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Rep. James Byrd, D-Cheyenne, speaks during a news conference on Friday, Feb. 8, 2018, at the Cheyenne Depot Museum. Byrd announced his candidacy for Wyoming Secretary of State, a position currently held by Ed Murray, who has said he is not seeking re-election. Blaine McCartney/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – Cheyenne’s James Byrd is looking to wear a new hat in public office as he announced his candidacy Thursday to be Wyoming’s next secretary of state.

Byrd is serving his fifth term in the Wyoming Legislature representing House District 44. But he will not seek another term as he made the decision to campaign to become one of Wyoming’s five statewide elected officials.

“I want to push the envelope a little bit more,” Byrd said after his announcement at the Cheyenne Depot Museum. “In the secretary of state’s office, there are a lot of things that are not getting done, a lot of things we can push the envelope on that are really inside the purview of the secretary of state.”

The field for that office is wide open after Secretary of State Ed Murray announced last month he would not seek another term. Byrd is the first person to announce their candidacy to replace Murray.

For much of 2017, many saw Murray as a potential frontrunner to be Wyoming’s next governor. But that was thrown into upheaval in November when a woman accused Murray of sexual assault more than 30 years ago. Murray’s announcement he would not run for re-election to his office or for governor came on the same day news broke that a second woman is accusing him of inappropriate sexual behavior.

Byrd is currently one of only 12 Democrats in the 90-seat Legislature. Cheyenne’s Sara Burlingame confirmed Thursday morning she would seek to fill Byrd’s vacated seat in 2018 as a Democrat. No other candidates have publicly announced their intent to seek office in House District 44. The official filing period is May 17-June 1.

During his announcement, Byrd acknowledged some of his constituents expressed concern about him leaving a tightly held seat for progressives in the Legislature. But he said he expects more Democrats will be elected in 2018 than are serving now.

“I don’t think you’ll have to worry anything about us losing our grip there,” Byrd said.

Sitting on the Wyoming Legislature’s Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee provided Byrd with critical insight that makes him qualified to seek the secretary of state position, he told supporters.

“I’m very well aware what the office is about and what the functions of the office are,” Byrd said.

In 2017, the Wyoming Legislature passed a bill starting ENDOW, Gov. Matt Mead’s initiative to diversify the state’s economy during the next 20 years. Depending on the mining sector for around 70 percent of the state’s revenue, Wyoming has been in budget peril for the last several years as part of its perpetual boom-and-bust cycle.

Byrd said he would use the office to advance economic diversification.

Byrd said he would not only foster an environment that recruits businesses, but also encourages research and development that could make Wyoming home to world-changing inventions that would bring prosperity.

Coal, he said, is a sector where innovation could yield a new future for the state. Though coal production historically has yielded a significant portion of the state’s revenue, Wyoming’s coal industry plummeted in 2015, with jobs lost and tax dollars dwindling. Coal production has seen a bump recently, but the state’s economic forecasters and the Annual Energy Outlook report released this month by the U.S. Department of Energy indicated the industry has likely peaked in the Cowboy State.

If Wyoming can do more to incentivize research and development, Byrd predicts the resource could be used in new ways that would be even more lucrative than burning coal.

“Where we’re going with coal probably hasn’t been invented yet,” he said. “It hasn’t been because we haven’t gotten started. We haven’t taken our energy reserves and come up with the next big thing. The world is waiting, and we’re doing business as usual. … Now we’re scrambling trying to figure out what to do. As secretary of state, that’s some of the influence I could wield, is getting us there.”

A fifth-generation Wyomingite who grew up in Cheyenne, Byrd said he felt great pride knowing his grandfather was in the first graduating class of Cheyenne High School. As a child, he said he remembered being in the very depot where he made his announcement when his grandfather was the supervising foreman of the railroad’s wheel shop.

Running as a Democrat in Wyoming seems like an uphill battle to many. But something Byrd always appreciated about Wyoming, he said, is the way people are judged for the quality of their character. He described going with his grandparents to the South during the Jim Crow era and how different that was from his experience in Wyoming. That, Byrd said, showed him that while Wyoming is an overwhelmingly conservative state, it has a history of progressive thinking.

“We’d go visit relatives who lived in Southern states, and there were drinking fountains I could not drink out of, and I was directed to a drinking fountain you wouldn’t let your animals drink out of,” Byrd said. “I didn’t get it then, but (my grandmother) knew what was going on when we traveled outside of Wyoming. That’s how progressive this state has been from the very start. Those are the ideals that have grown up in me: that every single person is a person, (and) everybody brings something of value to the table.”

Byrd’s mother, Harriet “Liz” Byrd, was the first African-American woman to serve in the Wyoming Legislature. She died in January 2015. If elected, James Byrd would be the first African-American secretary of state in Wyoming. But he said that isn’t a factor playing in his mind as he begins his campaign.

“I’m not doing it for the accolades of the office or position in state government,” Byrd said. “I’m doing it because I can rattle some cages, and at the end of the day, I think I can improve the stature of the state of Wyoming.”

Joel Funk is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s state government reporter. He can be reached at jfunk@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3124. Follow him on Twitter at @jmacfunk.

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