Kathryn Palmer & Margaret Austin: Discovering The Election Process

"Some Cheyenne residents of color say they don't feel heard by largely white leadership in local government and schools. This lack of representation makes it easier for leaders to, even unintentionally, overlook the issues that affect them, they say. In part two of this series, residents express why this kind of representation matters and how they're working to achieve equity."

Find the relative article written by these two fabulous newswomen here.

Thank you Maggie & Kathryn for your time!

Reporting is made possible through a grant from Wyoming Humanities funded by the “Why it Matters: Civic and Electoral Participation” initiative, administered by the Federation of State Humanities Councils and funded by Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.”

(00:38):

Today, I want you to meet Margaret Austin and Catherine Palmer. They are reporters for the Wyoming Tribune Eagle in Cheyenne, Wyoming. They wrote an article called Local Campaigns, Strive for Change and was made possible through a grant from Wyoming Humanities. You can learn more about our democracy initiatives and collaborative journalism projects on thinkwhy.org. Welcome, Margaret and Kathryn.

Kathryn Palmer (01:06):

Thanks for having us.

Margaret Austin (01:07):

Yeah, thank you so much.

Emy DiGrappa (01:09):

Well, I was really excited to read the articles that you wrote because basically they focused on really people of color running in campaigns, which is very interesting. And so I want each of you to talk about that. Talk about your role, the research you did there, and what you learned. And I'm going to start off with you, Maggie.

Margaret Austin (01:31):

So when we were initially given this Wyoming Humanities proposal, we all got to thinking, kind of came together with all of our different beats, and fortunately for us, this project came right after the 2020 election where each of us saw this kind of trend happening of people running kind of specifically to bring representation, whether it was for the south side or for people of color in the community.

Kathryn Palmer (02:04):

But what Maggie's saying is all right. So we got the grant to do the humanities project and it's all about democracy. So that immediately made us think back to what we had covered as local reporters here in Cheyenne during the 2020 election. On both our beats, I cover education and she covers city government, and we both noticed that candidates of color were running and two people in particular that we profiled in the story, Paulette Gavlin and Miguel Reyes, they had strong, passionate messages, but they didn't get anywhere in their campaigns despite doing things that you would think would make for a successful campaign. So we really wanted to examine why that was.

(02:51):

In my case, I cover schools here in Cheyenne and Paulette was one of the only candidates that had decades of experience working in schools. She seemed like that should be the perfect fit for a school board trustee, and she raised the most money of any candidate, yet she came in second to last place out of, I think, seven or eight candidates. And the people who won were people who they had good ideas, but they weren't focused on things like diversifying the teacher workforce or diversifying school curriculum. And that raised questions for me as an education reporter when it was happening. And so we had this opportunity here to dive a little deeper and do an autopsy of those elections. And that's what I think we are able to execute here.

Emy DiGrappa (03:46):

Right. And what was surprising about those elections? I mean, you just mentioned that she raised the most money and she had years of experience and she would have made a great school board trustee, but do you think it is the color of her skin?

Kathryn Palmer (04:04):

So I want to be clear here, Paulette was very... She did say that she thought that was an issue, but she had maybe some other thoughts on why she didn't run. I don't know if this is going to go into the podcast, but it was pretty clear that was the issue. And then she just talked about it being kind of difficult to break into the status quo here because, although Cheyenne is a very white city, it's not as white as you might think. It's definitely diversifying, even in the last 10 years, and there are people of color here who deserve to be represented, yet we just don't see them on these local governing bodies. So, that was kind of the underlying conclusion there. Yeah. That's probably where I'll leave it. Yeah.

Margaret Austin (05:06):

Yeah, I think for me, this project also made me take a step back and examine my own reporting and kind of what areas of town my own reporting was focused in. And I realized that the last story I had gone to and reported on the south side was a used car lot auction, and then a new statue unveiling at the Boys and Girls Club. But beyond that, talking to Miguel made me step back and think, "Well, why aren't I going to ribbon cuttings on the south side? Why am I never reporting on new businesses on the south side?" And I think that also kind of showed maybe the strain in the relationship, of course between the south side and their government officials, but just the larger institutions, including our newspaper. So I think that was really another eye-opening kind of lesson learned coming away from this project.

