Remembering the Senate's Gary Cooper

"Rollins talks too much," was Craig Thomas’ way of of dismissing reporters’ queries about the involvement of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s boss in Wyoming’s special election for the U.S. House in 1989.

Then-state legislator Thomas was the Republican nominee to succeed former Rep. Dick Cheney, who had resigned from Congress earlier in the year to become secretary of defense.  Since the Bush (41) Administration had taken office in January, Republicans had lost an embarassing string of special U.S. House races, including the Indiana House district once held by Vice-President Dan Quayle.

Wyoming’s at-large U.S. House district appeared to be next domino to fall.  The Democratic nominee was State Sen. John Vinich, who had barely been edged in the November ’88 Senate race by incumbent Republican Malcolm Wallop. 

At a point in race when  it appeared that Vinich was ahead, NRCC head Ed Rollins was quoted as saying he would assume "personal command" of Thomas’ campaign — remarks which fueled Vinich’s charge that opponent Thomas was a tool of national Republicans in Washington.

Two-fisted former Marine Thomas hit hard.  In four terse words, he blew Vinich’s charge and Rollins’ quote out of the water.  No one in Wyoming now doubted who was running the Republican campaign.  Thomas and campaign manager Liz Brimmer (daughter of former Republican gubernatorial candidate Bud Brimmer) went on the offensive, slamming Vinich’s ties to organized labor and out-of-state environmentalists.  Thomas defeated Vinich with 59% of the vote — in the process, avenging the 1970 defeat for the same House seat by his father-in-law Harry Roberts.

When he died last week after a long bout with leukemia, Thomas — 74 and in his third term as Wyoming’s U.S. Senator — was recalled as a man of few words, who said what he meant and went on with his (and the people’s) business.  Thomas’ handling of a sensitive situation in his maiden run for the House in 1989 gave me my first sense of the man. 

Craig Thomas seemed to be a true-to-life version of the Western roles Gary Cooper played on the silver screen — hard-nosed, determined, a man of the land and one who accomplished things with as few words as possible. 

Born on a ranch near Cody, Thomas earned a degree from the University of Wyoming and served a stint in the Marine Corps.  After jobs with the Wyoming Farm Bureaus and the Wyoming Rural Electric Association, he won election to the state legislature. Following his election to the House in 1989, Thomas never had a close contest.  When Sen. Wallop announced his resignation in 1994, the state’s lone U.S. House Member was the obvious Republican candidate.  Typically, when I called Thomas’ House office to ask if he was running, the congressman himself called back, without anyone placing the call for him.  "Yeah, I’ll probably do this," he told me.  He did, defeating two-term Gov. Mike Sullivan with 59% of the vote.

Thomas was an offensive lineman behind the Bush tax cuts as a Member of the Senate Finance Committee.  But his particular interest was the land, and he believed fervently in respect for the ranchers and landowners who worked the land, as well as those who felt the most important stand was being a custodian of the environment.  He was also a player in the unsuccessful fight to open up the Arctic Natural Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for oil exploration.

Craig Thomas may not been a senator that tourists recognized and asked to pose for photos in the Capitol, as they do often with Hilary Clinton and John McCain.  But in nearly a half-century of public service, he lived up to axiom that the late House Speaker Sam Rayburn was the ideal for a Member of Congress: "a workhorse, not a showhorse."