Mike Sullivan: Former Wyoming Governor who Embodies the Spirit of the West

"I don't think my values are any different than most parents would want to teach there children, that's common decency, and being concerned about other people's views and problems. My father every time we left the house, I remember he used to say "be decent"."

Former Wyoming Governor Mike Sullivan and U.S Ambassador to Ireland talks civility in politics and how a Democratic governor can serve two terms as governor in a Republican state.

Sullivan was a key participant in the 1998 peace accord in Northern Ireland and named the 2016 Citizen of the West.

Emy diGrappa (00:00):

(Music) Support for this podcast is brought to you by the Wyoming Humanities. We take a closer look at our human experiences and use stories to explore culture, history, and contemporary issues. You can find us on thinkwy.org.

Mike Sullivan (00:20):

My father, of every time we left the house, I remember he used to say, "Be decent." And that covered a lot of sins.

Emy diGrappa (00:26):

Hell, I'm Emy diGrappa. And this is What's Your Why? Each week we bring you stories, asking our guest the question why. We learn about their passion, why they do what they do, why should we care, and what can we learn? What better place to explore the human landscape than from the state known for its incredible landscapes, Wyoming? And what better organization than Wyoming Humanities? Service our state for over 45 years, we share stories, ideas, and wisdom about the human experience. Welcome to What's Your Why? Today, we are talking to former Wyoming governor Mike Sullivan. Governor Sullivan served as governor of Wyoming from 1987 to 1995. Welcome, Governor Sullivan.

Mike Sullivan (01:24):

Thank you very much, Emy.

Emy diGrappa (01:25):

My first question is to tell us about your journey into politics and your history.

Mike Sullivan (01:30):

Well, I suspect my journey started early. I was raised in Douglas, Wyoming. My father was a lawyer in Douglas. He was a Democrat. There weren't many Democrats in Converse County. Still aren't many Democrats, but there are more, I think, than there were then. And because he was one of the few attorneys there, he ran for county attorney which was an elected office. And he ran on two or three occasions and was elected twice, I believe. And we had to help him campaign. And so my first door to door was as... at about eight years old, I suspect. So, there'd always been a political part of our lives. And he was always interested in... in policy and... and politics. And our grandfather who was a lawyer in Laramie was similarly involved in politics, but not elected. He was just working for... for Democrats. So it was always there.

Mike Sullivan (02:24):

I was involved in the student senate at the University, as was my wife Jane, which is where we met. Then I graduated from law school and thought I'd practice law for the rest of my career, until I went through a midlife crisis after about 25 years of practicing law, and thought, "You know, maybe there's something else I could do. And if I didn't embarrass myself, I could maybe add to the conversation. And so I ran for governor. It was following Ed Herschler's, is it three terms as... as a Democratic governor. And wasn't anticipated that Wyoming was ready to... to elect another Democrat. But as things turned out, they did. And that opened up a whole new career and all kinds of doors that I never anticipated opening or walking through.

Emy diGrappa (03:11):

That is interesting. Did you and your wife Jane get married while you were in law school?

Mike Sullivan (03:17):

Between... I graduated from engineering in 1961 and Jane graduated from education. She was going to teach in Torrington and I was going to law school. And we concluded that summer that I might not get through law school if I had to chase to Torrington every weekend. So we were married. She got a job and put me through law school. And it was a great decision.

Emy diGrappa (03:40):

It is a great decision (laughs). And how many children do you have?

Mike Sullivan (03:41):

We have three children.

Emy diGrappa (03:42):

Okay. How did politics and being a governor change your family life?

Mike Sullivan (03:47):

Well, I answered that question one time at a national governors conference with all the governors and their families, doing a program on family life as governors. And... And I said, "I don't think it made much of a difference. I... I... We got along fine. We didn't have any difficulties." And our oldest daughter, Michelle, was next to respond, and she said, "I don't know what planet he's been living on. But he obviously doesn't know what's going on." So it did change, obviously things changed a lot. But I think we all came through it better for it.

Emy diGrappa (04:18):

What kind of values do you teach your children and... and even your grandchildren about politics and, you know, working asa government servant?

Mike Sullivan (04:27):

I don't think the values are any different than most parents would want to teach their children. And that's common decency and being concerned about other people's view and other people's problem. And my father, of every time we left the house, I remember he used to say, "Be decent." And that covered a lot of sins. That's sort of the way we've operated.