Kathryn Palmer (06:07):

Yeah, and just as a reminder, the south side here in Cheyenne is a neighborhood that has one of the highest concentrations of lower income and non-white people, so they often express that they don't feel heard on these governing bodies. Like over the summer, there was a big push to change the way that school board is elected because right now they're elected through an at-large election process, but a lot of people from the south side said, "No, we should make that based on neighborhoods more, or at least part of it," because that way it'll make it easier for people who live on the south side, who might not have the name recognition or the political capital, or the money to win a successful campaign, that'll make it easier for them to appeal to just their neighborhood and hopefully be a first start in representation on the school board.

Emy DiGrappa (07:07):

So remind me again which areas you each cover?

Kathryn Palmer (07:13):

I do education and she does local government.

Emy DiGrappa (07:18):

So is one of the reasons that people don't run for office is because they are lower income and it does cost money?

Kathryn Palmer (07:27):

I think that's one, but Maggie can probably speak to this even better than I can, but it's just a question of not really having faith in the system at this point, "Can I really run? Are they even going to listen to me if they haven't listened to me before, who would listen to me now?"

Margaret Austin (07:48):

Yeah, I feel like another big part of that is if you're going to run for a local office, whether that's school board or city council, chances are you're involved in the community in some way that's different than politics. You know, like Miguel was a volleyball coach and he runs this youth volleyball program here and has coached soccer and works with foster kids in the community. So he has all of these other connections. And Paulette-

Kathryn Palmer (08:19):

She's involved in the church, the NAACP, the optimist club, which is a community group around town. They both have deep ties into the community, but what we kind of gathered is maybe those ties aren't seen as things that are going to get you elected around here and that perhaps it is the color of your skin or the neighborhood you're from that that carries some weight in elections.

Emy DiGrappa (08:52):

What is the size of the Latino population in Cheyenne?

Kathryn Palmer (08:56):

I think it's around 14% and then the black population is around 3%.

Emy DiGrappa (09:00):

Okay.

Kathryn Palmer (09:02):

But I think if you look back at the numbers from 10-20 years ago, you can see that those populations are steadily increasing. So kind of another theme of our project was that times are changing, but have the elected officials representing this increasingly diverse population changed to keep up with that?

Emy DiGrappa (09:26):

Well, there's so many factors involved, so I'm just trying to like get a better picture of, especially your Latino population. Are they mostly Spanish speakers or are they English speakers?

Margaret Austin (09:40):

I'm not too certain. That's hard to say, but I would also like to... Back on the point of kind of why is it harder for people in these areas to get elected, one thing that Miguel Reyes has found on the campaign trail is that a lot of south side residents were surprised to see him at the door, to be talking to an actual city council candidate, where they had never had someone come out and seek out their opinion on what they think needs to be done in their city council ward. And I think if you're not participating in local governments, if you don't know when city council is, even if you're a qualified candidate to run, that's just not even going to be a thought in your head. So I think a lot of it just goes back to kind of years of disenfranchisement and not listening to those communities. And I feel like a lot of folks have kind of turned to other routes rather than politics to make change, whether that's, through non-profits like the Boys and Girls Club or the Cheyenne Volleyball League or kind of things like that.

Emy DiGrappa (10:46):

I can see that. That's probably very true. And I'm just trying to figure out how we build this bridge so that more people from diverse backgrounds feel comfortable running for political office and feel like their voice can be heard. And so I'm just trying to figure out, depending on which doors he's knocking on and what neighborhood he's in, is a large percentage of those people in those neighborhoods, are they voters?

Kathryn Palmer (11:16):

Yeah and that was kind of a big question. I mean, maybe they're not really active voters because they don't really have a lot of faith that their votes going to do anything.

Margaret Austin (11:25):

Well, and one interesting thing too that we kind of found during this project, after the election, that didn't make it into the story is the city council elections were separated by precinct and there's these three precincts on the south side that we were able to look at and compare to the rest of ward one, which is north of the train tracks. It includes downtown Cheyenne and the Capitol and kind of some of these wealthier areas. So ward one in Cheyenne has a very stark divide and the folks on the south side by and large came out and voted in-person on election day and the complete opposite was true for the rest of the areas north of the train tracks.

(12:12):

The majority of people voted by mail and took advantage of those opportunities. So that's something where I'm not sure if it's just lack of voter education on the south side. Maybe there are some Spanish speakers who didn't know how to navigate the vote by mail system. So I think that was just another really interesting piece of information that didn't really make it into the story, but I think it does show an interesting difference in voting trends on the south side versus the wealthier parts of town.

