CHEYENNE — Amid new allegations of a state legislator making verbal threats, some who do business in the Capitol here are seeking a return to greater civility.
On Tuesday, news emerged that state Rep. John Romero-Martinez, R-Cheyenne, allegedly threatened, in speaking with others, the lives of Rep. Andi LeBeau, D-Lander, and former Rep. Sara Burlingame, D-Cheyenne.
On Wednesday, Burlingame and LeBeau confirmed to the Wyoming Tribune Eagle the details of what they recounted having heard via a third party. This person was said to have heard Romero-Martinez threaten to potentially take their lives, as well as his own life.
Following the allegations, the speaker of the Wyoming House of Representatives, Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, issued a statement.
It said, in part: “As Speaker, I take seriously my duty to promote civil, respectful and non-threatening discourse. I will utilize every resource at my disposal to protect the health and safety of all those who conduct business with the Wyoming House.”
Barlow, Romero-Martinez and others did not answer questions or comment for this article. State and local police reports on the incident were not available.
In recent days, legislative leaders had separately asked a Senate panel to consider whether to launch a formal investigation into allegations recently brought against Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne. Just last week, the full Senate had stripped Bouchard of his committee assignments.
Now, what some in Cheyenne and elsewhere regard as declining civility nationwide appears to also be affecting political discourse among Wyoming politicians.
Following Barlow’s statement Wednesday, Burlingame, LeBeau and a national expert said in interviews that these recent events point to the need for a return to respectful dialogue among people who sharply disagree on politics and policies. Some noted that national political discourse also has suffered due to increased verbal, and sometimes even physical, attacks on ideological opponents.
Burlingame and LeBeau said a lobbyist had apparently heard Romero-Martinez make the threats. Following that, the lobbyist was described as acting to sound the alarm.
Romero-Martinez was described as seeming “to be having some sort of mental health crisis, he was very agitated,” Burlingame recounted.
She cited what she said was her conversation with the lobbyist, who was not identified other than someone with a law enforcement background.
The lobbyist “reported to me that (Romero-Martinez) had threatened to kill me and Rep. LeBeau and himself,” said Burlingame, who is Wyoming Equality’s executive director.
Romero-Martinez was apparently saying that he believed that Wyoming Equality “was a front for a secret ring of pedophiles, and that I was the head of it, and that we were aligned against him because he had information about our real activities, which were criminal and deviant,” according to Burlingame.
After speaking with the lobbyist, Burlingame said she then informed LeBeau.
In turn, LeBeau said she was disappointed that the Legislature’s leadership did not initially tell her of the allegations.
Of being officially informed, “it only happened after it was brought to my attention by Sara … and she was concerned for my safety,” LeBeau recalled. “I’m just upset with the process.”
According to Burlingame, the third party who had informed her of the alleged threats had also reported this to the Wyoming Highway Patrol. That agency contacted her by email Monday, saying that such a report was not in their jurisdiction.
Burlingame said she was referred to the Cheyenne Police Department, and so she reported the incident to CPD. Two department representatives confirmed to the WTE that such a report was made.
In his written statement, Barlow also said that he learned of the situation “late on March 10. ... Along with other members of the House of Representatives leadership, I spoke with individuals involved in this incident to better understand the nature and context of this situation.
“Additionally, to ensure the safety of the members of the Wyoming Legislature and all those interacting with the Legislature, I requested law enforcement personnel from the Wyoming Highway Patrol who provide security in the Wyoming Capitol to interview the persons involved.”
Wyoming has been known for its civility in public life, despite the U.S. political divide. All those the WTE spoke with hope for a higher level of civility to return to the Equality State.
“I can tell a difference between my first term to my second” when it comes to people with different views getting along personally, LeBeau said. “There have been some struggles with reaching civility in the state Capitol.”
“People are struggling, society is struggling,” the lawmaker said.
What apparently happened to her on the last day of the 2022 Legislature, when she heard about the situation, spurs her “to try to get behind issues of treating each other with respect and agreeing to disagree, but to do that respectfully.”
“I like our freedoms here in Wyoming, too. I like that we have this ‘Live and Let Live’” philosophy, she said. “But we do it with respecting one another.”
“Civility in the Legislature waxes and wanes” and at times “it was even worse than it is now,” said Burlingame.
In other periods, she added, “there is even (a much greater) investment in civility.”
In “Wyoming, by and large, we are more civil, we are more neighborly than other places” and that is a genuine thing, she said.
The former lawmaker, in part, blamed people from out of state who are not familiar with the extent of these positive attitudes moving here and getting involved in politics.
A political expert said social media was partly to blame for amplifying excessive and sometimes violent rhetoric, undisclosed funding paying for anonymous political communications that attack others and additional factors.
This expert, Common Cause Senior Director of Legislative Affairs Aaron Scherb, described the lessened ability for polite discourse as being “a multifaceted problem that leads to increased incivility.”
He noted that this is “part of a trend nationwide that we’re seeing in many states – a ratcheting up not only of the rhetoric, but, unfortunately, violence, in some cases.” Taking lessons from civics education to heart can help raise the bar for discourse.
“We all have a responsibility to promote debate and to be dispassionately passionate about the issues that we care about,” Scherb said. “That starts with civics education so the people can understand we all have a role in furthering our democracy” and “we have to work at it every day.”
Romero-Martinez’s relationships with the two people he reportedly threatened also was described as having been civil up until the apparent threats.
For instance, on Tuesday, March 8, when legislators were meeting in their budget session last week, Romero-Martinez attended a lunch hosted by Wyoming Equality, Burlingame said.
They “had a pleasant, cordial conversation,” she said. “I had no idea that he harbored any ill will toward me, certainly not any murderous intentions. We have always had a very cordial relationship. Election Day in 2020, I took him and his campaign manager out to lunch.”
“I knew that there were tensions between me and John Romero,” LeBeau said.“There was nothing different other than we disagreed.”
The latest disagreement apparently was about a draft bill dealing with a treaty affecting Native Americans that LeBeau said Romero-Martinez wanted her to help sponsor.
LeBeau grew up on and still lives on a reservation and oversees human resources for the Wind River intertribal council. LeBeau herself is a member of the Northern Arapahoe tribe.