He jumped ship.”
Christensen said he is running midterm because the opportunity arose unexpectedly.
“It’s critical for Teton County, this district, that we have someone down there ready to go to work and who is able to step in and pick it up quickly,” he said.