The races for local elected offices are heating up for the upcoming general election on Nov. 8. The local housing, climate and social justice organizations ShelterJH, Sunrise JH and Act Now JH hosted a candidate forum in late August featuring the hopefuls for town and county offices in November.
Seven candidates are running to fill three partisan positions on the Teton County Board of Commissioners, and four candidates are running for two non-partisan seats on the Jackson Town Council. Despite their differences, most of the incumbents and challengers said during the Aug. 30 forum that there’s one issue in particular motivating them to run: Housing.
“Those of you that know me know that housing is what really pushed me into this arena,” said Devon Viehman, a town council candidate who narrowly lost her first bid for the council in 2020.
“When I started this work 30 plus years ago, it [was] about recognizing that we are a community first, a resort second,” said council member Arne Jorgensen, who currently serves as Jackson’s current vice mayor and is up for reelection.
Viehman and Jorgensen are among the many candidates proposing housing solutions like amending zoning restrictions, lobbying the state legislature for additional funding and limiting short-term rentals. Incumbent councilor Jonathan Schechter is also in that camp.
“We need to identify all the places where housing makes sense and build as much affordable housing as we possibly can, because that’s the way that we maintain our sense of community,” Schechter said. “Whether it’s a school teacher or a cop or a dishwasher or a wealthy person, everybody should feel welcome here.”
Other candidates champion a more hands-off approach. Whether speaking about affordable housing or climate change, council candidate Katherine “Kat” Rueckert emphasized government deregulation when addressing the crowd of local voters.
“If you guys have the money and the ability and the drive, I want to get out of your way as a town council person and let you thrive and make this community better the way that you guys see fit,” Rueckert said. “I want to put the onus back on you, the power back on you, and responsibility back on you.”
At the same time, many candidates said building more workforce housing in the Town of Jackson is the best way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In 2019, 64% of all emissions in Teton County came from transportation. So, county commissioner hopefuls say creating more workforce housing in Jackson would help by limiting the number of commuters driving from Idaho and elsewhere in Wyoming.
Political newcomers Wes Gardner, who ran as an Independent in the 2020 election but will compete as a Democrat this year, and Peter Long, one of the three Republican candidates to advance to the general, also pointed fingers at current elected officials for not doing more on housing already.
“The market is going to do what the market is allowed to do, and you can’t blame the market for that, but what you can do is blame us for that,” Gardner said.
“Ultimately, we can’t say that we’re for affordable housing, that we’re for keeping our workforce here and continually vote against it,” Long said. “We need to start by keeping our workforce here in the valley.”
However, other board of commissioners candidates like Tom Segerstrom, a Republican, and Democrat incumbents Mark Newcomb and Luther Propst said it’s more complicated than that.
“We can say that we are for workforce housing and vote against housing that is going to be second homes, that is going to be luxury homes, that is going to be for remote workers who are not part of this community,” said Propst, who currently serves as the board’s vice chair.
Inequality in Teton County was another big topic of discussion at the forum, and moderators were quick to point out the lack of diverse candidates. All of the county board of commissioners candidates are white men. The town council candidates include two women, though everyone in that race is also white; two candidates of color didn’t get enough votes to advance through the primaries. However, some candidates proposed diversifying local government by translating all town materials into Spanish, among other measures.
“What I can tell you is I promise to listen,” Viehman said. “I promise to take your experiences and what you have is a reality and hear it and do something about it. That is what being in one of these seats is all about.”
Commissioner candidate Brenden Cronin, an Independent, added that while he can’t bring racial diversity, he can offer economic diversity as someone who lives in workforce housing.
“I’m hoping to represent my generation,” he said. “I moved here [and] I lived in my car four different times to make it work. My dad’s an electrician. My mom’s a nurse. I’m about as blue collar as it gets. You need some more economic diversity in this community.”
Yet another candidate for the board of commissioners, Republican Kasey Mateosky, said he’s running for future generations.
“I have four grandchildren,” he said. “I want to see them come back here and live. I want to see your grandchildren, your children come back here and live. And I think if we start now and we act as a community, we can get this done.”
A full recording of the forum is available to watch on Shelter JH’s website. Early voting for Wyoming’s general election starts on Friday, Sept. 23. Wyomingites can vote in-person at various locations on Election Day or drop off ballots at the Teton County Administration Building on Willow Street before then. All mail-in ballots must arrive by Election Day.
KHOL is also helping educate Wyoming voters as one of the media partners for a series of candidate forums presented by the Wyoming League of Women Voters and the Teton County Library throughout late September and October. All of the forums will be held in person at the library’s Ordway Auditorium. Recordings will be available to watch on the library’s website after the forums take place.