Their hearts throb over ... politics?

Sagebrush Delegates

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When she was a little girl, Becky Costantino used to play with ballots on election day. She lived on a ranch outside Douglas, Wyo., that doubled as a post office and polling place, and she remembers marking up trial cards while her mother oversaw the vote.

For a child growing up in a state whose defining characteristic is distance, the best part of politics was company. Neighbors came from dozens of miles away to vote and pass the time. "It didn't matter whether they were Democrats or Republicans. It was just exciting to see them come over," says Ms. Costantino.

Not that many of them were Democrats, truth be told. The ranch - an old stage stop - was in the heart of GOP country. Today Costantino is chairwoman of the Wyoming Republican Party. On Monday she will be in Philadelphia for her fourth national convention.

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Her favorite convention moment? New Orleans, 1988, the closing music after Ronald Reagan's speech. "I remember standing there with tears rolling down my cheeks. I could not believe I was standing that close to the president," she says.

Let's be honest: Most Americans have a low opinion of politics. It's boring, partisan, irrelevant. Conventions are infomercials. Voting changes little. Candidates are all alike.

Some of that is true. Maybe a lot of it's true. But there's another side to that story. Thousands of delegates will be flocking to Republican and Democratic conventions this month, and there's a little Becky Costantino in many of them.

They don't hold elective office. They like politics because they think it's interesting, important, even fun. They say "make a difference" a lot. Shockingly, they appear to mean it.

Wyoming is a good place to find such people, and not just because one of their own has been tapped for No. 2 on the GOP ticket. The state has so few people that it is essentially a small town with really long streets. Wyoming politics remains personal, inexpensive, and generally courteous. There's a heritage of citizen involvement in the state that first gave women the right to vote.

"I guess I feel like in our political system, if we didn't have people in the grass roots, there wouldn't be a system," says Carolyn Manka, a delegate to the Republican convention from Riverton, Wyo.

Wyoming today remains perhaps the most Western of all the Rocky Mountain states. With only about 480,000 residents, it is so unpopulated that Colorado, by comparison, is Los Angeles. Half the state's land is controlled by the federal government. It is the kind of place where even city dwellers think nothing of driving 100 miles to meet someone for lunch.

Politically, it is predictably Republican in presidential elections. Democrats can still win state office, however - the state's southern tier of counties retains a Democratic heritage that began with workers imported to build the Union Pacific railway.

Making his own bid for office

With so few residents, it is easy for people who are interested in politics to find something to do. Kansas native Clark Stith ended up in Rock Springs, Wyo., after detours through California and Washington, D.C. He began showing up at GOP meetings and eventually became vice chairman of the local party. The county convention tapped him to be a delegate to Philadelphia without even asking who he supported for president.

"People aren't sticklers on rules a lot out here," says Mr. Stith, who then supported John McCain but says he'll switch his vote to support local son Dick Cheney.

Stith, a lawyer, is now running for the state Senate - his first try at elective office. The district in question stretches 110 miles east from his office. He figures that he needs about 5,300 votes to win, and that the only way to really get those is to go door-to-door.

He recently took a party-sponsored candidate class. He says he learned a lot, but that the section on media didn't really apply in Wyoming. There were tips about how to get on TV news, but there hasn't been any such thing in Rock Springs since the anchor left for another job.

"That really changes your approach to getting on local TV news, because you can't," says Stith.

In Philadelphia, the Wyoming delegation has been allocated choice rooms in the downtown Marriott hotel. Stith will be staying out of the city at a Comfort Inn, however. He needs to save money for his campaign - and anyway, his wife's family owns a Comfort Inn back home.

Oh - and his wife's family has been a major force in the state Democratic Party for generations. Any problems with a mixed political marriage? "No, nothing like that. I'm proud to be part of her family," he says.

Paul Kruse, back at home

Many Wyoming political activists have roots that grow generations deep. Cheyenne's Paul Kruse grew up on a ranch that had been homesteaded by his grandparents. He went to a two-room schoolhouse and graduated from high school in a class of 52 seniors, yet managed to be an All-American high school basketball player.

It helped that he is 7 feet, 3 inches tall.

"My dad's 82 and still living on the ranch," says Mr. Kruse.

Kruse went to law school and ended up in Washington working on land issues. He was a Senate staffer and then a top Interior Department counsel in the Bush administration. He went back home to work on county planning land problems and make a difference, he says.

These people say 'make a difference' a lot. Shockingly, they appear to mean it.

In some ways politics is like sports, says Kruse. You need dynamic leadership and teamwork. You need creativity. You need to make snap decisions. "You have a direct win-or-lose scenario, so you know if your strategy was effective or not," he says.

At the same time, the consequences are greater. "These are real people and real people's lives," he says.

Many Wyoming delegates - like others nationwide - became interested in politics while in college. Many were active in the University of Wyoming's Young Republicans.

Cheyenne resident Bradley Cave has gone through a typical progression - college GOP chair, district chair, county party treasurer, gubernatorial campaign worker, manager of a secretary of state campaign.

His real jump-start was interning while in college in the office of then-Sen. Al Simpson. The senator would talk constantly about the value of politics, he says. "He didn't like it when people looked down their nose and said, 'That's just politics,' " says Mr. Cave.

He was astounded to learn that even Senator Simpson, a figure of some importance in the Congress, spent maybe 70 percent of his time on constituent service. "Politics is nothing less than working in a democracy to better the lives of people," insists Cave. "If we viewed it like that, I think we'd lose some of the negative stereotype."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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