By Laura Hancock, Casper Star Tribune
About four years ago, Cheyenne lobbyist Marian Smith Orr was hired by the Human Rights Campaign, a gay advocacy group, to champion for civil unions and non-discrimination bills in the Wyoming Legislature.
Orr, who has represented a number of interests in Cheyenne – from Philip Morris to Pfizer and the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association – was excited to tell lawmakers the story of LGBT Wyomingites and the need to update the law.
“I believe as the Equality State, we really need to do right by all of our citizens,” she said.
The vote was close, but the legislation ultimately failed.
Then a year later, Orr’s daughter, Katie, came out as a lesbian. The girl was in high school at the time. Orr admired her daughter’s courage to have the difficult conversation.
“I believe she felt like she could come to me first because she knew how I felt about the issue,” she said.
The political became the personal again earlier this year, as Cheyenne discussed the need for a nondiscrimination measure in the city. Then a candidate for mayor who leans to the right, Orr didn’t hesitate in her support.
“It has to be unconditional,” she said. “There can’t be any ifs.”
Orr won over the support of LGBT residents and their loved ones, said Sara Burlingame of Wyoming Equality.
On Nov. 8, Orr won over the support of the majority of Cheyenne voters.
“Marian’s support was not only consistent, it was just so well-articulated and unapologetic,” said Burlingame, who is a member of Orr’s transition team. “That more than anything is what caught my attention.”
Orr will be the capital city’s first woman mayor starting Jan. 3. It’s a full-time, nonpartisan job, managing the day-to-day operations of the city.
She will be a voting member of City Council at a time when sales tax revenue and state aid to the city is down. She campaigned on a platform of fixing the city’s blight, improving infrastructure, boosting public safety and steering city finances in a precarious time.
Orr, 46, grew up in Casper. During her campaign, she talked about city operations in her hometown that she believes represent good governance. She said she plans to adopt many Casper practices in Cheyenne.
Though she’ll have to give up her lobbying business, Orr will be paid $95,000 a year as mayor.
She is one of three Wyoming women elected mayor this month, bringing the total of women mayors to 17 out of 99 cities and towns, said Shelley Simonton of the Wyoming Association of Municipalities. Not all cities elect mayors, however. Some communities, such as Casper, have a city manager who runs the government from day-to-day, and the council elects a mayor.
A government town
Cheyenne is a government town, which sets it apart from the rest of the state, which mostly relies on the energy industry to provide jobs and fuel the economy. Many people in Cheyenne work for the state and federal government. The city is home of F.E. Warren Air Force Base as well.
Large building projects are underway in Cheyenne, such as reconstruction of the Wyoming Capitol. The city has recently experienced a population boom due to government projects, growth along Colorado’s Front Range and new computer centers and manufacturing facilities that the area’s economic development organization recruited.
Between 2010 and 2015, the population increased by 6.5 percent, to 63,335 residents.
“We have leveled off (in population growth) for now,” Orr said. “There is some building going on, but the latest economic indicator said that we are basically holding flat.”
However, as the population grew, infrastructure didn’t keep up, Orr said. She would like to fix roads and improve city properties, such as fire stations. She also wants to hire more cops, since the police force has fewer officers now than it did in 2010.
“That doesn’t mean we can’t have extra amenities,” she said. “But we have our house with a leaky roof and we keep putting additions on it without focusing on the basics.”
But that will be a challenge, as the state’s overall economy has plunged due to a downturn in oil, gas and coal.
“She’ll have to find ways to pay for all those things,” said Simonton, of the Association of Municipalities.
Sales taxes in Cheyenne are down about 13 percent compared with last year – not as severe as other parts of the state but a challenge nevertheless. State aid to cities and towns during the current two-year budget cycle is down by over 40 percentcompared with the last two-year budget cycle.
Orr said that the city staff under current Mayor Rick Kaysen, who decided not to seek re-election, is looking at ways to streamline and make reductions to save Cheyenne money.
