Politics

Becca Balint, leader of the Vermont Senate, joins race for US House

Becca Balint, president pro tempore of the Vermont Senate, announces her candidacy for the state's lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives at a press conference in Montpelier on Monday, Dec. 13, 2021. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Updated at 6:07 p.m.

MONTPELIER — Becca Balint, the president pro tempore of the Vermont Senate, is running for the state’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, she announced Monday. 

“I’m running because we’re facing huge challenges. Working families are struggling, the pandemic is raging on, real climate action can’t wait, and our democracy itself is at risk. The future feels perilous,” the Windham County Democrat said at a launch event at the Vermont History Museum in Montpelier. “We can’t tackle these challenges if we remain divided.”

Balint joins Lt. Gov. Molly Gray in the Democratic primary to succeed Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., who is vacating his House seat to run for the U.S. Senate. No Republicans have entered the race, including Gov. Phil Scott, who has said he has no intention of going to Washington this cycle.

Balint, 53, is the first openly gay woman elected to the Vermont Senate and the first woman to serve as its president. The former middle school teacher and stay-at-home mother won her first political contest in a race for her southeastern Vermont Senate seat in 2014. 

She rose quickly through the ranks of the Democrat-controlled chamber, becoming majority leader in 2017, at the start of her second term. Four years later, in 2021, she was elected pro tem — the top position in the Senate. 

Asked which legislative achievements best demonstrated her ability to win hard fights, Balint pointed to the Senate’s gubernatorial veto override of the Global Warming Solutions Act and her work shepherding Proposal 5, a proposed constitutional amendment guaranteeing reproductive rights, through the chamber.

Balint grew up in New York’s Hudson Valley and first came to Vermont in the mid-1990s as a rock-climbing instructor in Plymouth. She settled in Brattleboro in 2007 with attorney Elizabeth Wohl, whom she married two years later when Vermont legalized same-sex marriage.

In a campaign video and in a speech at her kickoff event Monday, Balint leaned into her personal story. Her grandfather’s murder during the Holocaust had taught her “what can happen when we turn away from each other,” she said. And an experience with a neighbor who had an anti-gay “Take Back Vermont” sign in their front yard when she first moved to town proved that people can be won over.

“After weeks of unease, I decided I would just keep showing up, believing there was a way to bridge the divide,” Balint said during her speech. “So what started with conversations across the fence and with borrowed tools, became gifts for our kids and baked goods for them. And the sign came down.”

The Senate leader said Monday that her campaign motto would be “courage and kindness,” and argued her experience building coalitions in Montpelier might be put to good use unifying a party often seen as at war with itself.

“That is something I've also done in the legislature. Our caucus in Montpelier ranges from Blue Dog Democrats to, you know, progressives. And I've been able to bring them together on important legislation for Vermonters,” she said.

Becca Balint celebrates with supporters after announcing her candidacy for the state's lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Balint’s campaign launch video also name-checks Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, paid family and medical leave, racial justice and housing justice. These are signature platforms for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Balint said in an interview later that his “progressive agenda completely aligns with what I believe and how I think we need to be showing up for Vermont families.”

But Balint added that she also hoped, if sent to Washington, to emulate U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. Balint said she particularly admired his work on the judiciary committee — and his ability to bring federal dollars home to Vermont.

“What I hope that you'll see in me as a candidate is really a blending of the best of both of these giants,” she said.

Balint’s decision to join the race is the latest in a series of moves touched off by Leahy’s announcement last month that he would retire when his eighth term expires in January 2023. That has led to a great reshuffling of Vermont’s political landscape — opening up at least four top positions: seats in the U.S. Senate and House, the lieutenant governorship and, now, the pro tem post. Balint said Monday she would also be giving up her Windham county Senate seat.

Vermont has never elected a woman to federal office, but several up-and-coming politicos aim to break that glass ceiling next year. In addition to Gray — a first-term lieutenant governor who rose from obscurity to win a statewide race in 2020 — Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden, has also been eyeing the House race. Ram Hinsdale has not yet said whether she will run, but she has kept a busy schedule of public events in recent months, including an appearance in Bennington last week

All three have been affiliated with Emerge Vermont, an organization that trains Democratic women to run for office — Balint and Gray as trainees and Ram Hinsdale as a founder. 

Becca Balint on Monday, Dec. 13. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Within just an hour of news breaking about Balint’s candidacy, Gray’s team put out a press release announcing that the lieutenant governor had pulled in over $111,000 in the first week of her campaign — and $50,000 within the first 24 hours. 

Samantha Sheehan, a representative with the Gray campaign, declined last week to discuss fundraising with VTDigger, saying the campaign would address such questions once they had submitted their first filing with the FEC on Jan. 31, 2022. Sheehan said Monday that the timing of the campaign’s fundraising announcement was coincidental and that the campaign had decided Friday to send out an update one week into the race.

Both Gray and Balint have said they would not accept corporate PAC money. Balint added that she would accept funds from political action committees whose values align with hers — including from teachers unions, or groups involved in “the climate fight or reproductive rights.” (Sheehan said Gray, too, would accept support from such PACs.)

Balint said Monday morning her campaign had already brought in about $35,000 by 9:30 a.m. Updated figures were not available from her campaign by the time of publication.

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Lola Duffort

About Lola

Lola Duffort is a political reporter for VTDigger, covering Vermont state government, the congressional delegation and elections. She previously covered education for Digger, the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire and the Rutland Herald. She has also freelanced for the Miami Herald in Florida, where she grew up. She is a graduate of McGill University in Canada.

Email: [email protected]

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