For what may be the first time in history in Vermont, a member of a minority group will lead a major political party. By a 31-7 vote Saturday, the Democratic State Committee elected Faisal Gill as interim party chair.
Gill replaces Dottie Deans, who decided to step down before the end of her term in November. Gill is expected to seek reelection to a full term as party chair at that time.
Gill, whose first name rhymes with “castle,” is an attorney from Winooski, and is currently chair of the Chittenden County Democrats. He was an unsuccessful candidate for state Senate in 2016, finishing eighth in a Democratic primary for six Chittenden County nominations.
“Having a Pakistani Muslim chair of the party is a beautiful thing, especially during this time when we’re seeing so much hatred around the country,” said Conor Casey, the state party’s executive director. “And I think Faisal can be the glue that holds this party together during uncertain times.”
The party chair is an unpaid position tasked with party leadership. The executive director is a full-time paid staffer who handles the party’s day-to-day business.
In the race for party chair, Gill easily defeated 29-year-old Nick Clark, an Upper Valley resident, unsuccessful candidate for the Vermont House and a founder of the Upper Valley Young Liberals. Clark had cast himself as a “Berniecrat” and a more progressive choice for chair.
“I’ve never hidden the fact,” Gill said after his election. “I talk about it all the time. I actually think it gives me a little bit of an advantage because we have to reach out to everybody: people who are on our side squarely, and folks who voted for Gov. Scott and folks who voted for Donald Trump.”
If there had been any doubt about the vote, it was likely erased when the two candidates gave brief speeches to the state committee. Clark spoke haltingly, often referring to notes, and even said, “I am not the most qualified or experienced choice.” Gill was articulate and expansive as he laid out his vision for the party.
Faisal Gill speaking to the Vermont Democratic Party state committee
There were hints of hard feelings from the Gill/Clark campaign. Gill supporter Mike McCarthy, former state representative from St. Albans, referred to the “tone” of the race, in which some Clark backers had depicted their man as the outsider.
“The party is inclusive,” he told the room. “I’ve heard it accused of being elitist and exclusive, and that offends me.”
For the most part, Gill supporters did their best to be generous winners, making it clear that Clark’s backers are welcome in the party and that their energy and commitment are needed. “We can’t afford to turn against each other,” said Casey, in a post-vote unity plea.
For Casey, the top priority is party-building from the ground up. “There is a commitment to building up the town and county committees,” he said. “This is our bench for the future. We’ve got to be in fighting shape because there’s a lot of fights ahead.”
Gill shares Casey’s grassroots focus, and also wants to develop “a clear, concise message … about inclusion and opportunity.”
Deans had decided to resign early because she felt “wrung out” and she wanted a new chair to get started before November, when the ever-longer campaign season will be effectively under way.
Party vice chair Tim Jerman acknowledged that new reality on Saturday, and indicated that the party is likely to make a permanent change in the timing of its election of new officers — from November to early spring — so that the party isn’t changing leaders in midstream.