Emy DiGrappa (12:47):

Well, and I also think it's generational because if you come from a family who is part of the political system in any way, I mean whether its town council or the school board, or a number of different ways you can be involved, I think you feel more emboldened to be involved, whereas if you're a first time in your family running for town council and maybe people don't really get it, I think it could be a challenge.

Margaret Austin (13:21):

Absolutely.

Kathryn Palmer (13:22):

I think part of it also goes into role models too. You know, if you never see anyone from your neighborhood or from your circumstances kind of serving on these governing bodies, then where does the thought come from that maybe you could be the person to run? I feel like there's just kind of a lack of awareness maybe of just the opportunities that truly are out there for you. Like Miguel told me in our interviews, he didn't even know that city council was a paid position where they make $12,000 a year, $1000 every month. It's just that lack of kind of education and knowledge of the system that I think plays into it as well.

Emy DiGrappa (14:12):

What was his interest in running? What was the change he wanted to make?

Kathryn Palmer (14:16):

Yeah, so pretty much Miguel has a major focus on recreation on the south side. He's coached soccer. He coaches volleyball right now. He grew up a foster kid himself, so he's very dedicated to kind of inspiring and mentoring the next generation of kids. And what he found was that when they wanted to play soccer, when they wanted to play volleyball, they had to take all their kids and shuttle them up to the north side because there just aren't recreation facilities and opportunities for kids on that side of town. So that, I think, is kind of what really planted the seed for him to kind of make change on a larger scale.

(15:00):

And yeah, he said if more politicians would go knock on doors on the south side and hear residents' concerns, then he wouldn't have to run. For him, it didn't really come out of a political want or to be in this position of power, he just really saw a need in the community. He saw how resources weren't being evenly distributed, especially when it comes to recreations, parks, pools, the Cheyenne Aquatic Center, and that's really what kind of lit the fire under him and led him to throw his name in the hat.

Emy DiGrappa (15:40):

So what does Miguel think now? Does he think that he's going to try again?

Kathryn Palmer (15:47):

Yep. Both Miguel and Paulette have voiced to us that they do have plans to run for office in the future. For Miguel, one thing he said that he would focus on is trying to build more bridges on the other side of the tracks, whereas his campaign was mainly centered around bringing representation to the south side, which did well with south side voters, but obviously you need to get buy in from everyone in different parts of ward one. So I think some lessons learned. He's got some strategies for next time, but with it being out of the need in the community rather than a political want, it's not like a loss is going to deter them from trying to make that change.

Emy DiGrappa (16:41):

That's really good to hear. And what about Paulette? What was her reason for running?

Margaret Austin (16:46):

Well, kind of similar to Miguel. She didn't necessarily want to run for her own political ambition. She was encouraged by some long-time friends in the community to do so and she thought she could make a change on the school board because our school district has had some problems with kind of like a documented culture of racism and homophobia and not having a very diverse teacher workforce and just maybe not being a district that's there for every student, or at least that's what a lot of residents have brought to public attention in the last few years. So, she talked about her experiences working in schools around here and how it seemed that there was a level of comfort that some non-white, non English-speaking families kind of saw in her because they were both maybe in this more marginalized experience together. So I think that was a lot of it.

(18:00):

And she just thought she could run because she had a lot of experience in education and working in education and she thought those insights would be valuable to the school board. So she said she's already thinking about campaigning for 2022. And she said, "Maybe I'll start earlier this year." And sometimes, in our interviews, she said perhaps she didn't... This was the second time she ran and lost and the first time she said, "Maybe I didn't start early enough. Maybe I didn't run a serious enough campaign," which she tried to correct this time, but we saw that didn't work. So it definitely raises the question, what are the other issues about appealing to voters around here? But yeah, she does plan to run again.

Emy DiGrappa (18:51):

That's really good. That's exciting that even though they didn't win, they can just pick themselves back up and say, "I'm not quitting." And I think that's part of it is you can't quit. You have to keep running at it. That's kind of a pun, but anyway. You have to keep going. You can't get discouraged because that's part of politics.

Margaret Austin (19:18):

And that's exactly what happened too with the school board saga where they voted to change the at-large seats to include some from the specific triads. And the school board did not have buy-in, but the community consistently came out, advocates consistently pushed back, and then ultimately they did move the needle and get the school board to approve that, even though it doesn't-

Kathryn Palmer (19:44):

It didn't happen the first time. So yeah, that was kind of proof that things can change if you agitate hard enough. Maybe you'll [inaudible 00:19:54] in the process.

