Mike Enzi was a conservative in ideology and temperament, a soft-spoken son of the West who shunned partisan vitriol and sought compromise on policy, but never on principle.
Enzi, a longtime U.S. senator from Wyoming, died July 26 from injuries suffered in a bicycle accident near his home in Gillette, Wyoming. He was 77.
Michael Bradley Enzi was born in Bremerton, Washington, on Feb. 1, 1944. He grew up in the Wyoming towns of Thermopolis and Sheridan, the latter a frontier town perched halfway between Yellowstone National Park and Mount Rushmore.
He earned a degree in accounting from George Washington University in 1966 and, two years later, an MBA in retail marketing from the University of Denver.
In 1969, he married Diana Buckley, a union that lasted 52 years until his untimely passing. Enzi and his young wife moved to Gillette shortly after their wedding, where he ran a shoe store.
They never envisioned a life in politics. Enzi recounted how at the age of 29, he spoke at a Jaycees meeting in Cody, Wyoming, where another speaker at the event—then-state Rep. Alan Simpson, who went on to become a three-term U.S. senator—challenged him to run for office.
“It’s time you put your money where your mouth is on this leadership stuff and get into politics,” Simpson is said to have told Enzi. “That town you live in, Gillette, needs a mayor.”
Enzi would eventually succeed Simpson in the Senate, but first, he had to overcome his wife’s initial reaction to a career in politics.
“On the way home from that Cody meeting while my wife was driving, I told her what Sen. Simpson had said, and that I was thinking, maybe I should run for mayor,” Enzi said years later. “It must have come as quite a shock, because she ended up swerving into [a ditch] and then coming back up onto the road.”
Enzi nevertheless heeded Simpson’s advice and won election as mayor of Gillette in 1974. He brought an accountant’s approach to his two-term mayoral stint, focusing on budgets, planning, and agendas.
In 1987, he won election to the Wyoming House of Representatives and, in 1991, to the Wyoming state Senate.
Enzi won the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate in 1996 by defeating John Barrasso, who would later join his erstwhile rival in the Senate in 2007.
Enzi succeeded Simpson in the Senate by defeating his Democratic rival in the 1996 election with 54% of the vote.
He would go on to serve four Senate terms, never drawing less than 71% of the vote in any of his re-election bids. He served as chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions and later the Budget Committee. He retired from the Senate in January.
During his 24-year Senate tenure, Enzi took consistently conservative positions on social and economic issues. He was especially active on energy matters, backing drilling on public lands, offshore, and in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.
His only real political challenge came in 2013, when Liz Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, announced that she would seek to unseat him in the 2014 GOP Senate primary.
Cheney made issues of Enzi’s age and his low-key style, “presenting herself as a vocal conservative in the mold of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and other recent arrivals in Congress who have made provocative statements and have given less deference than their predecessors to the gentility of the Senate,” according to a Wall Street Journal article at the time.
Cheney withdrew from the race in January 2014, and Enzi easily won re-election to his fourth and final Senate term.
Despite fending off that challenge, Enzi’s approach to conservative politics seemed increasingly at odds with the provocative Twitter-happy spirit of the age. He valued Senate tradition and, above all, its institutional commitment to civility.
“Generally speaking, people can talk civilly on 80% of the issues,” he said during his final speech on the Senate floor. “It’s only about 20% of issues where you will find real contention.”
“It is all about focusing on what you can get done,” he continued, “and not focusing on the points of disagreement.”
“Following the 80% tool will not get you notoriety, fame, or even the headlines,” he acknowledged. “Most media coverage requires ‘blood in the water.’ However, the ability to work among your peers, using this method can—and will—move us forward and get things done.”
Enzi is survived by his wife, daughters Amy Strom and Emily McGrady, son Brad Enzi, and four grandchildren.
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