LGBTQ+ and progressive political action committees have spent over $600,000 backing state Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham, in the race for Vermont’s open U.S. House seat in the month before primary day.
The spending blitz has prompted complaints anew from Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, Balint’s chief rival in the Democratic primary, who has sought to make campaign finance a central issue of the race. And it has also touched off a debate over who can claim moral high ground on money in politics when both campaigns have now raised just shy of $1 million.
Such outside spending is not unprecedented in Vermont, although it is unusual. In the hotly contested 2016 gubernatorial race, the Republican Governors Association spent roughly $3 million to help elect Phil Scott to his first term. (Sue Minter, his Democratic opponent, got a little over $1 million in super PAC help.) The $600,000 sum is particularly significant in this race — and gives Balint the edge, given that both her campaign and Gray’s have otherwise raised roughly equivalent amounts and that Gray has not benefited from such support. Primary day is Aug. 9, but voting is already underway.
Seven Days was first to report on the nearly $606,000 spent on Balint’s behalf on TV ads, digital media and mailers by the LGBTQ Victory Fund, Equality PAC and the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC in July. The first two groups help elect LGBTQ+ candidates and their allies, while the Congressional Progressive PAC works to elect candidates who plan to caucus with progressives in the U.S. House.
Gray was quick to seize on the development Monday.
“It is Vermonters, not outside groups, who decide our elections,” she said in a brief video in response to Seven Days’ reporting. “I want to be very clear about that.”
Former Gov. Howard Dean, one of Gray’s most high-profile backers, doubled down even further.
“After saying she opposed spending by outside groups, Becca Balint has benefitted from more than half a million dollars spent on her behalf. This is wrong, It’s bad for Vermont and bad for our country. I’m really disappointed in Becca. These are not Vermont values,” he wrote on Twitter.
Gray has repeatedly called on Balint to join her in a press conference to denounce outside spending and demand that ads by such groups be taken down. She had asked Balint to pledge to do so back in early June, before such spending entered the scene and, at the time, Balint said yes.
And she has called attention to the Balint campaign’s apparent attempt to use a “red box,” a strategy campaigns use to legally skirt federal law prohibiting campaigns from coordinating with outside groups.
Balint has since said she knew nothing about the red box and that she instructed her staff to take it down. And while she’s released a statement saying she does not support the outside group spending on her behalf, her team has criticized Gray’s repeated insistence on a press conference as a “political stunt” and argued that taking aim at spending by LGBTQ+ groups is in poor taste, especially given the national political climate.
“Molly Gray is very close to saying, you know, ‘We don't want a gay agenda,’” Balint campaign manager Natalie Silver said in an interview Tuesday. “She's calling these ‘special interests.’ These aren’t special interests. These are gay people. This is the LGBTQ community. This isn't beet farmers. This isn’t big ag. This isn’t oil. These are people who are afraid for their lives right now.”
Some well-known progressive and LGBTQ+ politicos, including state Rep. Taylor Small, P/D-Winooski, Vermont’s first openly transgender lawmaker, have echoed the Balint campaign’s concern that Gray’s rhetoric sounds like a dogwhistle.
But Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, who is gay, said he found it “disturbing” that the Balint campaign was trying to “conflate this as somehow being anti-LGBTQ,” and said that he had known “our Lieutenant Governor for several years and (appreciated) her consistent support of the LGBTQ community.”
“It could easily be said by the Gray campaign that the real punch in the gut to the LGBTQ community is the Balint campaign’s recent celebration of an endorsement from a former state senator, who, as reported by Seven Days, led the effort to repeal civil unions,” added Campion, referring to Rutland Republican Peg Flory.
Once a uniting rallying cry for Democrats, campaign finance reform is now an increasingly awkward topic for the left. Democrats have decried big money ever since the landmark Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court decision that now allows special interests to spend unlimited sums in electoral contests. But in 2020, it was the left — not the right — that most enthusiastically, and successfully, used dark money groups, The New York Times and other outlets have reported.
For Gray supporters, the Balint campaign is trying to have it both ways.
“If you believe Citizens United is wrong, and that the loophole undermines democracy, then it is an absolute. You don't want it, you won't take it, you reject it and you don't attempt to sugarcoat it,” said Carolyn Dwyer, a Gray supporter who has long worked as a top political aide to U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
But Balint supporters counter that not all big-money groups in politics are equally bad — and that the left cannot abandon these tools when they remain available for the opposition to use. Both Gray and Balint say they support efforts to overturn Citizens United. But until campaign finance reform prevails, some of Balint’s supporters say, the left cannot simply unilaterally disarm.
“Real question — given current campaign finance law, how should groups like Victory Fund — if not PACs — support lgbt candidates when groups that oppose their living existence use the Citizens United world to destroy their rights and diminish their representation?” Julia Barnes, a former campaign staffer of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who supports Balint, posted to Twitter on Tuesday.
The back-and-forth appears to be reverberating on the ground. The Gray campaign was set to participate in a Pride parade in White River Junction this Saturday, but Joie Finley, a volunteer administrator for the Main Street Museum, one of the organizers, said the group is asking the Gray camp to clarify the candidate’s stance before she does. Finley stressed that the group had not yet made a decision about whether or not Gray could attend.
“There is concern within the committee that her comments are aggressive towards the LGBT community and here at the museum, it is our job to make sure that everybody who attends any of the events here, feel safe and welcome,” she said. Finley said Dean’s allusion to “Vermont values,” in particular, had stuck out to the White River Junction Pride committee.
Told that the organizer of a local Pride parade had been put off by his comment in particular, Dean asked a reporter if this was “someone who had lived in Vermont very long,” and pointed to his decision to sign the country’s first-ever civil union bill in 2000.
Balint is getting particularly strong support from LGBTQ+ groups in part because her candidacy would be historic. If she won, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay person to represent Vermont in Washington. But Dean expressed frustration that the Victory Fund and Equality PAC had decided to weigh in on a contested primary.
“You can’t pick your candidates just because of their sexual orientation,” he said, adding that he might have understood if the other candidate was “some horrible person who was against same-sex marriage or something like that.”
“They're running against a perfectly good Democratic candidate who [is] going to be a great congressperson,” he said of Gray.
But Dean himself has worked with outside groups spending big in a contested Vermont primary. Asked why, in 2012, he had helped a super PAC supporting then-Attorney General Bill Sorrell, who was facing a primary challenge from now former Attorney General TJ Donovan, Dean at first appeared to distance himself from the effort before ultimately acknowledging his involvement.
“I actually didn’t work with them. Well, that’s not entirely true. I actually didn’t work with them. They. I didn’t. They didn’t tell me what — well, that’s not true. I cut an ad. That is true. And they paid for the ad,” he said. But there were “specific circumstances” around that ad, Dean said. Namely: the Sorrell family’s help in launching his own political career.
“They did everything for me. If it weren’t for Bill Sorrell’s mother, who was a state senator, and his aunt — you never would have heard of Howard Dean. So you can call me a hypocrite if you want to, but I stand up for my friends and the people who built me,” he said.
2022 Election Briefs
- Update voter registration by Aug. 31 to guarantee mailed ballot, secretary of state says (August 25, 4:15 pm)
- Bernie Sanders endorses David Zuckerman’s bid for lieutenant governor (August 1, 6:14 pm)
- 2nd poll shows Becca Balint well ahead of Molly Gray (August 1, 5:15 pm)
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