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Straight Shooter

“People spend too much time thinking about re-election instead of thinking about doing what’s right,” says DU alumnus and Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi. Photo courtesy of Mike Enzi's office

Mike Enzi, Wyoming’s plain-spoken senior senator, doesn’t exactly fit the part of love guru.

The 67-year-old grandfather is a straight-arrow Eagle Scout and one-time aspiring minister. He serves root-beer floats at campaign events and revels in paleontology.

Despite appearances, Enzi (MSBA ’68) knows his stuff when it comes to human relations. His advice to couples is simple and effective. The secret to his happy 42-year marriage is the same philosophy that guides his legislative approach. He calls it the “80-percent rule.”

Put simply, it means focusing on the approximately 80 percent of any given issue that most people will agree on. Bypassing the other 20 percent fosters harmony and occasional breakthroughs.

“There are some things you don’t bring up unless you want to spend a lot of time haggling over them, and probably reaching no conclusion, and having some hurt feelings when it’s over,” Enzi says.

The 80-percent rule explains the Republican’s knack for working across the aisle. Consistently ranked among the Senate’s most conservative members, Enzi nevertheless has made a career of finding common ground with his political opposites.

Enzi worked particularly closely with the late liberal Sen. Ted Kennedy. The unlikely pair was instrumental in passing, among other legislation, the Needlestick Safety and Prevention Act of 2000, which increased on-the-job protection for health workers, and the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act of 2006, the first significant improvement of mine safety regulations in 30 years. In his 2009 memoir, True Compass, Kennedy wrote admiringly of Enzi.

“It wasn’t what we compromised on, it was what we left out,” Enzi says of his negotiations with Kennedy. “You had these two extremes, and yet we were able to come together.”

 

Discovering the power of ideas

Enzi is no stranger to extremes. Growing up amid Wyoming’s dramatic expanses and often harsh climate instilled in him a love of the outdoors and an abiding spirit of individualism and idealism. Although he had only ventured out of Wyoming once — to a Boy Scout jamboree in Valley Forge, Pa. — the teenaged Enzi envisioned a future in the foreign service. He had been deeply influenced by the 1958 story collection The Ugly American, by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, and wanted to improve the U.S. image abroad.

Shortly after arriving in Washington to attend George Washington University (GWU), Enzi had a change of heart.

“I got there and found out it was a big city,” he recalls. “I didn’t like big cities, so I figured I wouldn’t like big cities in foreign countries.”

Enzi changed his major from international affairs to accounting and started plotting a business career. He passed up a GWU business school scholarship, however, because of a stipulation that he perform two years of government service after earning a graduate degree.

“I knew I wasn’t going to do that,” he says with a laugh.

Back West, Enzi enrolled at the University of Denver College of Business Administration (since renamed the Daniels College of Business) in 1966. He was fascinated by the University’s mainframe computer and used it to work through equations from a statistics class. The computer would accept punch cards one day, process them the next and spit out answers on the third day. Alonzo May, a professor of complex enterprise, made a bigger impression than the room-sized computer. The professor required his students to keep a journal of ideas they gathered from class readings. The journal was a revelation for Enzi, who says he discovered that “the whole world functions on ideas.”

Since then, Enzi has written a report on every book he reads. At a rate Enzi claims to be one book per week, that amounts to more than 2,000 reports. His favorites include anything by C.J. Box (BA ’81) and Homer Hickam, The Last Trail by Zane Grey, and Two Hands and a Knife by Terry Gibson.

“I read everything from the aspect of seeing if there’s an idea that will work,” Enzi says. Often he stays up half the night reading and typing up thoughts. His staffers are accustomed to 2 a.m. brainstorm emails from the boss.

Significant as it is, Enzi says his ideas journal wasn’t the best thing to come out of his time at DU. On the last night of school, in the midst of a final book assignment, Enzi made a fateful choice: He went on a blind date with a 19-year-old University of Wyoming student named Diana. She was in town visiting a mutual friend.

“He is really straightforward,” Diana says of her husband. “He never has an ulterior motive.” In the early days of their marriage, Diana says, Enzi’s no-conflict personality was hard to get accustomed to: “For two years, I would have the fight on both sides.”

Since then, the Enzis have raised three children and become grandparents to four. Enzi has been present at each grandchild’s birth.

 

Starting a life in office

A year after earning his master’s degree in retail marketing, Enzi was back home in Wyoming. He opened and ran a successful chain of shoe stores and volunteered with a local Jaycees group. Life felt settled, but it was about to change drastically.

The turning point came when Enzi gave a speech about a young men’s leadership training program at a Jaycees event. Wyoming state legislator and future U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson approached him afterward.

“He took me by the elbow, took me over in the corner and said, ‘I don’t even know which party you’re in, but it’s time you put your money where your mouth is on this stuff,’” Enzi remembers.

Simpson urged the young businessman to run for mayor.

In the years that followed, Enzi served two terms as mayor of Gillette, Wyo., presiding over an economic boom powered by coal and natural gas extraction and a tripling of the town’s population.

Enzi went on to serve in the Wyoming state legislature before life took another dramatic turn.

When Simpson announced his plans to step down as Wyoming’s senior senator in 1996, friends and colleagues lobbied Enzi to run. He wasn’t convinced. He had just undergone open-heart surgery and had little interest in what promised to be a grueling primary campaign against eight other Republican candidates.

Sitting in church one Sunday morning, Enzi had an epiphany.

“I was thinking about how I’d like to hunt and fish, and I got this little nudge that I wasn’t kept alive to hunt and fish.”

Enzi went home crying and asked his wife and three children to help him decide what to do.

