Mike Enzi was always willing to return a call, which is uncommon for a man in his position. Enzi was a four-term U.S. senator from Wyoming. I covered him when I edited the Powell Tribune from …
Mike Enzi was always willing to return a call, which is uncommon for a man in his position. Enzi was a four-term U.S. senator from Wyoming. I covered him when I edited the Powell Tribune from 2013-15.
He didn’t need to talk to me. But he did, and was always honest and courteous, as well as kind and funny.
Sen. Enzi, who retired from the Senate in January, died late Monday. He was 77. Enzi had been seriously injured in a bicycle accident near his home in Gillette Friday night, breaking his neck and suffering other serious injuries. He never regained consciousness.
The state of Wyoming, and both Republicans and Democrats who worked with him, are in shock. I am greatly saddened. I really liked Mike.
During his long public career, Enzi said he heeded his mother’s advice: Do what’s right, do your best and treat people with respect. All of us could follow that pattern.
“I really enjoyed being a senator,” he said in his farewell Senate speech on Dec. 2. “Not for the title, not for the recognition and certainly not for the publicity. I love solving problems for the folks in Wyoming and America. I like working on legislation.”
Enzi was a conservative; Wyoming is as red as any state gets. He was a staunch Second Amendment supporter, opposed abortion in all forms and argued against Obamacare. He was a critic of what he termed excessive government spending.
But he was not a man driven by partisan fervor or anger. He worked well with Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, one of the most liberal senators in American history.
Enzi said they teamed up to pass a bill to make it safer for nurses and medical janitors, many of whom were being stuck by needles. Kennedy had been struggling to get it passed for a decade, and after Enzi recommended removing a couple controversial sections, it passed both the Senate and House without an amendment and was signed into law, ensuring needle-disposal stations were readily available.
“The issue has never had to be readdressed,” Enzi said.
Together, the East Coast liberal lion and the Wyoming conservative found common ground — using an “80% rule” on areas they agreed on — to pass legislation and clear appointments.
“That is why I suggest my ‘80% tool,’” Enzi said in his farewell speech. “Generally speaking, people can talk civilly on 80% of the issues. It’s only about 20% of issues where you will find real contention. Now even on the individual issues you might find disagreement, but once again you need to focus on the 80% of that issue that you can agree on. It is all about focusing on what you can get done, and not focusing on the points of disagreement — the weeds of debate that have choked issues. Or to say it another way, it’s all about what you leave out.”
Here is how it works, he explained:
“First, find someone from the other side of the aisle who likes to legislate.
“Second, discover and agree on common goals.
“Third, consult with stakeholders that will or could be affected by the changes being discussed.
“Fourth, hold roundtables instead of hearings. With hearings, each side beats up on the other’s witnesses with clever ‘stump-the-professor’ type questions. At a roundtable, people who have actually done something on the policy issue share their real life experiences.
“And finally, you set aside those issues you can’t agree on for another day’s debate.
“Now you have a bill that has a good chance of being passed and signed into law. This is the heart of the 80% tool.”
That approach didn’t get a lot of press, Enzi said, but it got things done. That was his goal during nearly five decades in politics.
Enzi credited his involvement in the Jaycees with launching his career, and said another iconic Wyoming Republican, Al Simpson, cornered him at a meeting in Cody and advised him to run for mayor of Gillette in 1974. He did so, and served in that role for eight years, helping a town that was booming from oil production stabilize its economy.
Enzi said he was dedicated to solving problems and focused on budgets, agendas and planning. For five decades, he stuck with those principles.
He was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1986 and then the state Senate in 1990.
Enzi served as a director with the Black Hills Corporation, an energy holding company that owns utilities and natural gas and coal mining operations, from 1992-96.
In 1996, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, replacing Simpson, who retired from politics after three Senate terms.
Al — as all Wyoming residents know him — is a delightful man who I was fortunate to get to know. Like Enzi, he was a Republican who knew how to work with people on the other side of the aisle.
When I met Enzi, he was already a revered figure in the Cowboy State. But he was always willing to take a call or return one. If I needed help with a story or wanted a quote, Mike Enzi always replied.
The only other politicians I knew during my four-decade career who did that were Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and South Dakota Gov. Bill Janklow, who was, like Enzi, a Republican who could work with Democrats.
Enzi was old school about understanding the need for reporters to do their work to inform people in their home state. He understood what it was like to work for a living.
Enzi had worked as an accountant and shoe salesman before getting involved with politics and government. Once he discovered I was an old “shoe dog” — I sold shoes in college and again for a time in the late 1980s — we forged a quick bond.
Once, I was trying to obtain the salary of the superintendent of Grand Teton National Park. A staff member refused to release this piece of public information.
I let Sen. Enzi’s office know about this and within a day, had the figure. That was how he operated.
I interviewed him several times, had dinner with him once and chatted with him at several events. He gained respect by being knowledgeable, humble and friendly, which goes over big in Wyoming, a big state with fewer than 600,000 people.
Plus, he was just a good guy. That’s why people are so stunned by his death when he finally had free time to enjoy with his family and friends.
In 2013, Liz Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, decided to challenge Enzi in a 2013 primary.
I covered that race closely, interviewing both Enzi and Liz Cheney. He seemed calm, far from intimidated by this looming party battle. Cheney, on the other hand, was a nervous candidate, not nearly as relaxed when shaking hands and talking with voters.
Her campaign was a disaster, with fumbles and self-inflicted errors filling newspapers and TV reports. By the end of 2013, she dropped out and Enzi breezed to a fourth term in 2014.
In 2016, she ran for the House of Representatives and ended up serving in Congress with Enzi. As was typical, he was gracious to the woman who had tried to end his career.
His farewell speech in the Senate is classic Enzi, low-key, funny and sincere. He offered wise counsel to his fellow senators, and to the nation.
“There’s a lot of vitriol in our politics and our world right now, but you can stay true to what you believe in without treating others badly,” Enzi said. “Nothing gets done when we’re just telling each other how wrong we are.”
We could use a lot more Mike Enzis right now.
(Longtime journalist Tom Lawrence of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was the managing editor of the Powell Tribune in 2013-15. He now works as a freelance writer, including for the blog The South Dakota Standard, online at www.sdstandardnow.com.)