While in session, counselor Bernadine Craft is “present” — she listens to, processes and reflects on the topic being discussed. And in this particular session, she shares her personal views on the subject at hand. She argues her points passionately, though respectfully, and fights for what she believes in.

No, this isn’t one of Craft’s counseling sessions. It’s a general session of the Wyoming State Legislature.

“If someone would have told me this time last year that I would be in politics,” Craft says, “I would have said no way.” Many of the people who know her felt otherwise because of her longstanding involvement in governance in several counseling associations, her leadership within her community and her obvious desire to make a difference.

As an American Counseling Association member for more than 30 years, Craft has served in various branch, region and division leadership roles, including a term as president of the Counseling Association for Humanistic Education and Development. She credits these experiences, coupled with a desire to redefine her life after the loss of her husband, with encouraging her to pursue a political career. In the 2006 general election, Craft won District 17’s seat in the Wyoming State House of Representatives running as a Democrat.

Lobbying for licensure

Craft’s first taste of government relations work came when she got involved with efforts to provide counseling licensure in Wyoming and Colorado. In the mid to late eighties, she lobbied for licensure as both the president of the Colorado Mental Health Counselors Association and as a member of the American Mental Health Counselors Association in Wyoming.

“That was my first legislative experience,” she recalls. “I’ve always been interested in government and in national and state affairs, but I never considered running for office. I enjoyed lobbying, but I really never thought about it for myself. I was always on the other side.” But in March 2006, an open seat emerged in her district, and people began encouraging her to consider running.

“It was such a shock because I really never considered myself working on the other end,” she says. “It took me a long time to think about.” One consideration was that Wyoming has what is known as a part-time “citizen legislature,” not the full-time “professional legislature” found in most other states. Wyoming legislators don’t enjoy the same accommodations as legislators in larger states. For example, they don’t have individual staff and, except for a few House and Senate officers, are not provided offices in the Capitol and do not maintain full-time offices in their districts. This meant that, if elected, Craft would have to balance her legislative responsibilities with her other work. She is the executive director of the Sweetwater Board of Cooperative Educational Services, which includes Sweetwater County School Districts No. 1 and No. 2 and Western Wyoming Community College. In addition, she continues to maintain a private practice in Rock Springs and teaches psychology and yoga classes at Western Wyoming Community College.

“I had to think about my jobs and how I felt about the idea,” Craft says. “The more I thought about it, the more I thought maybe I could really impact public policy in a proactive way and further my big issues, which are education-related and mental-health-related.” She ultimately decided to take on the challenge, in large part because she believed her professional life as a counselor could provide a different perspective on political issues.

Craft ran unopposed. “I had an opponent in the primary for about 24 hours, but he decided he didn’t want to run against me,” she says with a chuckle. “That was actually nice because I really didn’t have to focus on campaigning to win — I could focus on issues.” Despite running unopposed, she still went door-to-door and spoke with constituents, both to learn about their concerns and to make her positions known. “It was an exciting process, to feel like you can effect some change,” she says.

“Running for elected office is the ultimate form of engaging in the policymaking process,” says Scott Barstow, director of ACA’s Office of Public Policy and Legislation. “I hope we get more and more counselors in state legislatures and in Congress as time goes on. Bernadine is proof that counselors and policymaking do mix, and her involvement and commitment set a standard for the rest of us.”

On her agenda

As a member of the Wyoming Legislature, Craft resides on two standing committees: the Education Committee and the Travel, Recreational and Cultural Resources Committee. She says both areas are personal passions of hers. One of her recent accomplishments while serving on the Education Committee was to amend the eligibility requirements for a local scholarship. The Hathaway Scholarship, named after a former town mayor, helps students attend the University of Wyoming, the only four-year university in the state.

“The real intent of the Hathaway Scholarship was not as an entitlement scholarship,” Craft says, “but rather it was designed to be a scholarship for kids who might not have other scholarship opportunities — more for the midrange kids.” In recent years, the state’s Joint Education Committee had adopted new curriculum requirements for the scholarship. The new requirements, which went over and above the state’s graduation requirements, included four years of a foreign language and four years of math. Craft and many other state residents felt that the scholarship had been restructured to benefit an elite group of students who were already preparing to go to large universities, while the scholarship’s original intent was to make higher education accessible to everyone.

Two daughters of the scholarship’s namesake wrote an article supporting a change back to the more accessible eligibility requirements. Serving on the Education Committee allowed Craft to fight to have the scholarship amended substantially. “It’s now more accessible to all levels of students,” she says, though noting that the battle isn’t over quite yet. The state’s Senate still needs to approve the amended scholarship curriculum.

