Perry on Politics: Teno's last laugh

Published by James M. Perry on .

By James M. Perry

Hardly anyone remembers him now, but, years ago, he was my favorite member of the House of Representatives.

roncalioHis name was Teno Roncalio and he was the sole member of the House from Wyoming.

Teno was smart, funny, honest. hard-working, and good company. He was also the kind of Congressman we rarely see today. He was born in Rock Springs, in Sweetwater County, in western Wyoming in 1916, the eighth of nine children of Italian immigrants. His father, Frank, was a coal miner; his mother, Ernesta, a homemaker. Teno saw combat in the Army during World War 2, and won a Silver Star for gallantry during the hedgerow fighting in Normandy in 1944. Thanks to the GI Bill, he was able to enroll at the University of Wyoming when he came home, earning both his BA and a law degree.

Teno was chairman of the Wyoming delegation at the 1960 Democratic convention and it was his state's votes that put Jack Kennedy over the top. He was elected to Congress in 1964 but gave up his seat two years later to run for the Senate against the state's lackluster governor, Clifford P. Hansen. Hansen won.

Teno ran for the House again in 1970, and won by 608 votes. He was re-elected in 1972, 1974, and 1976. It was during these years that I broke my rule to avoid social contact with politicians. Teno and I became friends, lunching together every now and again. I took him to one of those ludicrous White House Correspondents dinners. He had a grand time.

Eight years in Washington apparently was enough. Teno announced he would not run in 1978, retiring to Wyoming, where he always seemed more comfortable, to become a special master in a dispute over water rights in the Big Horn Mountains. He died, at the age of 87, in 2003.

Teno was the last Democrat to serve in Congress from Wyoming. He was succeeded -- some of you may have seen this coming -- by Dick Cheney.

And now Dick Cheney's older daughter, Elizabeth, or Liz, soon to be 47, is challenging Mike Enzi, 69, for the seat in the Senate he has held since 1997.LizCheney

Liz Cheney is her father's daughter, taking hard-line stands on almost everything. But Enzi is just as conservative, though not as boisterous. He opposes abortion and gay rights. He wants to crack down on immigration (more fences on the border), and he's against desecration of the flag and for almost limitless rights to carry guns. The National Journal voted him the eighth most conservative member of the Senate.

Liz Cheney has never lived in Wyoming. She grew up in the Washington suburbs, where she was a cheerleader at McLean High School in Virginia. She graduated from Colorado College and earned her law degree at the University of Chicago. She worked in various capacities at the State Department. She is married to Philip Perry, the one-time chief counsel of the Department of Homeland Security. They have five daughters, none of whom has ever spent much time in faraway Wyoming.

Enzi says he's going to run again, setting up what will surely be a hotly contested and closely watched Republican primary.

Teno would be appalled by the political beliefs of both candidates, but -- smart old political pro that he was -- he would have welcomed the sight of two right-wing Republicans banging away at each other, shouting "I'm crazier than you are."

James M. Perry, a prominent veteran political reporter, is contributing regular observations for Mr. Perry was the chief political correspondent of The Wall Street Journal until his retirement. Prior to that, he covered national politics for the Dow Jones weekly, The National Observer.

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