'Despised' Schools Chief Faces Long Odds In Wyoming Governor's Race

10/02/2013 06:42 pm ET | Updated Oct 03, 2013
AP

A controversial tea party favorite in Wyoming is pressing ahead with a 2014 Republican primary challenge against the state's popular governor despite long odds.

Cindy Hill, Wyoming's embattled superintendent of public instruction, told The Huffington Post that she "absolutely" will challenge Gov. Matt Mead (R) in next year's GOP primary.

Hill rode a wave of tea party support to a surprise win in the 2010 GOP primary for superintendent, but since then, she has clashed repeatedly with Mead, the Republican-controlled state Legislature and Wyoming's GOP establishment. She is currently under investigation by the Legislature over accusations of mismanagement -- the third in a series of probes that have plagued her since 2012. In January, lawmakers stripped Hill of her power to head the state Department of Education.

Andrew Garner, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Wyoming, said that tea party sympathizers might rally around Hill again, but that she faces major obstacles in the governor's race: Mead's popularity and her own well-publicized struggles with the state GOP.

"The problem that Cindy Hill is finding that Liz Cheney is not is that Cindy Hill is despised in her own party," Garner said. "The Republicans removed her. It is hard to imagine a large segment of tea party Republicans who will support her against a sitting governor."

Cheney, of course, is challenging another popular Wyoming official, Sen. Mike Enzi, in another sure-to-be-contentious GOP primary next year.

Hill's problems blew up late last year when a legislative report accused her of mismanagement of the Education Department. The report led to legislation relegating the superintendent, a state constitutional post, to largely ceremonial duties, which in turn prompted her announcement that she planned to challenge Mead. Hill is currently fighting in court to regain the powers she lost.

Then in June of this year, an explosive 185-page report by Mead's office accused her of both mismanaging and creating a culture of fear in the Education Department. Among the allegations were that Hill had threatened staffers with a knife and driven employees to carry bear spray and baseball bats to the bathroom for protection. Hill has denied the charges.

Hill told HuffPost that she is running for governor because of her concerns over federal government power in Wyoming.

"We are federalizing education in Wyoming. We are federalizing health care in Wyoming," she said. "I don't think the people ever realized that would take place."

Hill opposes the Common Core curriculum standards, which have been adopted in Wyoming and 44 other states, and has claimed that she's been targeted by state lawmakers for trying to stop the standards in Wyoming.

State Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne) questioned Hill's logic for running. If getting rid of the Common Core is one of her goals, he noted that the governor has no power over the state's curriculum, except to replace Board of Education members when their terms expire. He also pointed that however strong Hill's objections to Obamacare may be, Mead too has been vocal in opposing the health care reform law.

Zwonitzer -- who is a member of the legislative committee investigating Hill and serves alongside both Mead and Hill on the State Building Commission -- said he wasn't sure if Hill, if elected, could successfully pursue a gubernatorial agenda given her past relationship with the Legislature.

"When she continues to campaign around the state and criticize the legislature, very publicly and often, it would be difficult for the Legislature to start fresh with her in the governor's office," he said. "Governor Mead has a strong working relationship with the Legislature on a bipartisan basis."

Officially, Mead, who is the grandson of a former governor and U.S. senator, has not declared for a second term next year, but Wyoming political observers expect him to run. The governor's spokesman, Renny MacKay, told HuffPost Wednesday that Mead would make that decision in the spring, after the 2014 state legislative session concludes. In February, Mead told HuffPost that he was not concentrating on a potential Hill challenge.

As for Hill's tea party support this time around, that remains in doubt. State Rep. Mark Baker (R-Rock Springs), a tea party leader, told HuffPost that just because Hill had the conservatives' backing in 2010, it didn't mean that support would be there next year. He said that tea party members in Wyoming will evaluate the candidates and make their own decision.

"The tea party is probably going to back a candidate, but the individual members will make up their own minds," Baker said.

He added that it is "tough to gauge" whether Mead or Hill would be the preferred candidate, hinting that a third candidate could emerge to compete for tea party backing. Baker, too, is a member of the legislative committee investigating Hill.

But Hill insists that she can win. "I have a lot of support," she said.

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