Christine Hallquist is about to make history — or at least give it her best shot.
The CEO of the Johnson-based Vermont Electric Cooperative is poised to announce a run for governor as a Democrat. If she were to win the August primary, she would become the nation’s first openly transgender, major-party candidate for governor.
It was only last November that Danica Roem of Virginia became the first openly transgender person to win a race for a state legislative seat. A potential governorship? Now, that's history.
Hallquist is nationally known in utility circles and is a respected expert on energy matters in the Vermont Statehouse. But she’s never been tempted to enter politics herself — that is, until Donald J. Trump won the presidency. “There are strong headwinds from Washington that threaten [Vermont’s] way of life and finances,” she said, explaining her move toward candidacy.
The 61-year-old Hyde Park resident would face long odds against Gov. Phil Scott, Vermont's popular first-term Republican, but she is undaunted by the challenge. “I’m a strong leader,” she said. “I can handle headwinds. I wouldn’t be running otherwise.”
Before that, Hallquist would have to win a Democratic primary featuring 13-year-old Ethan Sonneborn and environmental advocate James Ehlers — which, at first glance, seems like a pretty good bet. Party leaders have welcomed Ehlers’ candidacy but have also continued to beat the bushes for candidates with a better shot at winning. And they are very happy to see Hallquist enter the arena.
“We’re extremely excited about Christine’s potential candidacy,” said Conor Casey, executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party. “It’s a matchup the governor should be nervous about.” Casey cites her business success, her deep ties to the state and her personal qualities. “She’s charismatic, intelligent, and she has heart.”
Ehlers' campaign manager, Theo Fetter, offered a written statement late Tuesday welcoming Hallquist to the race but expressing confidence that Ehlers would prevail in the primary and the general election. Vermont Republican Party spokesperson Mike Donohue refused to weigh in on the Democratic primary but asserted, "Governor Scott's strong leadership ... has the confidence of Vermonters." Scott's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Hallquist was known as “David” until late 2015, when she began living openly as a woman. As Seven Days reported at the time, Hallquist described a childhood spent feeling like a girl in a boy’s body — “My brain believed I was a woman” — and having a close brush with an exorcism at a Catholic grade school.
That belief persisted throughout David's life, even through a happy marriage and the raising of three children. But the disconnect gradually grew stronger.
Hallquist came out to her adult children about seven years ago. They took it well, she said. It was more difficult for Pat. There is still deep affection and the two have stayed together, but their Facebook status says, "It's complicated."
Christine’s post-transition experience has changed her views in many respects.
“I had no idea of the gender hierarchy in our society,” she said. “I have story after story of things I wasn’t aware of. As a man, nobody ever told me to smile. Within a few days of my transition, a stranger on the street told me to smile. It happens a lot. Something about that really bothers me.”
She also finds herself a frequent target for comments on her clothing, makeup and body type. Some men, she has discovered, seem to believe that a woman has no higher calling in life than to offer a pleasing view.
Hallquist had been approached about running for governor by “a number of people over the last year or so.” The #MeToo movement has been an influence. “My hope is that we sustain this revolution and it’s not some short-lived phenomenon," she said.
The thought of running coalesced into intent at the January 20 Women’s March in Montpelier, which was focused on the concerns of youth. “That really moved me,” she said. “Those of us in privileged positions should stand up for future generations.”
Hallquist has never been associated with a political party. In fact, she voted for Scott in 2016. “I do like him,” she said. “He’s a real likable person. He is a great manager.”
“What I bring to the table is visionary leadership.”
When asked what other qualities she would bring to the corner office, she said, “Constancy of purpose. I don’t get rattled. I have a clear vision and I can create excitement in the workplace.”
That self-confidence is born of a successful career in engineering and business.
Hallquist earned a two-year associate’s degree and went to work for IBM, and later for Digital Equipment Corporation in Burlington. “I realized I had a lot of engineering skills,” she recalled. “I designed power systems for Digital. When it closed, I became a consultant, a troubleshooter for corporate plants.”
She was hired by Vermont Electric Cooperative for a management post in 1998. At the time, the firm was in deep trouble. “It was the most technologically backward company I’d ever seen,” she said. “But I saw committed employees.”
Financial strains continued, and the co-op entered bankruptcy. “The state was ready to pull its certificate of need,” Hallquist said. In 2005 the board of directors removed the then-CEO and promoted Hallquist to the top job. She has stabilized the co-op’s finances and built an energy portfolio that leans heavily toward renewables; in 2016, only 3 percent of its power came from fossil fuels.
Politically, Hallquist is a little tough to pin down. She’s in favor of single-payer health care and full legalization of cannabis, and in an age of economic displacement, she believes a robust social safety net is essential. But when asked if she identifies with a particular party, she cited the Republican former governor and senator George Aiken as “my favorite Democrat. He’s the kind of person I want to emulate.”
She’s a fiscal disciplinarian with an emphasis on efficiency. Her specialty is lean manufacturing — a process pioneered by Toyota to minimize waste and maximize production by engaging the knowledge of line workers. The Scott administration has adopted lean as a way to reinvent government; Hallquist believes she could do it better. "Lean has been part of my whole life," she said.
That hint of ideological polymorphism doesn’t bother Casey. “I hear her talk about economic justice,” he said. “It will resonate with all members of the party. She’s not wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt, but she’s definitely a Democrat.”
Even if some progressive Vermonters are skeptical of an efficiency-minded corporate type, it would be awfully tough for them to actively oppose the first transgender gubernatorial candidate for an American major party. And moderates, who might otherwise be skeptical of a transgender candidate, would be heartened by her business credentials.
“She will help us up and down the ticket,” said Tim Jerman, a former state representative and former vice chair of the Vermont Democratic Party. “This was shaping up as a boring election in Vermont. This will energize other candidates and attract donations.”
This race is a long shot for the Dems because Scott remains popular and first-term incumbent governors are rarely defeated in Vermont. Politicians with hopes of climbing the ladder have shied away from the race as a career-killer. But Hallquist has nothing to lose, and history to gain. She should be able to raise enough money to be competitive. And Jerman is right: It definitely wouldn’t be boring.
Will her gender identity be a drawback? Sure, with some voters — but mostly those who would have voted for Scott no matter what. Casey isn’t worried. “I believe that we’re an accepting place,” he said. “How Christine identifies won’t have much bearing.”
Before Hallquist makes an official commitment to running, she’ll hold a family meeting this weekend. And she would seek the VEC board of directors’ permission to take a leave of absence, which would likely happen on February 27.
But make no mistake: Hallquist is on the launch pad. She speaks of the campaign as if it will definitely happen. “We’re going to have the nicest gubernatorial race you’ve ever seen,” she said, referencing her admiration for Scott’s personal qualities.
That may be true, but the first gubernatorial campaign including an openly transgender candidate is certainly going to spark a world-class commotion — for better and for worse.
But living through a very public transition has prepared her for the uproar.
“I’m ready for the circus to come to town,” she said. “That’s how we make change.”
Corrected January 30, 2018, to note that Tim Jerman is a former chair of the Vermont Democratic Party.