Teton County, Wyo., a leader in per-capita political donations

Posted: Tuesday, October 26, 2004

CHEYENNE, Wyo. It may be the only place in all of Wyoming where a vegetarian can get a respectable lunch at any number of eateries and candidates looking for cash can count on filling their pockets with rich people's money.

It's Teton County, per capita the wealthiest county in the United States, and home to the trendy and wealthy resort town of Jackson. It is also the nation's per-capita leader in large individual political donations.

For the 2003-2004 election cycle through Oct. 4, residents of Teton County, population 18,625, had given $1.36 million in individual donations of $200 or more to federal candidates, parties and political action committees, according to figures compiled by the Federal Elections Commission for the Center for Responsive Politics.

That comes to $72.92 per person more than residents of Washington, D.C., (No. 2, $65.92), or Manhattan, (No. 4, $55.98).

''It's been a combination of very intense political activism coupled with a fair degree of political money, both colliding in the same spot,'' summed up Mike Gierau, Wyoming's Democratic Party chair and a resident of Jackson, the Teton County seat.

According to the Internal Revenue Service, The average household income in Teton County in 2002, the most recent year for which data is available, was $107,694.

The uber-rich with vacation homes there include Vice President Dick Cheney. Whenever Air Force Two is parked at the airport, military trucks scan the wide sky with radar and fly fishermen pen angry letters to the editor about low-flying Black Hawk helicopters terrorizing the cutthroat.

''They used to say you had to be a millionaire to live here, but now they say you have to be a billionaire,'' lamented the county's elections supervisor, Sharon Nethercott. ''For someone who's lived here all their lives, it's really different. It's probably turned around 360 degrees in the last 30 years.''

Other wealthy resort areas with small populations rank high in donations as well. No. 3 is Pitkin County, Colo., where Aspen is the county seat ($55.98). No. 12 ($22.80) is Blaine County, Idaho, home of the Sun Valley resort area, where John Kerry and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, have a ski getaway valued at nearly $5 million.

Warmer vacation destinations in the top 30 include Collier County, Fla., which includes Naples and Marco Island (No. 24, $16.19 per person); and Duke's County, Mass., better known as Martha's Vineyard (No. 25, $15.80).

Raw political activism, also coupled with money, of course, seems to be the most common thread among the counties and cities near the top of the list, however. For instance, communities around Washington, D.C., ranked very high on the list.

''There are obviously a lot of political people here and obviously a lot of lobbyists who know the value of giving and give a lot of money,'' said Steve Weiss, spokesperson for the Center for Responsive Politics, based in Washington.

Then there are places like Shackelford County, Texas, (No. 6, $47.78) which has neither fancy resorts nor lots of lobbyists who are giving out of their own pockets. But it turns out that a fair amount of wealth can be found deep in the heart of Texas, just northeast of Abilene.

''My educated guess is this,'' said James Garrett, a former Shackelford County Democratic chairman and a resident of the county seat of Albany. ''We've probably got more millionaires per square inch in this little town than anywhere in the U.S. I suppose that one of them has given enough in a big chunk to take care of all of us.''

Oil, he said, has made many Shackelford County residents wealthy and most stayed close to home. ''They are really good about loyalty to our hometown,'' he said.

They are also loyal Republicans. Of the $149,176 donated to Republicans and Democrats from Shackelford County, pop. 3,305, 99 percent has gone to Republicans.

While Teton County has far more registered Republicans than Democrats 6,246 to 2,692 the figures show 50 percent of the individual donations raised there went to Democrats and 49 percent to Republicans.

''I would say that when I first came here it was predominantly Republican, probably almost 100 percent,'' said Jackie Montgomery, Teton County's Re-publican chair, who moved there from New York about 27 years ago.

Both parties routinely hold high-dollar fund-raisers in Jackson Hole, the spectacularly scenic valley that cradles Jackson and extends north into Grand Teton National Park.

In August, Cheney headlined a fund-raiser at a Jackson Hole ranch for several Senate candidates. Montgomery did not know how much was raised.

In June, Democrats raised $450,000 for the Kerry campaign at a $1,000-and-up event at a private home, while the Clintons and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., have stopped through to raise money in years past, according to Gierau.

Despite all the money that comes out of Teton County, Wyoming has just three electoral votes and gets little attention from national candidates besides Cheney. Bush and Cheney stopped through Wyoming in 2000, but neither ticket has publicly campaigned in Wyoming this election season.

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