Gov. Molly Gray and Senate President pro tempore Becca Ballint are leading candidates in the Democratic U.S. House primary, which could make either of them the first female members of Vermont’s congressional delegation.
Gray has the backing of the party’s centrists and the support of the former governor. Madeleine Kooning and Howard Dean. Retiring U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy donated $5,000 to her campaign and voted for her.
Ballint was endorsed by an all-star list of progressive leaders, including the state’s other U.S. Senator, Bernie Sanders; Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair, Rep. Pramila Jayapa Ernest; and Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, founders of Ben & Jerry’s, a well-known progressive ice cream company in Vermont.
The winner of Tuesday’s primary is expected to win in dark-blue Vermont in November. Despite the state’s establishment of liberal credentials over the past half-century, the lack of turnover in congressional delegations makes Vermont the only state in the country that has never had a female representation in Washington.
Leahy retires after 48 years in office, setting the stage for this historic moment. US Representative Peter Welch, who has served in Congress since 2007, decided to run for Leahy’s Senate seat. That opened up his House seat for Gray or Balint, who would also be the first openly gay person to represent Vermont in Congress if elected.
It was the first vacant seat for the state’s three-person congressional delegation since 2006. Given Vermont’s preference for re-election to incumbents, the winner of the Democratic primary is likely to be able to hold the seat as he pleases.
Advertisements on TV and social media, as well as flyers appearing in Vermont mailboxes every day, remain positive, focusing on what candidates think they are qualified to do. But the high stakes of the race — and the ongoing battle between the Democratic centrist and progressives — have revealed just how intense the campaign is.
During Thursday’s debate, Gray called out Balint for the critical comments she made while seeking support from the Progressive Party of Vermont. Balint had denounced Gray as a “disaster for corporatists and the left”.
“How can Vermonters expect you to behave differently in Congress than you did in this campaign with a negative attack?” Gray said. “Isn’t that the problem we’re seeing in Congress today?”
Balint apologized to Gray for the comment, “if you find it hurtful.” But Balint took the opportunity to point to the source of many of Gray’s campaign contributions.
“I said at the time that the reason I was concerned was because of the money you raised from insiders in Washington,” Balint said. “You raise a lot of money from lobbyists in Washington, but not as much from people. Back in Vermont.”
Despite this tension, the two candidates hold similar views on most issues. Both support abortion rights and want to increase affordable housing, increase access to affordable child care and expand broadband internet service in rural areas.
Gray is a 38-year-old attorney who grew up on a farm in the Connecticut River town of Newbury and now lives in Burlington. She touted her time as a Welch clerk in Washington, working for the ICRC in Europe, time as assistant attorney general and 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 in the state permanently in 1997. She was first elected to the state Senate in 2014. Two years ago, she Becoming the first woman to be elected president pro tempore of the Senate, meaning she oversees legislative work in the Senate and presides over the state Senate in the absence of the lieutenant governor.
Controversy over the source of their donations — spending by Vermont with out-of-state donors or outside groups — has fueled some of the fierce competition in the race.
Several outside groups are supporting Balint’s candidacy, including the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which has spent nearly $1 million supporting her. Under the law, these groups are prohibited from coordinating their efforts with the movement.
Before the ad started, Gray had asked Balint if she would condemn outside spending. Ballint agreed.
Now that outside spending has begun, Gray said those outside groups are interfering with the conversation she is trying to have with voters.
“All of a sudden, someone came in and told Vermonters who to hire. That’s not the Vermont way,” Gray said. “Outside groups are unelected. They are irresponsible. They are not representing us in Congress.
Ballint said she doesn’t think outside spending will have an impact on the competition. In any case, she said, she couldn’t control it.
“I’m very happy that we’ve had a really good campaign. I wish they weren’t involved because I want my team to get full credit for what we’ve done here,” Ballint said.
Four Democrats are on the ballot in the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday; one has dropped out and the fourth is a South Burlington doctor. Three candidates are vying for the Republican nomination.
Stowe voter Christy Hudon said she had not yet decided whether to vote for Balint or Grey, although she leaned towards Grey. In one of her commercials, Gray highlighted the challenges she and her family faced when dealing with her mother’s chronic health problems. Hudon said her own family was dealing with issues related to elderly relatives.
“I definitely think she knew better where people’s needs were at the time,” Hudon said.
Middlesex voter Anne Greenfield noted that there doesn’t appear to be much of a policy difference between Gray and Ballint. She said she voted for Balint because of her support from environmental activists, but if she loses, she would like to see Gray run for another position.
“We need more politicians,” Greenfield said.