JACKSON — Teton County Democrats have disavowed Commissioner Greg Epstein for his stance on COVID-19 and the mask mandate in Teton County.
Epstein, for his part, is no longer registered as a Democrat. The Teton County Clerk’s Office confirmed that he switched his registration from Democrat to “unaffiliated” in October.
The Democrats’ move comes after some hubbub last week when Epstein voted against approving a contract with the Wyoming Department of Health for vaccine clinics and vaccination campaigns, and against reappointing Teton District Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell for a new term.
Epstein said in public meetings last week that he voted as he did because he disagrees with the mask mandate, which he feels is holding the community “hostage,” and the direction Riddell has taken responding to the presentation of “other science” about COVID-19.
“By citing debunked pseudo-science while undermining our public health officials with inflammatory language, Greg has abandoned the values of our party, and is in fact no longer registered as a Democrat,” Democrats wrote in a statement sent Thursday to the News&Guide. “While we are all tired of the pandemic, our health officials have been on the front lines since day one and deserve better from a county commissioner who knows this.”
Savanna Garnick, a member of the Mountain Freedom Alliance, which has advocated for repealing the mask mandate before it is set to expire Dec. 31, felt differently about Epstein’s comments.
“I’m just grateful that he’s stepping out and saying something different than what everyone else was saying and asking questions,” Garnick said.
She particularly appreciated questions like: “What is this money being used for?” “Are these things beneficial for us?” and “Is this mask mandate making a big difference?”
Garnick feels that Epstein was representing “a group of people in the community that also have those questions and also have those concerns.”
Epstein did not agree to an interview in response to the Democrats’ statement and answered some, but not all, of the questions the News&Guide sent via email.
“Fear is a strong emotion, and unfortunately a large portion of our community has blindly accepted the global/national COVID narrative as gospel,” he wrote. “No matter what I reference or use as sources, it will be discredited as pseudo-science. Even in what was once an open-minded community there is no longer the ability to have civilized discourse and perhaps learn from one another.”
He said that he changed his party affiliation because he doesn’t “feel that choosing a team over solutions is best for Teton County.”
“I have always listened to both sides of an issue and made decisions based on what I feel is best for our community, despite my party affiliation,” Epstein wrote. “It’s impossible to make everyone happy.”
Pat Chadwick, vice chair of the Teton County Democrats, said he has not heard from Epstein despite sending him “a couple emails.” And he said that during the last election Epstein received assistance from the local party in setting up yard signs.
The party also promoted Epstein as a Democrat in ads promoting all party-aligned candidates. But now Chadwick feels a little burned.
“He was reaching out to us during the election when it benefited him, and it’d be nice to hear from him, but we have not,” Chadwick said.
“Our platform calls for addressing the pandemic crisis and pushing for access to vaccines and health care,” he added. “It’s been upsetting for him to not only remove that party affiliation but also abandon a lot of those party platforms since the election.”
Garnick took issue with the Democrats’ statement, wondering what they were referring to as “pseudo-science.”
Chadwick pointed to Epstein’s statement last week that Teton County was not “doing any better than any of the other communities in the state of Wyoming” COVID-wise, which health officials and other commissioners rebutted.
And he also referenced Epstein’s promotion of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s new book, “The Real Anthony Fauci,” in an email to a constituent.
But Garnick also felt that Democrats aren’t being so straightforward.
“I do feel like it’s kind of inflammatory what they’re saying about Greg,” she said, “so is that not a bit hypocritical?”
Annette Osnos, a registered Democrat, was the constituent who reached out to Epstein. She sent him an email saying that he should be “ashamed” of his stance regarding the vaccine and that she was “embarrassed” that he represents Teton County.
Epstein, in turn, responded with a few sentences.
“The beautiful thing about living in America is that we have the ability to have differing perspectives,” he wrote. “Perhaps educating yourself beyond the Dr. Fauci quote of the day would help you understand my perspective.”
He then recommended that Osnos read Kennedy’s book “The Real Anthony Fauci.” Kennedy is a notable vaccine skeptic and nephew of former President John F. Kennedy.
“I was really offended by his take that I am just listening to the ‘Fauci quote of the day,’” Osnos said. “I don’t have anything against him as a person. I just feel very concerned about our community.”
Garnick, again, felt differently. While she didn’t remember supporting Epstein in the past, she said she would vote for him now.
“I appreciate that he is listening to dissenting opinions, and I think that’s important for all the commissioners, no matter what your opinion is,” Garnick said. “You represent the whole of the community.”
Commissioner Greg Epstein is not the only commissioner who ran on one ticket and has since changed or dropped parties.
While County Commission Chairwoman Natalia D. Macker, and Commissioner Luther Propst were both registered as Democrats and Commissioner Mark Barron remained a registered Republican, Commissioner Mark Newcomb, who ran as a Democrat in 2018, was a registered Republican when the News&Guide checked in with the clerk's office Monday.
Newcomb said that he had registered as a Republican to vote for Robert Short in the August primary for Wyoming's U.S. Senate seat. He said Short "had a really good vision for Wyoming and where Wyoming needed to go" and said that he intended to switch his registration back.
Chadwick, for his part, wasn't too worried about Newcomb's switch.
"Party affiliation is a technical thing," Chadwick said. "We care about public leaders that reflect our platform."
Chadwick said Newcomb has "represented the platform of the Democratic party."