Raising the Bar in Wyoming

Wyoming Promise is an active American Promise Association making big moves throughout its state. Here, co-founder Ken Chestek shares how the group was founded, its successes and challenges, and what’s coming next.

After an up-close experience with dark money as a Wyoming House candidate in 2016, University of Wyoming Law Professor Ken Chestek vowed to work toward getting big money out of politics. Ken contacted American Promise President Jeff Clements about starting a local chapter of the organization. Ken and co-founders Shelby Shadwell and Lynn Morrison started Wyoming Promise, an American Promise Association that’s successfully raised awareness across the state and is aiming to pass a bill in the state legislature in 2019.

In this interview, Ken shares what drives him to fight for the 28th Amendment—and why Wyoming Promise is just getting started.

How did you get involved with American Promise, Wyoming Promise and the 28th Amendment?

I’ve hated Citizens United since the day it was decided, but until 2017 I did nothing but complain about it. In 2016, I ran for a seat in the Wyoming House of Representatives. My opponent and I both pledged to run campaigns without attacking each other, and we both kept our word. But then a dark money group sent fliers to voters in my district, supporting me and claiming my opponent wanted to “steal your public lands.” My opponent was a retired game warden who had spent his career on those lands. He strongly supported keeping them public.

I had no idea who was behind the flier. (The flier confirmed this in tiny print: “Not endorsed by any candidate or candidate committee.”) Still, I ended up spending time and resources disavowing the flier and affirming my opponent’s actual beliefs—not how I would have chosen to spend campaign resources. I lost the election (I probably would have even without the dark money flap). I vowed then and there to stop complaining and do something to rid the system of dark money.

I’d heard about American Promise, so I contacted the organization about building a local effort to get Wyoming on the list of states calling for a 28th Amendment.

Why is getting big money out of politics important to you?

Our politicians don’t listen to voters, they listen to big donors and lobbyists—which is why Congress and state legislators keep passing bills the majority of voters hate. That was part of why I ran for state legislature, to effect positive change. Instead, I got a lesson in how dark money influences campaigns, even when candidates don’t want it. As a law professor, I understand that a Constitutional amendment is the only reliable way to overturn Citizens United. I believe every citizen should engage with the system using whatever talents they have. Because my “talent” is legal training, I have devoted myself to changing the law.

Why do other Wyoming citizens care about this issue?

Wyoming citizens see the same thing I do: Politicians aren’t listening to them. This is not a liberal/conservative thing; politicians are not listening to anybody but the money people. Wyoming residents are good people who want a government that listens to us, considers all opinions, and does what is right for the majority of citizens. We want honest representatives, not stooges for some billionaire donor or corporations who don’t have the interests of Wyoming citizens at heart.

The Wyoming American Promise Association accepts a Citizen Leadership Award from American Promise. Left to right: Ken Chestek, Lynn Morrison, Shelby Shadwell, Rod Morrison.

How has Wyoming Promise built grassroots support for the 28th Amendment across the state?

After founding Wyoming Promise, Shelby, Lynn and I worked together to build a steering committee of seven or eight. We knew we’d need an army of volunteers, so we began enlisting county team leaders to recruit volunteer circulators in their counties, working with as many groups (church groups, civic organizations, etc.) as possible. We now have about 300 volunteers circulating petitions and gathering signatures via public events, door-to-door canvassing, and more. Almost everybody agrees big money in politics is a huge problem, but many people don’t know how to fix it. We explain why a Constitutional amendment is the best way to help solve the problem.

What successes has Wyoming Promise had?

We’ve been successful raising awareness of the problem and the possible solution of a 28th Amendment. Many 2018 candidates are aware of our work; many have publicly stated their support and say it’s gaining them votes. Money in politics is a big campaign issue this year. Questions about money in politics crop up regularly in debates and forums. We’ve also gathered tens of thousands of voter signatures. We expect to finish with more than 20,000 signatures—in a large rural state with a population just over 500,000, that is a significant success.

What challenges have you faced?

One challenge has been disinformation campaigns by lobbyist and big-money groups. We fight baseless rumors that Wyoming Promise is “funded by dark money,” a front group for George Soros, or a Democratic ploy. All nonsense, but these whispering campaigns are almost impossible to track down and debunk. Another challenge is that the work is time-consuming and we need more people. Our core volunteers have each gathered 200, 300, some as many as 500 signatures each—we just need more volunteers!

What are the next steps for Wyoming Promise?

Our next big step is an effort to get a bill supporting the 28th Amendment through the state legislature in 2019. We need 38,818 valid signatures by November 2018 to qualify for the ballot. Our chances of hitting that number in time are not good. But 20,000 voter signatures is enough to give us a very powerful voice in the legislature. We are already in contact with many legislators, and we’re identifying sponsors for our bill. We are confident it will be introduced on day 1 and get a favorable hearing in at least one House committee. We believe we have a very realistic chance of passing a bill.

What is your ultimate goal for WY Promise?

Our ultimate goal is getting Wyoming on the list of states calling for the 28th Amendment.

Ken practiced law for 20 years in Pennsylvania before entering academia. He has taught law at the University of Michigan, Indiana University, and is now a tenured full professor at the University of Wyoming. He is a co-author of a textbook on persuasive legal writing and the author of numerous scholarly articles about the power of narrative and storytelling in the law. He currently serves as chair of Wyoming Promise.