Emy diGrappa (04:49):

Well, what is decent about today's political climate? And what is civil about it? And so I... I think when your children and your grandchildren are watching television or listening to what's going on, what are they taking away from that?

Mike Sullivan (05:03):

I'd have to say it's fraying on the edges, particularly with the presidential campaign that we're going through as we speak. There's an awful lot of it that I don't understand and... and view as inconsistent with what I think politics ought to be about and the civility of politics. And I'm just hopeful that we'll get... we'll get through it and find out how to get back on the regular road. Because I don't think demeaning, dehumanizing, challenging people on facts that may not be correct is the way politics ought to be conducted, and I don't think it's the way democracy can be sustained.

Emy diGrappa (05:42):

I do think it's interesting that you live in a mostly red state, like you said. Douglas is... is a red count. And you were able as a Democrat to win. What do you think was the quality that you brought that Republicans would vote for you?

Mike Sullivan (06:00):

Well, I've always contended that the best part of Wyoming is there aren't very many people. And the worst part of Wyoming is there aren't very many people. But because there aren't very many people, there is clearly a personal relationship that develops. And having been here all my life and having been here all... nearly all my life when I was elected, I had friends that weren't dependent upon politics, that knew me for who I was, either as a lawyer or as a student at the University or as our family, and knew Jane because she grew up in Wyoming. And so they recognize you not as a politician, but as somebody who... who shares the same values. And in electing a governor, that the people were able to say, "Look, we can forgive his registration and he's not so far off we don't think he can do a good job." And... and as a result, I got elected.

Emy diGrappa (06:58):

And... and how did you become ambassador to Ireland? How did that happen?

Mike Sullivan (07:02):

Well, for the eight years I was governor, I served with Bill Clinton. I was the first governor to endorse him when he decided to run because I thought he was the best talent the Demo... the Democrats had. I thought it was a little early at the time he announced. George Bush had a 90% popularity. But I had told him that when he decided to run, I'd... I'd be happy to support him. And I did, and he always appreciated the fact that I did that. And we were friends. He wanted... He talked about coming back to Washington to do something in administration, and I said I didn't want to do that, but if they had a good ambassadorship, I might be willing. And I didn't campaign for it, but one day I got a call and they said, "Your name doesn't fall off the list, we want to know whether you're interested." I said, "Well, I can't tell you until I talk to Jane."

Mike Sullivan (07:51):

So I broke it on her after about four hours that evening at home. And she said, "You waited four hours to tell me this?" And I didn't know I... at that point I would get the appointment, but they wanted to know whether we had an interest. She said yes even though she was just sort of settling back in to Casper where our home was. But she said, "Yeah, I'll do it again with you if it comes." It did, and it was a remarkable experience just as governor was.

Emy diGrappa (08:17):

What was your favorite story working as the ambassador to Ireland? What do you think you accomplished there?

Mike Sullivan (08:23):

It was a remarkable experience. And this was an experience, uh, that even in my fondest dreams I could never have, just as being governor was, I could never have anticipated that I'd get elected governor, it wasn't something that was on my menu or my goals for years. It happened and I was thrilled with it and enjoyed the work. Then to go to Ireland where my great-grandfather left at age 14 or 15 in the mid-1800s, uh, was something that I could never have imagined in my fondest dreams. It was a wonderful experience to represent the United States in a foreign country.

Emy diGrappa (09:02):

Why do you think there aren't more women in politics in Wyoming? Why do you think that is?

Mike Sullivan (09:09):

That's an interesting question that I don't know that I have an answer for. I... I think that more and more women are expressing an interest, and there are women like those that are in... in... and Marilyn Kite who is doing the forum tonight, uh, who are encouraging women to be involved. And I would do the same thing. I've always said women rock the cradle in this world. And they call the shots. (Laughs) And... And they should. And... And they're great, uh, multitaskers. And in... This is a complex world where you have to do a lot of multitasking. So I would encourage anyone who had an interest in politics to join the fray.

Emy diGrappa (09:55):

Well, thank you so much for joining me.

Mike Sullivan (09:57):

Thank you.

Emy diGrappa (09:57):

Thank you for your time.

Mike Sullivan (09:57):

I enjoyed it.

Emy diGrappa (10:03):

(Music) Thank you for joining us for this episode of What's Your Why? A production of Think Wy, Wyoming Humanities. This has been executive producer Emy diGrappa. Please subscribe and never miss a show. For more information, go to ThinkWy.org.