The Vermont Senate on Wednesday afternoon took another step in a gradual generational shift.
Meeting hours after the legislature convened for the year, the Democratic caucus unanimously chose Sen. Becca Balint (D-Windham) to serve as majority leader. Earlier Wednesday, the full Senate formally elected Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden), another of the Senate’s youngest members, as president pro tempore.
Balint, an educator and newspaper columnist from Brattleboro, replaces Sen. Phil Baruth (D/P-Chittenden) as the chamber’s Democratic leader. Baruth announced in late October that he would step down after four years in the post. Sen. Ginny Lyons (D-Chittenden) publicly considered seeking it but informed her colleagues in recent days that she would not.
At Wednesday’s caucus meeting, Balint was nominated as part of a “team” with veteran Sen. Mark MacDonald (D-Orange) running for majority whip. The caucus took a single vote, simultaneously electing Balint and MacDonald without dissent.
Balint said she and MacDonald had decided to join forces as a way to bridge the gap between the Senate’s old guard and young blood.
“I was thinking about how I want to be successful in bringing this group together,” she said. “Mark had expressed interest, and we had some great conversations, and I think we’ll be a great team.”
Balint said that Ashe was not involved “at all” in the idea. After the caucus decided at a mid-November meeting to delay its majority leader election, she explained, “he decided to step back and let the process play out.”
On how she will approach her new role, Balint spoke of a more streamlined, predictable process in the Senate. “People want to know what’s coming,” she said. “Nobody wants to have surprises all the time.” She also expressed a desire to have Senate committees “get out more and talk with our constituents.”
Now that Windham County native Peter Shumlin is leaving the governor’s office, nearly all the state’s top officials hail from the Burlington/Montpelier corridor. Balint said the dearth of representation from southern Vermont factored into her decision to run. “We do need somebody from the south,” she said, “because our issues are not the same as those in Chittenden and Washington counties.”
Balint is the first openly gay woman to serve in the Vermont Senate. Left unsaid — in the caucus meeting and in her remarks to reporters afterward — was any mention of her breaking another glass ceiling: becoming the first openly gay woman to achieve a leadership position in the Senate. By itself, that seems to be a heartening bit of progress.
The Senate Democratic caucus will meet again Thursday afternoon to discuss its legislative priorities for the 2017 session.