Yin hits the ground running in House

January 31, 2019

These days Mike Yin spends most of his time in “the ghetto.”

That’s what his peers affectionately call the corner where they, the thoroughly outnumbered Democrats of the Wyoming House of Representatives, cluster for each legislative session.

When the 2019 Legislature opened Jan. 8 Teton County’s newest lawmaker took his seat to the right of Minority Leader Cathy Connolly, of Albany County, and in front of fellow Jackson Rep. Andy Schwartz. For the next month, until final adjournment, that’s where he’ll stay.

But if it were up to some Republicans, his place would be at their elbow, outside the nine-strong liberal nook.

As Yin strolled into the House chamber on a recent morning, Rep. Charles Pelkey, a fellow Democrat who represents Albany County, stopped him at the door to praise him for catching an obscure oversight in a bill passing through a committee he wasn’t even on.

“Greear came up to me this morning and goes ‘We got to move Michael over to our side,’” Pelkey said, referring to Republican Rep. Mike Greear, who for eight years has represented Big Horn and Washakie counties.

“We’re going to trade you like a future draft pick,” Pelkey went on. “You impressed the s--t out of them.”

Yin grinned and let out a hearty laugh.

“Oh, nice. Good to hear,” he said, before continuing into the chamber.

He wore a drab, tri-toned gray ensemble, his coat, shirt and tie all different shades. But modest dress aside, it’s hard to miss Yin at the Capitol: The young software developer defies the garden-variety image of a Wyoming politician.

As the state’s first Chinese-American legislator he’s often the only person of color in the room, and at 32 he’s almost as often the only unweathered face. Most of his colleagues on the Labor, Health and Social Services Committee and the Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee earned their degrees a decade or more before Yin was born.

That’s not the only reason he draws eyes, though. By all accounts Yin is steadily building a reputation for sound, nuanced analysis as he works to advance polished legislation.

“From what I’m hearing in the halls,” said Sen. Mike Gierau, another Teton County Democrat, “he has in short order become a real head-of-the-freshman-class kind of guy that is getting a lot of bipartisan notice.”

He caught Greear’s attention with a single word.

While studying the statewide lodging tax bill — which was then in the Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee, of which Greear is chairman — he noticed a seemingly trivial detail with serious long-term consequences: On page 6, line 21, it needed to say “with” instead of “imposing” to ensure the tax will be distributed as the local ones are now. If not for Yin, the error might have gone undetected.

“He’s endearing himself to people,” Schwartz said. “He’s finding little mistakes in bills. Everybody looks at that and goes ‘Wow, I didn’t notice that.’”

At times he has brought his tech expertise to bear, as when he amended a blockchain bill to add provisions for consumer protection.

Aside from tidying other people’s legislation, he’s running his own to push issues from animal cruelty to overpriced prescription drugs (see sidebar and page 14).

One of Yin’s bills, however, died Tuesday by a slim margin.

The Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee killed the Wyoming Pregnant Workers Fairness Act by a 5-4 vote, though Yin plans to pursue it in the interim.

Yin’s introduction to the Legislature came last year when he spent a week trailing Schwartz and Gierau and observing the Cheyenne scene, in preparation for his venture into the political sphere.

But even now, he said, “It’s kind of amazing how much work gets done so very, very quickly.” The Capitol has been a humming hive for the past few weeks, with little reprieve from dawn-to-dusk debate and swarming lobbyists.

Most evenings bring a reception for some organization or other. Yin said he attends all the ones with ties to his home base, like the Jackson Hole Classical Academy, even if he doesn’t support the bills. Regardless of disagreements, he said, he recognizes his duty to listen to constituents.

He’s working to forge relationships with a range of groups, from the trial lawyers to the contractors, and he carves out time for their events when he can — even if they aren’t always his cup of tea.

“They have these chocolate dump trucks,” he said of the Contractors Association. “Honestly, sometimes the dinners get a little too extravagant for my taste. But it’s definitely a good way to meet organizations that represent different parts of Wyoming that I frankly don’t know enough about.”

The bustling session and nightly homework demand most of his time. But he traveled home once for a three-day weekend, and when he’s more pressed for time he can escape to nearby Fort Collins, Colorado, or take “food field trips.” And when he turns in each night his domestic shorthair tabby, Finn, keeps him company in their Cheyenne suite.

“He’s hanging out with me,” Yin said. “It’s good after a long day to go back and chill with him.”

The two will return to Jackson come Feb. 27, with one session under their belts. Until then the fate of Yin’s bills and amendments remains unclear as they wade through the legislative machine.

But his keen perception and restrained competence are already charming hard-boiled lawmakers across the aisle, and Yin has become a point of pride for his political mentors.

“He’s not showboating,” Schwartz said. “He’s not jumping up and down, he doesn’t talk too much. But he’s thoughtful, and he’s doing a good job.”

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