Other issues Craft has helped usher through the State House of Representatives include measures to support quality child care and affordable workforce housing infrastructure. In many areas across the state, more and more people are moving in, Craft says, but there is little housing available and very few licensed child care facilities. Many families are staying in motels or campgrounds and have to leave their children with friends or unregulated child care providers, she adds. “Many parts of Wyoming are really booming. We have many impacted growth areas, Rock Springs being one of them,” Craft says. “This was a huge issue, and it was decided that the Legislature needs to put some money into helping cities and towns adopt quality child care programs. For example, just one YMCA facility in Rock Springs has over 213 kids on the waiting list. There are very few quality, credentialed, approved day care (operations). This is a huge issue for working parents. It’s not only a child care issue, it’s an economic issue.”

In her town of Rock Springs alone, Craft estimates 1,200-1,300 open jobs are available because the town can’t support the workforce. “As the Legislature, we have to help these communities. There was a lot of debate on both sides of the affordable housing and the quality child care issue, but we got it through.”

The bill won’t provide actual housing for residents but will provide funding for infrastructure — roads, sidewalks, sewer, power — so more neighborhoods and communities can be built. “Builders complain that they come here and have no place to build because there’s no water or roads,” Craft explains. “There has been such a population boom, the city can’t keep up physically or monetarily. So we have provided some funding in order for the city to get in there and build the infrastructure. The kinds of testimony we were getting — Where do I live? What do I do with my kids? — it was overwhelming. I feel really good about where we can end up with those issues.”

Getting involved

In Wyoming, the Legislature’s general session is 40 days every other year, with the off years holding budget sessions that last 20 days. “Most of the legislators are holding down full-time jobs, so they can’t afford to be gone much more than that,” Craft says. The work is intense and hard at times and full of long hours, but Craft doesn’t feel overwhelmed with the task. She wants to lead by example and hopes to see other counselors challenge themselves to take office — or at the very least, to become more aware of issues pertaining to the profession.

“I wish counselors would get more involved in the political process. Counselors need to be very aware of what their professional identity is. They offer a very unique voice and perspective and need to make themselves heard,” Craft says. “For example, we had a couple of bills come through that would have actually cut school psychologists out of being able to do any private practice. In Wyoming, most of the (Legislature’s) seat holders are business people and attorneys. They don’t see the human service issues that counselors see. So much of the body was coming from a business point of view. If you only have that one viewpoint on a issue, you will have no change or pretty poor change.”

Above all, Craft says counselors should be active in their professional associations. “It was really fun for me to have spent so many years in ACA governance,” she says, adding that her involvement with ACA also led her to the love of her life. Craft was married to Larry Hill, a renowned counselor and past president of AMHCA who passed away last year at age 68. The couple met at an ACA Western Region assembly in 1983 and married in 1987. “We had an absolutely wonderful life,” Craft says. “I wouldn’t have met him if it wasn’t for ACA, so there’s all sorts of fringe benefits!”

Because of her extensive work in professional counseling associations, Craft says it wasn’t difficult for her to transition into legislative governance. “You just have to find your areas of expertise,” she says, admitting that with 400 House bills and more than 200 Senate files to review, she faces a mountain of reading. She says she focuses in on issues that concern her or with which she is familiar. “You have your identity and work on those (issues),” she says.

Some final words of advice from Craft to counselors about getting involved in the political process: “If you are thinking the last thing you want to do is be a politician, then you don’t have to be, but you need to be aware — identify who your legislators are, tell them how you feel and let them know what’s important to you.”

For the future

There’s no denying Craft is a multitasker with a full plate — politician, executive director, private practitioner, professor, yoga instructor — yet there’s more. She is chair of the Sweetwater Concert Association, putting her in charge of booking musical concerts for Sweetwater County. She is also an Episcopalian lay reader who conducts services on occasion. She will even lead a yoga class during the C-AHEAD Day of Wellness at the upcoming ACA Convention in Detroit.

How does she do it all? Craft credits her daily yoga exercises and a furry companion in helping her find balance. “I’m pretty good at focusing in on what I have to do right then and not getting scattered,” she says. “I’m also a huge animal lover, so my 17-pound rag doll cat, Smokey, keeps me centered and the stress level down.”

When Craft speaks about her life and the many hats she wears, she does it with a smile. But in her voice, you can hear a tinge of sadness, an emptiness that remains despite that full plate. “When the person you plan your life around is suddenly gone, you have to fall back and figure out what you are going to do,” she says. “When I lost Larry, I had to redesign my whole life. My future goals revolved around him. We had been in private practice together and I was looking forward to working a few more years and then retiring. Our thoughts were that we would retire and we would do a lot of traveling. We loved to travel. My goals right now are to continue with this involvement with the political process and hopefully impact people’s lives in a positive way … and take things as they come along.”