“It’s also a matter of prioritizing the funds we do have … and being really good stewards of the money we do have,” she said.
Orr was born on an Air Force base near Tacoma, Washington. Her family was from Wyoming, and they returned when she was a child. She graduated from Natrona County High in 1988 and from the University of Wyoming in 1992 with a degree in communications.
Her father is artist and former Casper College art instructor Phil Smith. Her mother, Michelle Smith, was a grade school and special reading teacher in the Natrona County School District.
In the early 1920s, her great-grandparents started a clothing and dry goods store in Cheyenne called Kassis. But Cheyenne residents, back then as they do now, often prefer to shop in Colorado. So the family closed up shop and opened locations in Casper and Laramie. Her grandparents and father ran the Casper stores, which were downtown and in the Hilltop Shopping Center. They closed during the oil last bust in the late 1990s, she said.
When Orr visits her family in Casper, she notices there is less blight than in Cheyenne.
“I believe they’re doing a better job at keeping their neighborhoods pretty cleaned up,” she said. “When you get a bad apple, it hurts everybody’s property values. For instance, Casper has five code enforcement officers. There are codes on the books regarding safe structures, weeds and pests. We only have one code, nuisance officer. And quite frankly we let things get to the point where they really become not only an eyesore but a public safety issue.”
She has an effort she calls Fight the Blight, a committee of community leaders such as real estate agents and title company owners, who are looking at remedies to the problem including teams of trained volunteers who walk neighborhoods and notify property owners when they’re in violation of city code. That effort wouldn’t drain city policy resources, she said.
Cheyenne has many abandoned properties in commercial and residential neighborhoods.
“There are homes in what I consider a really nice area of downtown Cheyenne, the Avenues District, kind of by the Capitol — these homes are being broken into, drugs are being dealt out of basically by squatters,” she said. “So it really opens it up to criminal activity.”
She said Casper, which is slightly smaller than Cheyenne with about 60,000 residents, is run more efficiently. Casper has a better process for funneling taxes into reserves than Cheyenne, which she wants to model in the capital.
Casper is in tougher fiscal shape than Cheyenne. In an effort to save money, Casper city officials recently eliminated over 20 vacant positions. Another 24 employees took early retirement offers.
“Casper did a huge reduction in force,” Orr said. “Fortunately we’re not having to face that situation in Cheyenne … However, if we could streamline through attribution and make sure there’s not a duplication of services throughout city government, it will save everyone.”
Throughout the mayor’s race, especially in the general election when Orr faced Amy Surdam, director of the Downtown Development Authority, much of the debate concerned the city’s future.
Surdam argued Cheyenne should spend money on amenities to make it an attractive place for families.
Laramie County, after all, competes with the Colorado counties of Weld and Larimer for residents. In fact, nearly 1,700 workers from Colorado commuted to Laramie County to work, according to Census Bureau data in 2013. Communities in Colorado have plenty of walking and cycling paths, recreation centers and other amenities.
Orr, however, said that it’s inevitable that some people will choose to live in Colorado. She said it’s also inevitable that many people will shop in Denver. She noted her own family closed a business because Cheyenne shoppers preferred big-city retailers.
During her campaign, Orr hammered on the theme that what will make Cheyenne attractive is a low cost of living and improved roads and other infrastructure.
“Let’s face it, they don’t have wind the way we do,” she said. “And they can go down to Colorado and hike and play golf and go hiking. It’s generally 20 degrees warmer, especially in our springs. We can’t change the weather… I really believe it’s human nature to get out of your own element. There’s always a sense of cabin fever. People go to Denver for the weekend.”
“The reason families come here is because of our low taxes and for jobs.”
During her campaign, Orr used social media and knocked on a lot of doors — she figures she canvassed about 20 to 30 hours a week. She met people for coffee. She said she listened.
“What I heard time and again is we need to focus on needs before wants,” she said.
Follow political reporter Laura Hancock on Twitter @laurahancock