GILLETTE — Throughout his notable 40-plus year career as a politician, U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi said he never intended to be a politician at all.
Instead, he wanted to be a leader in his community. He wanted to make a difference for a city that was growing faster than it could handle, a state that had a unique set of economic challenges and eventually a country that oftentimes has a tough time working across party lines.
Through it all, the Wyoming Republican said he always tried to keep the people of Gillette, Campbell County and Wyoming at the forefront of his efforts.
At a small gathering Saturday morning at Gillette City Hall with family, friends, current and former staff members and a small group of press, Enzi announced that he will retire when his fourth term in the Senate is up in 2020.
“I am an advocate for Gillette and Campbell County and Wyoming,” he said during his announcement speech. “I never intended to get into politics. But I was mayor for eight years during the first Gillette boom. I got to work with some amazing people who didn’t know what couldn’t be done, so we did it. We laid down a foundation for the future.”
When it’s all said and done at the end of his term in 2020, Enzi, 75, will have held an elected office for 42 years: eight as mayor of Gillette, 10 as a Wyoming state legislator and 24 as a U.S. Senator.
Enzi served two terms as Gillette mayor beginning in 1975. At the time, it was a booming town that couldn’t keep up with the demands of residents.
He wasn’t even thinking about running for mayor at the time. He and his wife Diana, co-owners of NZ Shoes, moved to the community in 1969 just a week after they married.
There were just over 7,000 people in the Gillette in 1970, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By the time Enzi’s second term as mayor ended in 1982, that had more than doubled to 16,343 people.
Gillette transformed during Enzi’s tenure as mayor. He helped expand the city’s electrical and water capacity, helped dig a landfill and got money for the first Madison water project with a $22 million loan.
In 1976, Enzi championed the Optional 1% Sales Tax and was a key player in getting it passed for the first time in Campbell County. It was a fairly close vote that year, passing with 55 percent of the vote. It’s passed every electon since and has been a key factor in the growth and progressiveness of Gillette.
Enzi went on to serve a decade in the Wyoming Legislature, where he earned a reputation for being a fiscally smart legislator and chaired the Revenue Committee.
It was around the tail end of his run as a state legislator when Enzi had open-heart surgery. Still, people around the state and beyond encouraged him to run for the seat left open by U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson.
“I had been saying no, feeling sorry for myself,” Enzi said Saturday. “In church my wandering mind said, ‘I’ve put in lots of public service. I’ve had this heart problem. It’s about time that I got to hunt and fish.’”
Then he felt a nudge. Enzi said a voice told him, “I didn’t keep you alive to hunt and fish.”
Enzi left church that Sunday in tears, entered a crowded Senate race with nine candidates in 1996 and came out on top.
Getting work done
During Enzi’s retirement announcement, he touched on several of the accomplishments he is most proud of.
Those include his first ever bill that was passed unanimously by the Senate that preserved property rights for Campbell County people who had coal-bed methane on their property. At the time, the federal government had decided methane was part of the coal and wanted royalties returned.
Enzi championed Sen. Ted Kennedy’s Needlestick Bill that promoted safer practices for discarding needles, secured abandoned mine money for Wyoming, improving mine safety, played a part in fixing No Child Left Behind and helped pass the Tax Cut and Jobs Act in 2017.
Enzi said Saturday that he didn’t want to distract himself with another campaign while focusing on budget reform, getting control of the national debt, and continuing work on several small business initiatives while protecting and diversifying Wyoming’s jobs.
“I don’t want to be burdened with the distractions of a campaign,” he said. “After this term I will find other ways to serve.”
Talking with a small group of reporters after his speech, Enzi said that he chose Gillette to announce his retirement because he wanted to end his run where it began.
He also joked how the old City Hall building from when he was mayor is now for sale at the corner of Gillette Avenue and Fourth Street.
Marjorie Rainwater, a longtime Gillette resident and old friend of Enzi’s, was the first person to get a seat for Saturday’s announcement. She remembers when she first met the senator. It was the first week she was living in Gillette in 1975.
She went to church and met Enzi.
“I was reading the newspapers that week trying to get myself acclimated with the town,” Rainwater said. “I recognized his name from the papers and asked him if he was related to the mayor.”
“As a matter of fact,” he told her, “I am the mayor.”
“He’s done such wonderful things for the city, this state and our country,” Rainwater said.
He’s moving on, but staying busy
Enzi said he and his staff have helped solve about 14,000 problems for Wyoming residents.
Enzi said he and Diana, who was visibly emotional throughout the morning, often travel 500 miles by car each weekend across the state when working over three-day weekends.
“We live out of a suitcase on both ends. I’m not complaining,” he said. “I chose the job and have always worked at a job and was taught to do a job so well that I would be proud to put my name on it.”
Enzi said that he still has a lot of work to do in the next year and a half. He will continue to work across party lines, help improve the national debt crisis and work on making life better and more prosperous for the people of Wyoming.
After 24 years, Enzi will finally get to do what he thought he would with his children.
“I was able to see my kids grow up before I went in the Senate,” he said. “Now I want some grandkid time.”
Grandkid time and retirement will surely include some hunting and fishing.