Lieutenant Governor Molly Gray and Speaker of the Senate Pro Tempor Beka Balint are the two leading candidates in the Democratic primary for the US House of Representatives, which could make either of them the first female member of Vermont’s congressional delegation.
Gray has the endorsement of the party’s centrist track, with support from previous governments. Madeline Koenen and Howard Dean. Retired US Senator Patrick Leahy donated $5,000 to her campaign and cast her vote.
Balint has been endorsed by a star list of progressive leaders, including the state’s other US senator, Bernie Sanders. Representative Pramila Jayapal, Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus; and Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, founders of Ben & Jerry’s, the famous progressive ice cream company in Vermont.
The winner of Tuesday’s primary is expected to run for victory in November in the dark-blue state of Vermont. Despite the state’s liberal credentials that have accumulated over the past half century, the lack of turnover in the congressional delegation made Vermont the only state in the state not represented by a woman in Washington.
Leahy’s retirement after 48 years in office paved the way for a history-making moment. US Representative Peter Welch, who has been a congressman since 2007, decided to run for the Leahy Senate seat. This opened his seat in the House of Representatives to Gray O’Baliente, who would also be the first gay person to represent Vermont in Congress if elected.
It’s the first open seat in the state’s three-person congressional delegation since 2006. Given Vermont’s tendency to re-elect incumbents, it’s likely that the winner of the Democratic primary will be able to hold the seat for as long as she wants.
Ads on TV and social media, and flyers appearing in Vermonters mailboxes every day, remain positive, and focus on what candidates see as their qualifications. But the high stakes of competition — and the ongoing battle between the centrist and progressive wing of the Democratic Party — revealed the intensity of the campaign.
During Thursday’s debate, Gray Balint called for a critical comment she made as she sought the endorsement of the Progressive Party in Vermont. Balint Gray denounced him as “a unionist and a disaster for the left”.
“How can Vermonters expect you to behave differently in Congress than you have in this passive-attack campaign? Isn’t that the problem we see in Congress today?” Gray said.
Balint apologized to Gray for the comment, “If I find it hurtful.” But Balint took the opportunity to point out the source of many of Gray’s contributions to the campaign.
“I said at the time that my concern was because of the money she was collecting from insiders in Washington. I had raised a huge amount of money from lobbyists in DC and not a lot of money from people back here in Vermont,” Balint said.
Despite this tension, the two candidates hold similar views on most issues. They both support abortion rights and want to promote affordable housing, increase access to cheap child care and expand broadband internet services in rural areas.
Gray, a 38-year-old attorney, grew up on a farm in Newbury River Connecticut and now lives in Burlington. She has promoted her experience working as a Welsh employee in Washington, in Europe for the International Committee of the Red Cross, her time as an assistant attorney general, and over the past two years, her job as a lieutenant governor.
Balint, a 54-year-old former middle school teacher from Brattleboro, first came to Vermont in 1994 to teach rock climbing and settled in the state permanently in 1997. She was first elected to the state Senate in 2014. Two years ago, she became the first woman She is chosen as the interim president of the Senate, which means she oversees the legislative work of the chamber and presides over the state Senate in the absence of the deputy governor.
Disagreements over the source of their donations — Vermonters versus out-of-state donors or spending by outside groups — helped drive some of the inconsistency in the race.
A number of outside groups support Balint’s candidacy, including the LGBTQ Triumph Fund, which has spent nearly $1 million to support her. By law, these groups are prohibited from coordinating their efforts with campaigns.
Before the ads started, I asked Gray Balint if it would owe outside spending. Balint agreed.
Now that outside spending has kicked in, Gray says those outside groups are interfering with the conversation she’s trying to have with voters.
“Suddenly, someone else comes up and tells Vermont who to hire. That’s not the Vermont way,” Gray said. External groups are not elected. They are not accountable. They do not represent us in Congress.”
Balint said she doesn’t think the outside spending will make a difference in the race. Anyway, she said, she had no control over it.
“I feel good about the fact that we ran a really excellent campaign,” Balint said. “I hope they aren’t involved because I want my team to get full recognition for everything we’ve done here.”
There are four Democrats on Tuesday’s ballot for the US House of Representatives; One is a school dropout and the fourth is a doctor from South Burlington. Three candidates are vying for the Republican nomination.
Voter Kristi Haddon of Stowe said she had not decided to vote for Balint or Gray, though she leaned toward Gray. In one of her ads, Gray highlights the challenges she and her family faced with her mother’s chronic health issues. Haddon said her family deals with issues related to elderly relatives.
“I definitely feel like she understood where people’s needs were at that time a little better,” Hudon said.
Voter Annie Greenfelder of Middlesex noted that there does not appear to be much policy difference between Gray and Balint. She said she voted for Balint because of the support she received from environmental activists but would like to see Gray run for another job if she loses.
“We need more politicians,” Greenfelder said.