Lieutenant Governor Molly Gray and Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Becca Balint are both leading candidates in the Democratic U.S. House primaries that could make them the first female members of Vermont’s congressional delegation.
Gray has the support of the party’s center stripe, with approvals from former governments. Madeline Kunin and Howard Dean. Retired U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy donated $5,000 to his campaign and voted for him.
Balint was endorsed by a star list of progressive leaders, including the state’s fellow US senator, Bernie Sanders; Rep. Pramila Jayapal, Chairman of the Congressional Progress Group; and Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the founders of Ben & Jerry’s, Vermont’s famous progressive ice cream company.
The winner of Tuesday’s primary is expected to triumph in azure Vermont in November. Despite the state’s liberal credentials built up over the past half century, the lack of congressional delegation has made Vermont the only state in the country that has never been represented by a woman in Washington.
Leahy’s retirement after 48 years in office set the stage for a moment to make history. U.S. Representative Peter Welch, who has been in Congress since 2007, has decided to run for Leahy’s Senate seat. This opened his seat in the House to Gray or Balint, who, if elected, would become the first openly gay person to represent Vermont in Congress.
This is the state’s first open seat in a three-person congressional delegation since 2006. And given Vermont’s propensity to re-elect incumbents, it looks like the winner of the Democratic primary could hold the seat as long as they want.
Advertisements on television and social media and the daily flyers appearing in Vermonters’ mailboxes remain positive and focus on what candidates see as their qualifications. But the high stakes of the contest – and the ongoing battle between the centrist and progressive wings of the Democratic Party – made the intensity of the campaign clear.
During a debate on Thursday, Gray called on Balint for a critical comment he made while seeking approval from Vermont’s Progressive Party. Balint denounced Gray as a “corporatist and a disaster for the left”.
“How can Vermonters expect you to behave differently in Congress than you did in this campaign where you launched negative attacks?” said Gray. “Isn’t that the problem we’re seeing in Congress today?”
Balint apologized to Gray for the “if you found it hurtful” comment. But Balint took the opportunity to note the source of most of Gray’s campaign contributions.
“I told you at the time that the reason I was concerned was the funds you had collected from those in Washington,” Balint said. “You’ve raised a huge amount of money from lobbyists in DC and not from people here in Vermont.”
Despite this tension, the two candidates have similar views on most issues. Both support abortion rights and want to increase affordable housing, increase access to inexpensive childcare, and expand broadband internet services in rural areas.
Gray, a 38-year-old attorney, grew up on a farm in the Connecticut River town of Newbury and now lives in Burlington. In Washington, he commended his experience working in Europe as a Welch employee for the International Committee of the Red Cross, his time as deputy attorney general, and his job as lieutenant governor for the past two years.
Balint, a 54-year-old former middle school teacher from Brattleboro, first came to Vermont in 1994 to teach rock climbing and settled permanently in the state in 1997. He was first elected to the state Senate in 2014. Two years ago, she became the first woman to be elected Pro tempore Senate president, which means she oversees the chamber’s legislative work and chairs the state Senate if the vice-governor is absent.
Disagreements about the source of their donations – spending by Vermonters and out-of-state donors or outside groups – helped add to some of the acrimony in the race.
A number of outside groups support Balint’s candidacy, including the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which has spent nearly $1 million in support of Balint. By law, these groups are prohibited from coordinating their efforts with campaigns.
Before the commercials began, Gray had asked Balint if he would condemn foreign spending. Balint agreed.
Now that foreign spending has begun, Gray says outside groups are interfering in the conversation he’s trying to have with voters.
“Suddenly, someone else comes along and tells the Vermonters who to hire. That’s not the Vermont way,” Gray said. “Outgroups were not selected. They are irresponsible. They don’t represent us in Congress.”
Balint said he doesn’t think foreign spending will make a difference in the race. In any case, he said he had no control over it.
“I feel really great that we’re running a really great campaign,” Balint said. “I wish they weren’t involved because I want my team to take full credit for everything we’ve done here.”
There are four Democrats on Tuesday’s vote for the US House; one dropped out and the fourth is a South Burlington doctor. Three candidates are running for the Republican nomination.
Stowe voter Christy Hudon said she was undecided whether to vote for Balint or Gray, although she is leaning towards Gray. In one of his advertisements, Gray highlights the difficulties he and his family face with his mother’s chronic health problems. Hudon said his own family is dealing with issues with aging relatives.
“I definitely feel like at the time people had a slightly better understanding of where their needs were,” Hudon said.
Middlesex voter Annie Greenfelder said there didn’t appear to be much of a policy difference between Gray and Balint. She said she voted for Balint because of endorsements from environmental activists, but would like to see Gray run for another office if she lost.
“We need more politicians in the pipe,” Greenfelder said.