By WILSON RING
STOWE, Vt. (AP) — Lt. Gov. Molly Gray and Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint are the leading candidates in a Democratic U.S. House primary that could make either of them the first female member of Vermont’s congressional delegation.
Gray has the backing of the centrist lane of the party, with endorsements from former Govs. Madeline Kunin and Howard Dean. Retiring U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy donated $5,000 to her campaign and cast a ballot 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, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus; and Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the founders of Vermont’s famously progressive ice cream company, Ben & Jerry’s.
The winner of Tuesday’s primary is expected to cruise to victory in November in deep-blue Vermont. Despite the state’s liberal credentials built up over the last half century, the lack of turnover in the 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 the history-making moment. U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, who has been in Congress since 2007, decided to run for Leahy’s Senate seat. That opened up his House seat for Gray or Balint, 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-person congressional delegation since 2006. And given Vermont’s penchant for reelecting incumbents, it’s likely that the winner of the Democratic primary will be able to hold the seat as long as she wants.
The ads on television and social media, and the flyers that are showing up in Vermonters’ mailboxes every day, remain positive, focused on what the 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 laid bare the intensity of the campaign.
During a debate Thursday, Gray called Balint out for a critical comment she made while seeking the endorsement of Vermont’s Progressive Party. Balint had denounced Gray as a “corporatist and a catastrophe for the left.”
“How can Vermonters expect that you will act any differently in Congress than you have on this campaign where you’ve launched negative attacks?” Gray said. “Isn’t that the problem that we see in Congress today?”
Balint apologized to Gray for the comment, “if you found it hurtful.” But Balint used the opportunity to note the source of many of Gray’s campaign contributions.
“I said at the time the reason why I was concerned was because of the funds that you’re raising from Washington insiders,” Balint said. “You have raised a tremendous amount of money from lobbyists in D.C. and not as much money from people back here in Vermont.”
Despite this tension, the two candidates hold similar views on most issues. Both support abortion rights and want to boost affordable housing, increase access to inexpensive 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 last two years, her job as lieutenant governor.
Balint, a 54-year-old former middle school teacher from Brattleboro, first came to Vermont in 1994 to teach rock climbing and settled in the state permanently in 1997. She was first elected to the state Senate in 2014. Two years ago, she became the first woman chosen 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 about the source of their donations — Vermonters versus out-of-state donors or spending by outside groups — have helped drive some of the acrimony in the race.
A number of outside groups are supporting Balint’s candidacy, including the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which has spent nearly $1 million supporting her. By law, those groups are prohibited from coordinating their efforts with the campaigns.
Before the ads started, Gray had asked Balint whether she would condemn outside spending. Balint agreed.
Now that the outside spending has started, Gray says those outside groups are interfering with the conversation she is trying to have with voters.
“All of a sudden, someone else is coming in and telling Vermonters who to hire. That’s not the Vermont way,” Gray said. “Outside groups are unelected. They’re unaccountable. They’re not representing us in Congress.”
Balint said she doesn’t think the outside spending will make a difference in the race. In any event, she said, she has no control over it.
“I feel really great about the fact that we’ve run a really excellent campaign,” Balint said. “I wish they weren’t involved because I want my team to get the full credit for everything that we have done here.”
There are four Democrats on the ballot Tuesday for U.S. House; one has 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 hadn’t decided whether to vote for Balint or Gray, though 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 problems. Hudon said her own family is dealing with issues related to aging relatives.
“I definitely feel like she understands where people’s needs are at that time a little bit better,” Hudon said.
Voter Annie Greenfelder of Middlesex noted that there doesn’t appear to be much policy difference between Gray and Balint. She said she voted for Balint because of the endorsements she has received from environmental activists but would like to see Gray run for another office if she loses.
“We need more politicians down the pipe,” Greenfelder said.