With his family’s support, Enzi threw his hat in the ring. He won the primary by only 1 percent of the vote before taking the general election. Voters liked the certified public accountant’s common-sense approach.

“I sold legislation the same way I sold shoes,” Enzi says. “That means you have to know who the customer is. You have to listen to what they want and see how that matches up with your inventory.”

 

Both sides, now

At any given time, Enzi is working on about 35 different bills for his Wyoming constituents. Mining and natural resources are major points of focus. Enzi is proud of his work to secure coal bed methane royalties for Wyoming communities and health care for miners whose employers go out of business.

Enzi’s causes are far-ranging and sometimes surprising. He has pushed to simplify the college loan application process and ensure that accountants aren’t unduly punished by financial regulations. In typical Enzi fashion, he “stayed up all night reading and writing down ideas” before a high-level discussion of AIDS funding. When the Senate delegation arrived for the meeting, the Senate majority leader turned to Enzi unexpectedly. “Well,

Enzi, you know a lot about this,” Enzi recalls him saying. “Take it away.”

During his three terms in the U.S. Senate, Enzi has made a name for himself as a champion of bipartisanship. “Here’s a guy that just wants to get things done,” Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) says of Enzi. “He’s not partisan. He’s not a demagogue. He’s just results-oriented.” Of Enzi’s 80-percent rule, Carper says, “If more people in the Senate took that as their attitude, we could be a whole lot more productive.”

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) describes Enzi as “thoughtful,” “pragmatic” and “willing to reach across the aisle.” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) calls Enzi a “reasonable negotiator” with a small business owner’s valuable perspective. “Even when we have differing views on the best way to resolve issues, he has shown a willingness to come to the table and discuss the areas that we can agree on,” Durbin says.

Enzi’s high-ceilinged office is a veritable museum of Wyoming artifacts and personal mementoes. There’s the DU ceremonial doctoral hood, a photo of Enzi as a 14-year-old Boy Scout, a moose antler, a duck carved from a weathered fence post, a photo of Enzi and his son, Brad, with the gleaming wooden canoe they built together.

If Enzi is anxious to keep his office, he doesn’t let on. He’s coy about what he will do when his current term ends in 2014.

“People spend too much time thinking about re-election instead of thinking about doing what’s right,” he says.

Only the ninth Wyoming senator to serve as chairman of a standing committee, Enzi headed the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) from 2005 to 2007. As chairman, he guided a committee full of outsize personalities (seven former presidential candidates among them) to a surprising number of legislative agreements. Under Enzi’s leadership, the committee formulated the Genetic Nondiscrimination Act — “the first civil rights bill of the 21st century,” Enzi says. But he is quicker to trumpet the committee’s success in passing a pension-protection bill in record time. The 2,000-page bill was subject to only an hour of floor debate and two amendments. At the time, the Senate parliamentarian of more than 30 years told Enzi he had never seen a bill that big pass so quickly.

“Because we were so diverse, people figured if we could come together, it was OK,” Enzi says of the HELP committee. The secret to the committee’s success? The 80-percent rule, of course.

If it works for political relationships among U.S. senators, it can work for relationships between work colleagues, friends, and even couples, Enzi says.

“It’s just a good rule everywhere.”

 

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2 Comments

  1. Jared Daraie says:

    Before we praise our accomplished alumnus for his bipartisanship and supposed disinterest in re-election, let’s consider the limits of his 80% rule. First, components of legislation have both quantity and magnitude. The issues posing the greatest challenges to legislatures seem to be divisive over just a few bones of contention with high magnitudes of importance. Healthcare reform is a prime example. On the subject, Enzi said, “We all want health care reform that will reduce costs, improve quality and expand access without breaking the bank,” (Sep. 9, 2009). Well, sure, there’s our 80%, but how to achieve that is the more important issue and a little harder to agree on. Enzi continued, “To achieve bipartisan reform, we have to set aside the most contentious pieces like the government-run plan and focus on areas where we can reach agreement.” This is like me telling my roommates “We all want to order a satisfying pizza with crust, sauce, and cheese. It’s just the toppings we’re having trouble with, and if we’re going to make any progress, we have to set aside the most contentious toppings such as pepperoni, which I don’t want, and focus on something we can all agree on. May I propose onion?”

    I also take issue with the suggestion that Enzi is not consciously working towards his re-election. His bipartisan rhetoric (and at times, albeit, behavior) actually bodes well for him considering his constituency. The primary elections in Wyoming are, for all intents and purposes, the general elections; it is very unlikely that the state will elect democratic senators (as historical record shows). So, in what would appear as risky bipartisan behavior, Enzi secures support from Wyoming’s centrist and even democratic voters (many of whom, like me, register as republicans to be able to vote in the primaries). If re-election isn’t Enzi’s ultimate goal, he’s certainly aware that his meager bipartisanship helps him more than it hurts him.

    I suggest readers look at this article:
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/08/26/mike-enzi-gang-of-six-rep_n_269447.html

    I pulled Enzi’s statements on healthcare reform from the following: http://help.senate.gov/old_site/Min_press/2009_09_09.pdf

  2. Mary A. Cole says:

    I am one of the earliest supporters of Project Vote Smart so I naturally wondered what I could learn about Mike Enzi from that organization’s interest groups’ ratings. He certainly is a gifted politician since he is rated a solid conservative while he can work very effectively with those of solid liberal views. The nation certainly has been blessed by his sacrifice, for some time, of the enjoyment of Wyoming’s wild outdoor sports of fishing and hunting. In this season of thanks, I am thankful for his service in the city in which he did not aspire to work.

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