Cheyenne Mayoral Race Is Historic And Heated

Nov 3, 2016

Marian Orr (left) and Amy Surdam (right) are vying to become Cheyenne's next mayor.

Mayoral candidates Marian Orr and Amy Surdam were friends for a couple of years. Then, they each learned the other was seeking to become Cheyenne’s next mayor. Marian Orr said they decided to meet up.

“We had coffee,” said Orr. “I knew that she was considering, and I wanted to be very upfront with her that I was considering the race, as well.”

Amy Surdam remembered the meeting, as well.

“And I just said OK let’s just be sure that we get to the other side and can be friends, number one. And number two let’s get one of us elected,” said Surdam.

Getting one of them elected is in the bag, since Surdam and Orr emerged from the primaries as the top two picks for mayor. They are both making history, too, ensuring that Cheyenne will have a female mayor for the first time in nearly 150 years.

But staying friends remains to be seen. 

The campaign became heated as it moved into the general election. It started on primary night, when Amy Surdam referred to the two of them as girls in an interview with the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

“I said ‘I can’t believe the community put two girls forward,” said Surdam. “I guess I didn’t realize that was an offensive term to some females.”

Marian Orr took issue with that characterization.

“I really felt like that diminished the role of these two strong women,” said Orr.

“There is certainly some negativity in the campaign right now,” said James Chilton, a reporter for the Wyoming Tribune Eagle who has been following the race.

Chilton said even with occasional personal digs, the candidates’ disagreements throughout their three debates focused mainly on policy and who would be the better mayor.

“Based on what their goals are, what their policies are towards handling Cheyenne’s infrastructure needs versus investing in amenities, which really has been to me the primary issue,” said Chilton.

Cheyenne is facing a structural budget deficit, especially concerning its roads. According to public works engineer Craig Lavoy, to adequately maintain existing roads the city would need $7 million per year. Right now, it receives roughly $4.5 million.

Marian Orr has said she wants to address infrastructure by fixing roads, improving police response time and returning to what she calls the “basics of good government.”

Amy Surdam is running on a platform that would balance the city’s infrastructure needs with creating new amenities, like a children’s museum or a rec center, and increasing tourism. She argued Cheyenne should be a place people want to live.

“[A place] that our kids want to come back, that our millennials want to stay, our professionals. That it’s not a place that people settle on but that it’s a place that people strive to be a part of,” said Surdam.

Chilton stressed that the decision is an important one for residents because unlike many other communities, Cheyenne’s mayor actually runs the city.

“Whoever we elect as the city’s next mayor is going to have the ability to establish a cabinet, put people in place underneath them that will be able to help analyze the issues facing the city,” he said.

Surdam said she is worried that people don’t understand there are clear differences between herself and Orr.

“It’s always still amazing to me when I’m out door knocking that people will say oh either way we’re going to win because we’re going to have a female. And I’m like wait a second there’s a lot of differences.”

Surdam and Orr certainly differ in how they want to run the city, but these two might be more similar than they think. They both come from professional backgrounds, are heavily involved in the community, move in similar social circles and neither one has run for office before.

Orr has been a lobbyist in the Wyoming legislature for more than 20 years. She argued that has given her an intimate working knowledge of government.

“I really know the flavor of the state, and how the state’s economic picture really trickles down to how cities towns and counties and communities like Cheyenne operate,” said Orr.

Surdam countered that as a nurse practitioner and executive director of non-profit organizations, including the Downtown Development Authority and Children's Museum of Cheyenne, she has a broad range of experience from which to draw.

With their respective backgrounds, Orr and Surdam also have broad networks of potential donors. Surdam received $30,664 in campaign contributions, largely during the primary race. Orr received $18,690, with two-thirds of that coming from individual contributions.

With lots of money raised on both sides and no local polling it is tough to say who will win, but both candidates recognize they are making history in this all female race. Marian Orr said Cheyenne is ready for a new chapter.

“People are excited. They really are.”

This story is part of the series Women Run The West – a public radio collaboration exploring the role of women in western politics. You can hear more stories at womenrunthewest.org.