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Former U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi Remembered For Political Career, Bipartisanship

Headshot of Sen. Mike Enzi
U.S. House Office of Photography

"You never know where life's gonna lead you." Mike Enzi said that at the beginning of his speech announcing his retirement from the U.S. Senate.

Enzi died surrounded by family on Monday, Jul. 26, 2021, following a bicycle accident near his home. Enzi had been life-flighted to a hospital in Colorado a few days before. He was 77 years old.

The senator was born in 1944 in Washington State, but attended school in both Thermopolis and Sheridan. After college, graduate school and serving in the Wyoming National Guard, Enzi owned and operated a shoe store in Gillette.

It was in Gillette where he settled down with his wife Diana and kicked off his political career that spanned more than 40 years.

Enzi became Gillette's mayor in 1975 and ran the city for seven years.

"Gillette truly kind of got started, as far as the community that it is now," said current Mayor Louise Carter-King. "He knew that this town could become so much more. And it has. It has because this community has continued his legacy over all these years."

Enzi got the Optional 1% sales tax passed in the county, which supports major infrastructure projects throughout the community. It was under him, Carter-King said that the Madison Pipeline started to be built, bringing more water access to the town.

Enzi has left a huge impact on the city but the job also left a big impact on him, she said.

"He just would always say, 'It was my favorite, but also the hardest job that I ever had,'" Carter-King recalled. "He just said, 'You're on the frontlines.' And you do answer every phone call and talk to people who want to talk to you, where the higher up you go, the less and less you see of the people you serve."

As an example of this, Carter-King remembered a story Enzi used to tell about a snowstorm

"Mayor Enzi got a call from someone. This guy said he had just got his driveway plowed out, and the snow plow came and covered it up. And he called Mayor Enzi and just was chewing him out. And Mayor Enzi said, 'Okay,' hung up on him, and then about 10 minutes showed up at his house with his shovel."

From there, Enzi served in both chambers of the state legislature. He worked hard on education, budget and revenue issues. Current Wyoming U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis succeeded Enzi in Washington. But before that, they worked together in Cheyenne, and then in Washington when Lummis was a U.S. representative.

"I did kind of follow him around like a puppy dog, I used to joke. Because although I was in the Wyoming House before he arrived, he moved to the State Senate before I did," Lummis said. "Then we continued to work together on issues when he was in the Senate and I was state treasurer, and when I was in the U.S. House and he was in the Senate."

After the state legislature, Enzi wasn't sure about any more political ambitions. He was recovering from open heart surgery when he finally decided to run.

"I've been getting encouragement to run for Sen. Simpson's open U.S. Senate seat from friends, city council, county commissioners, and legislators. I'd been saying no. I'd been feeling sorry for myself. In church, my wandering mind said, 'I put in lots of public service. I've had this heart problem. It's about time I got to hunt and fish.' Then, I got this nudge, 'I didn't keep you alive to hunt and fish.' I left church in tears and this journey began without ever having run for statewide office," Enzi said back at his retirement announcement in 2019.

Enzi defeated John Barrasso in the primary and ended up serving for 24 years, the third longest tenure of a Wyoming-based Senator.

During that time he was involved in key issues, such as being on the ground floor of developing No Child Left Behind and later fixing it, to health care reform, a concept he originally supported but later opposed when it became the Affordable Care Act, which he thought went too far. He also fought to rein in federal spending.

Despite those hot button issues, Enzi was generally well liked in the Senate. He even developed a solid bipartisan relationship with Sen. Ted Kennedy. Former U.S. Sen. Al Simpson said Enzi's legacy will always be about his character.

"He knew how to make things work. He knew how to take all the bitterness and the nastiness out of it, sit down with somebody you didn't agree with and make things work," Simpson said.

Many of Enzi's former colleagues in Congress have been sharing stories about Enzi on the floor of the Senate, most especially about Enzi's 80/20 rule.

"The beginning of each year, each member of his committee made a list of their priorities. Most years there was bipartisan agreement on 80 percent of the priorities. Mike Enzi would then focus on that 80 percent of which they agreed, and he would leave out the 20 percent on which they disagreed. As a result of this approach, Mike Enzi wrote more than 80 bills, which were signed into law by four different presidents of the United States, two republicans and two Democrats," Wyoming U.S. Sen. John Barrasso said of Enzi on the Senate floor.

During his Senate career, Enzi held positions of leadership. He was the first accountant to chair the Senate Budget Committee, and he was also the chair of the Health, Labor, Education and Pension Committee.

Barrasso said Enzi was his mentor in the Senate, but more so a good friend.

"The first day I came to the Senate, Mike gave me a book called One Quiet Moment, which is a daily prayer devotional. And he wrote in it, he said, 'Here's a book that has helped me through 11 years of the Senate,' that was at the time, 11 years. 'So it's amazing how often the message of the day relates to what's going on in my life. These messages provide strength,'" Barrasso said.

The day after Enzi's death, Barrasso said the message was especially apt.

"For July 27, the message is from Philippians, and it is 'I press on. I press on,'" he read.

Back in 2019, Enzi decided 24 years in the Senate would be enough and it was time to return to what he valued most in his life: his family.

Many who spoke about Enzi acknowledged the priorities Enzi had beyond his political ones. Enzi was well known for being an Eagle Scout as well as a fisherman, husband, father and grandfather.

"His heart was with God, country, family and scouting. And that was where he spent his time," Sen. Lummis said. "So what I learned from him is to look at how you spend your time. See if you're spending it on the things you really care about. And if you're not, you need to re-evaluate."

At his farewell address to Congress, Enzi thanked his wife Diana for her continued support.

"You supported me more than anyone can truly comprehend. And in no uncertain terms. I couldn't have done it without you. It's been more than 50 amazing years together. And I look forward to our next adventure," he said back in December.

That next adventure started this past January when he had hoped to spend time with grandchildren and get back to fishing. That was cut short this week. Enzi is survived by his wife, children and grandchildren.

Catherine Wheeler comes to Wyoming from Kansas City, Missouri. She has worked at public media stations in Missouri and on the Vox podcast "Today, Explained." Catherine graduated from Fort Lewis College with a BA in English. She recently received her master in journalism from the University of Missouri. Catherine enjoys cooking, looming, reading and the outdoors.
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