Emy DiGrappa (19:57):

Well, what do you think of Cheyenne as a community as a whole? Are they active together? Is there a lot of conversation? Do people get out and support each other and do things in the community? Is it an active community?

Margaret Austin (20:16):

Yeah, I would say that the people of Cheyenne show their true colors whenever a fundraiser comes around or whenever there's some event to support downtown businesses. I think that people here really do have a strong sense of community and solidarity and helping their neighbors, which is why I hope that our story helped to maybe start those conversations because I do feel like people here have open hearts and that they want to distribute equitably here in town. I think what we tried to get at in our story is kind of the results of this kind of implicit bias where city councilmen want to do something in their ward or the areas that their supporters reside in. And I think it's more of a subconscious thing that happens where the south side gets forgotten and left behind rather than meaning to leave them out in resource distribution.

Kathryn Palmer (21:26):

But whatever the reason is, it's still happening and still negatively affecting people in our communities, so I think maybe, to Maggie's point, I hope our article has pushed people to do maybe self-reflection.

Margaret Austin (21:43):

And I think-

Emy DiGrappa (21:44):

Go ahead.

Margaret Austin (21:45):

You know, I think we might have been seeing that already at least a little bit at the city council level. So we have the Cheyenne Aquatic Center, which is an enclosed pool with a water slide, diving board, some features like that, and then there's Johnson pool on the south side, which is just your average outdoor pool with a diving board. And so we have another six penny ballot coming up where voters approve kind of special projects that are amenities to the community or that are very much needed in the community.

(22:21):

And there is a plan or some funding on that ballot that would fund the planning and design for remodeling Johnson pool, which hasn't been done in in 70 years. And that was one of the issues we focused on in the story. So I think really part of it is just starting that conversation and having people open their own eyes to see what's happening so they can maybe think about it a little more in depth and keep that in mind when they're making decisions on where a new park should go in town or which pool should see the renovations next, or which school should get a new turf football field and all of that kind of stuff.

Emy DiGrappa (23:07):

So Maggie, where did you grow up?

Margaret Austin (23:09):

I grew up on the far south side of Chicago in a neighborhood called Beverly where a lot of the police and firefighters in the city live.

Emy DiGrappa (23:19):

Oh, that's interesting. And how long have you been in journalism?

Margaret Austin (23:22):

I graduated from the University of Missouri in 2019, and this is my first job out of college. So I've been here coming up on two years in September.

Emy DiGrappa (23:32):

And how are you enjoying it?

Margaret Austin (23:35):

Oh, I'm loving it. I think the community here is very open to talk with us. Both me and Katheryn have been here less than two years, and yet we have people like Miguel and Paulette who are willing to be open with us about a really difficult conversation because they feel like their voices can make a difference. So I think that it's just been a really enlightening experience and getting to talk to people in a different part of the country who live a different way of life. It's just been a lot of fun.

Emy DiGrappa (24:11):

How about you, Kathryn? Where did you grow up?

Kathryn Palmer (24:14):

I grew up outside of Jacksonville, Florida, and I lived in Tallahassee, which is the state Capitol of Florida, for nine years. I was a history teacher there and then I decided to become a journalist and that's actually where I met Maggie when I went to grad school at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, and this is my first journalism job, but I always say not my first job. No, but I'm really glad that I made the decision to become a journalist and it's really great just getting to talk to people about important issues all day.

Margaret Austin (25:01):

And what's funny too is we were actually in the introductory reporting class together.

Kathryn Palmer (25:07):

Yeah.

Margaret Austin (25:07):

So we've come a long way.

Kathryn Palmer (25:08):

We've come a long way. We have.

Emy DiGrappa (25:10):

And I think it would be a great place to be a reporter is in Wyoming. Wyoming is such a place where, with our small population, you can have so many great experiences.

Kathryn Palmer (25:26):

Yeah, it's funny because maybe in bigger cities people that are in positions of power might not be as open to talking to you, but I feel like here you could just call up the Speaker of the House on their cell phone and they've got 30 minutes for you. Maybe not all the time, but yeah it's nice to see that kind of access to sources.

Emy DiGrappa (25:54):

Yep. It's a great place to be. So thank you for joining me today.

Kathryn Palmer (25:57):

Thank you for having us.

Margaret Austin (25:58):

Thank you so much for your time.

Emy DiGrappa (26:15):

Thank you for joining us for this episode of What's Your Why, brought to you by Wyoming Humanities with support from the Wyoming Community Foundation and generous supporters like you. To learn more, go to thinkwhy.org. Subscribe and never miss a show.