STOWE, Vermont (AP) — Lt. Gov. Molly Gray and Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint are the leading contenders in a Democratic primary for the U.S. House of Representatives that could make either of them the first female member of the Vermont congressional delegation.
Gray has the backing of the centrist wing of the party, with the backing of former governors. Madeline Kunin and Howard Dean. Retired US Senator Patrick Leahy donated $5,000 to his campaign and voted for her.
Balint has been endorsed by a stellar list of progressive leaders, including the state’s other US senator, Bernie Sanders; Rep. Pramila Jayapal, Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus; and Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the founders of Vermont’s famous progressive ice cream company, Ben & Jerry’s.
The winner of Tuesday’s primary is expected to go on to victory in November in deep blue Vermont. Despite the state’s liberal credentials accumulated over the past half-century, a lack of turnover in the congressional delegation has made Vermont the only state in the country never to have been represented in Washington by a woman.
leahy’s retirement after 48 years in office set the stage for the historical moment. US Representative Peter Welch, who has been in Congress since 2007, decided to run for Leahy’s Senate seat. That opened up his House seat to either Gray or Balint, who would also be the first openly gay person to represent Vermont in Congress if he were elected.
It’s the first vacant seat in the state’s three-person congressional delegation since 2006. And given Vermont’s penchant for re-electing incumbents, the winner of the Democratic primary could likely hold the seat as long as she wants.
The ads on television and social media, and the flyers that appear in Vermonters’ mailboxes every day, continue to be positive, focused on what candidates see as their qualifications. But the high stakes in the race, and the ongoing battle between the centrist and progressive wings of the Democratic Party, have laid bare the intensity of the campaign.
During a debate Thursday, Gray called out Balint for a critical comment he made while seeking endorsement from the Vermont Progressive Party. Balint had denounced Gray as a “corporatist and a catastrophe for the left.”
“How can Vermonters expect you to act any differently in Congress than you have in this campaign where you have launched negative attacks?” Gray said. “Isn’t that the problem we see in Congress today?”
Balint apologized to Gray for the comment, “if he found 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 worried was because of the funds they’re raising from insiders in Washington,” Balint said. “He has raised a tremendous amount of money from lobbyists in DC and not as much money from people 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 services 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 working as a Welch staffer in Washington, in 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 her as lieutenant governor.
Balint, a 54-year-old former high school teacher from Brattleboro, first came to Vermont in 1994 to teach rock climbing and moved to the state permanently 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, meaning she oversees the legislative work of the chamber and presides over the state Senate if the lieutenant governor is absent.
Disputes over the source of their donations — Vermonters versus donors from other states or spending by outside groups — have helped fuel some of the acrimony in the race.
Several outside groups are supporting Balint’s candidacy, including the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which has spent nearly $1 million to support her. By law, those groups are prohibited from coordinating their efforts with campaigns.
Before the announcements began, Gray had asked Balint if he would condemn the outside spending. Balint agreed.
Now that outside spending has kicked off, Gray says those outside groups are interfering with the conversation he’s trying to have with voters.
“All of a sudden someone else comes in and tells Vermonters who to hire. That’s not the Vermont way,” Gray said. “Outside groups are not elected. They are irresponsible. They don’t represent us in Congress.”
Balint said he doesn’t think outside spending will make a difference in the race. In any case, she said, she has no control over it.
“I feel really good 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 full credit for everything we’ve done here.”
There are four Democrats on Tuesday’s ballot for the US House of Representatives; one is retired and the fourth is a doctor from South Burlington. Three candidates are vying for the Republican nomination.
Voter Christy Hudon of Stowe said she hadn’t decided whether to vote for Balint or Gray, though she leans 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 own family is dealing with issues related to aging relatives.
“I definitely feel like she understands a little bit better where people’s needs are right now,” Hudon said.
Middlesex voter Annie Greenfelder noted that there doesn’t seem to be much of a political difference between Gray and Balint. She said she voted for Balint because of the endorsements she received from environmental activists, but that she would like to see Gray run for another office if he loses.
“We need more politicians in the future,” Greenfelder said.
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