Mike Enzi was never too big for his britches, nor too small for his shoes.
Instead, he was just the right fit for the people of Wyoming, whom he served in the United States Senate for nearly a quarter of a century.
Enzi, who died Monday, July 26 at age 77 from injuries sustained in a bicycle accident, was not your typical senator. He didn’t seek out celebrated columnists to offer the lofty comments of the self important, nor make himself “must-see TV” on the networks’ Sunday news interview shows.
Unlike so many of his colleagues, he didn’t look in the mirror and see a future president.
His path to the “World’s Most Exclusive Club” was not paved by wealth, and certainly not by a famous last name.
Mike was an Eagle Scout, and he took the scout motto seriously: Be prepared.
That’s why his initial time in Washington came not as a senator but as a student. Enzi earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting from George Washington University in 1966, 30 years before he was elected to the Senate. He followed that with an MBA from the University of Denver, where he concentrated on the study of retail marketing.
Then, it was back to Wyoming for Enzi, who put the marketing he had learned to good use by courting and winning the hand of the former Diana Buckley in 1969. That same year, the retail component of his education came to the fore, as he expanded the small business started by his dad.
Mike and Diana opened NZ Shoes in the central Wyoming town of Gillette in July of ’69, one month after their marriage. They would eventually open additional locations in Sheridan and in Miles City, Montana.
For both the Enzi Family and the place they called home, one word described the 1970s: growth. Mike and Diana welcomed two daughters and a son, while Gillette doubled in population. The abundance of coal in the Powder River Basin fueled the transition of the town into a small city.
Mike’s transition into politics was prompted by Sen. Alan Simpson, the man he would one day succeed in Washington. After hearing Enzi deliver a speech on community leadership at the Wyoming Jaycees Convention, Simpson told Mike he should lead by example and run for elective office.
“That town you live in, Gillette, needs a mayor,” Simpson said pointedly.
After discussing it with Diana, Mike mounted a mayoral campaign, winning the office in 1974 at age 29. He served two terms, and years later recounted in an interview that the inexperience of youth was actually an asset.
“The advantage of young people is that they don’t know what can’t be done. They just go ahead and do it,” Enzi remembered.
After eight years as mayor, Mike took a break from public life to concentrate on family and business. He returned to politics in the late ’80s, representing Gillette and Campbell County first in the state House, then in the state Senate during the early ’90s.
Alan Simpson retired from the U.S. Senate in 1996; Enzi succeeded him. Mike’s closest race came in the GOP primary, where he edged future colleague John Barrasso by less than three percentage points; the general election was a comparative breeze, as Enzi won with 54% of the votes cast.
The people of Wyoming liked Mike, as they returned him to the Senate in three subsequent elections with more than 70% of the vote.
What made Mike Enzi so effective? As a legislator, it was the “80-20 Rule.” He discovered that about 20% of issues were so partisan that no legislative remedy could be found. But that left 80% of the issues that could be addressed and eventually remedied.
A problem solver at heart, Sen. Enzi was at first surprised, then gratified by the casework he and his staff performed for constituents.
He put it this way in an interview earlier this year: “I went to legislate, and then I found out that probably our most important work is casework, where people are having a problem with the federal government. Often it can be solved, because there’s not a lot of common sense in the federal government.”
The good Lord blessed Mike Enzi with common sense in uncommon quantities.
Wyoming was blessed to have a shoe salesman-turned-senator.
Rest in peace, Mike.
J.D. Hayworth worked as a sportscaster at Channel 10, Phoenix from 1987 until 1994 and represented Arizona in Congress from 1995-2007.