The forthcoming retirement of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the longest-serving member of the current Senate, is paving the way for Vermont to send a woman to Congress for the first time in history.
It’s all thanks to a round of political musical chairs sparked by Leahy’s November announcement that he will not seek reelection next year.
Rep. Peter Welch (D), Vermont’s sole representative in the House, kicked off his campaign to succeed Leahy shortly after Leahy’s announcement. With the blessing of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a giant in state politics, Welch is seen as a virtual lock for the Democratic nomination in the liberal state.
The top contenders to succeed Welch in the House are all women: Vermont Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, state Senate President Becca Balint and state Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale.
Gray, who launched her bid for the soon-to-be-open seat on Monday, is the only one of the trio to officially announce her candidacy thus far. But Ram Hinsdale and Balint are openly entertaining a run.
In addition, state Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky, who was planning a Senate run before Welch announced his bid with Sanders’ endorsement, told HuffPost that she is taking time over the winter holidays to weigh her options.
Although a male candidate may yet enter the race, Vermont progressives are hopeful that the state can shed its status as the only one in the country that’s never sent a woman to Congress. The state’s Democratic congressional primary, in which all voters are welcome to participate, is due to take place on Aug. 9, 2022.
“I pride myself on being able to work with a Republican governor and a strong, progressive Democratic majority in the legislature.”
“This cycle could represent the beginning of a big generational shift in Vermont politics,” said Cameron Russell, a Democratic operative in Vermont who is not affiliated with any campaign. “And it might finally be our opportunity to send a woman to Washington.”
The fight to succeed Welch is also likely to have an impact on the ideological balance of power in Congress. Vermont was once a hub of the Republican Party’s now-defunct liberal wing, but the sparsely populated state has become a bastion of progressive politics in recent decades.
Sanders, who isn’t going anywhere, is the most famous and influential left-wing elected official in the country.
Leahy, who was elected Vermont’s first ever Democratic senator in 1974, and Welch, who holds seats on powerful committees, are only moderate by contrast with the populist Sanders. Both men are reliable progressives by national standards, co-sponsoring Sanders’ Medicare for All legislation and serving as outspoken advocates for measures designed to lower prescription drug prices, limit climate change and protect civil liberties.
Still, whichever candidate succeeds Welch will determine whether the state’s newest House member takes an approach that is ideologically closer to Sanders, closer to Leahy and Welch, or of a different vintage entirely.
Gray, a Medicare for All supporter who serves under Vermont’s Republican governor, Phil Scott, is reputedly the most moderate of the bunch.
Gray told HuffPost on Monday that she plans to focus on passing paid family leave and creating affordable housing to help Vermont attract and retain young families.
“We’re one of the oldest states in the nation with a shrinking workforce, an aging population, and a prolific demographic crisis and we have an opportunity to bring new leadership, new ideas to Congress,” she said.
Asked whether she is closer to Sanders or closer to Leahy and Welch in her views, Gray replied, “I’m closer to Molly Gray.”
“I pride myself on being able to work with a Republican governor and a strong, progressive Democratic majority in the legislature,” she added.
Gray, a human rights attorney who grew up on a farm in South Newbury, would not say whether she would join the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
“I will work with anybody who’s ready to work hard for Vermonters,” she said.
She is also pitching herself as the surest bet for victory in a general election that she’s warning voters not to take for granted.
“We have one of the most popular Republican governors in the nation with an extremely high approval rating,” Gray said. “We’re going to see Republicans nationally looking to Vermont as a place where they can pick up ground and possibly even win.”
Camille Gallo, a spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee, which helps elect Republicans to the House, did not respond directly when asked whether the GOP plans to contest Vermont’s House seat.
“No Democrat is safe in this political environment,” Gallo said in a statement.
Ram Hinsdale, a Burlington resident who advises organizations on how to be more diverse, inclusive and equitable, cuts a more progressive profile than Gray. She told HuffPost she is “deeply exploring” a House run, and that if elected, she would join the Congressional Progressive Caucus ― though she also called herself a “pretty practical progressive” who finds something to admire in both Sanders’ and Welch’s approaches.
“I am naturally the most progressive candidate in the race by virtue of my lived experience,” Ram Hinsdale said. “I have continued to fight for issues that are unpopular that are now ― after a racial reckoning and another economic free fall ― becoming mainstream ideas.”
Ram Hinsdale, who is half South Asian and half Jewish, moved to Vermont for college and went on to become the first woman of color to serve in Vermont’s state Senate.
One of the points on which Ram Hinsdale believes she was ahead of the curve is the issue of how environmental pollution disproportionately hurts marginalized communities. She is chief sponsor of an environmental justice bill that would require state agencies to study the ways that low-income people and Black, Indigenous and people of color are disproportionately affected by environmental hazards and pollution.
“In Vermont, our dream is really about how much you help your neighbor and how much you lift each other up.”
It’s all part of Ram Hinsdale’s plan to extend the reach of the “Vermont dream,” which she believes is more communal than the individualistic “American dream.”
“In Vermont, our dream is really about how much you help your neighbor and how much you lift each other up,” Ram Hinsdale said.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve been really proud and honored to experience that, though I know that in a particularly homogeneous, rural state, not everyone gets to experience that,” she added. “So, as the first woman of color in the state Senate, I’ve tried to open that door so that other people are let in from the cold and feel that warmth of community that we have in Vermont.”
HuffPost reached out to Balint for an interview, but did not receive a response. Balint, an educator by profession, would also be Vermont’s first openly gay member of Congress.
The House Democratic primary in Vermont is likely to receive more attention than it would have if the Senate primary were more competitive.
Some progressives in the state are still smarting from Sanders’ decision to endorse Welch, all but assuring that Welch, who is already 74, becomes the nominee.
Of those Vermonters either running for Congress or considering a run, Vyhovsky, a social worker, most clearly evokes Sanders’ anti-establishment style. Taking advantage of Vermont’s unique fusion balloting system, she runs as both a Democrat and a member of the more left-leaning Progressive Party.
“I am much more outside of the establishment than any of those three in that I choose to run with a third party,” Vyhovsky said. “That comes with consequences and being shut out of these spaces.”
One way in which Vyhovsky’s independence is apparent is her willingness to express her displeasure with how the Senate field has shaped up.
“In politics all around, I struggle with this idea that people are anointed to these seats and there isn’t really any conversation about it,” she said.
Gray does not plan to endorse in the Senate race, but Ram Hinsdale and Balint have both endorsed Welch.
“Vermonters don’t like an anointment, but I don’t think that’s what this has been or continues to be,” Ram Hinsdale said. “Congressman Welch is the best person for the job.”