Lt. Gov. Molly Gray and Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint are the leading contenders in a U.S. Democratic primary that could make either of them the first female member of Vermont’s congressional delegation.
Gray has the support of the centrist stripe of the party, with endorsements from former governors. Madeline Kunin and Howard Dean. Retired US Senator Patrick Leahy donated $5,000 to her campaign and voted for her.
Balint has been endorsed by an all-star list of progressive leaders, including the state’s other U.S. senator, Bernie Sanders. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, president of the Congress Progressive Caucus; and Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, founders of Vermont’s famously progressive ice cream company, Ben & Jerry’s.
The winner of Tuesday’s primary is expected to win in November in deep blue Vermont. Despite the state’s liberal credentials built over the past half-century, the lack of turnover in its congressional delegation has made Vermont the only state in the country that has never been represented in Washington by a woman.
Leahy’s retirement after 48 years in office set the stage for his historic moment. US Rep. Peter Welch, who has been in Congress since 2007, has decided to run for Leahy’s Senate seat. That opened up his seat in the House for Gray or Ballin, who would also be the first openly gay person to represent Vermont in Congress if elected.
It’s the first open seat in the state’s three-member congressional delegation since 2006. And given Vermont’s penchant for reelecting incumbents, it’s possible the winner of the Democratic primary could hold onto the seat as long as she wants.
The TV and social media ads and flyers that appear in Vermonters’ mailboxes every day remain positive, focused 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 — have exposed the tension of the campaign.
During a debate Thursday, Gray called out Balid for a critical comment she made seeking the support of the Vermont Progressive Party. Balin had denounced Gray as “a partisan and a disaster for the left”.
“How can the people of Vermont expect you to act any differently in Congress than you have in this campaign where you have launched negative attacks?” said Gray. “Isn’t that the problem we’re seeing in Congress today?”
Balin apologized to Gray for the comment, “if you found it hurtful.” But Ballin used the opportunity to note the source of many of Gray’s campaign contributions.
“I said at the time that the reason I was concerned was because of the funds you’re raising from insiders in Washington,” Balint said. back here in Vermont.”
Despite this tension, the two candidates have similar views on most issues. Both support abortion rights and want to boost affordable housing, increase access to affordable child care and expand broadband Internet service 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. She has touted her experience as Welch’s staffer in Washington, Europe for the International Committee of the Red Cross, her time as an assistant attorney general and, for the past two years, her work as a lieutenant governor.
Balint, a 54-year-old former high school teacher from Brattleboro, first came to Vermont in 1994 to teach rock climbing and settled permanently in the state in 1997. She was first elected to the state Senate in 2014. Two years ago, she became the first woman elected as Senate president pro tempore, which means she oversees the chamber’s legislative work and presides over the state Senate if the lieutenant governor is absent.
Disputes over the source of their donations — Vermonters versus out-of-state donors or spending by outside groups — have added to the tension in the race.
A number of outside groups are backing Balint’s candidacy, including the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which has spent nearly $1 million in support of her. By law, these groups are prohibited from coordinating their efforts with the campaigns.
Before the ads began, Gray had asked Balidi if he would condemn the outside spending. Balint agreed.
Now that outside spending has begun, Gray says those outside groups are interfering with the conversation she’s trying to have with voters.
“Suddenly, someone else comes along and tells Vermonters who to hire. That’s not the Vermont way,” Gray said. “External groups are unelected. They are not accountable. They don’t represent us in Congress.”
Balint said she doesn’t think outside spending will make a difference in the race. In any case, he said, he has no control over it.
“I feel really great about the fact that we’ve had a really great campaign,” Balint said. “I wish they weren’t involved because I want my team to get all the credit for everything we’ve done here.”
There are four Democrats on Tuesday’s U.S. House ballot. one dropped out and the fourth is a South Burlington physician. Three candidates are vying for the Republican nomination.
Voter Christy Hudon of Stowe said she has not decided whether to vote for Balint or Gray, although she is leaning toward Gray. In one of her ads, Gray highlights the challenges she and her family have faced with her mother’s chronic health issues. Hudon said her family deals with issues related to elderly relatives.
“I definitely feel like he understands where people’s needs are at that moment a little bit better,” Hudon said.
Voter Annie Greenfelder of Middlesex noted that there doesn’t appear to be much of a policy difference between Gray and Balint. He said he voted for Balint because of the endorsements he has received from environmental activists, but would like to see Gray run for another office if he loses.
“We need more politicians,” Greenfelder said.