“My name is Christine Hallquist, and I’m running to be the governor of Vermont!”
Usually such a formality passes without notice, but on Sunday afternoon it marked a historic moment. Former utility executive Christine Hallquist became the first openly transgender candidate with a legitimate chance to capture a major party’s gubernatorial nomination.
The Hyde Park Democrat is a former CEO of the Vermont Electric Co-op, which serves much of northern Vermont. She's competing with Lake Champlain International executive director James Ehlers and eighth-grader Ethan Sonneborn for her party's nomination to challenge first-term Republican Gov. Phil Scott this November.
Hallquist chose an unusual venue for her campaign kickoff event — not in Burlington or Montpelier, but at Moog’s Place, a bar and music venue in the heart of Morrisville. The long, narrow room was short on glitz and glamor, and made for very close quarters. The dress code was Vermont rural: heavy on flannel, fleece and denim. The candidate herself may have been the only person in the room wearing a dress.
The crowd included fewer politicos than members of the Hallquist family. Two of her children, Derek and Jillian Hallquist, were among the speakers at the low-key affair. Derek, who directed and produced Denial, a documentary film about Christine’s very public gender transition, spent most of the afternoon holding his 2.5-year-old daughter, Maggie — or chasing her around the room.
Christine Hallquist, her son Derek and granddaughter Maggie
Many of those in attendance hailed from northern Vermont. “I wanted to hear what Christine has to say and what she’s all about,” said Sheila Vogel of Newport Center. “I have some friends who speak very, very highly of her, and I’ve followed ... coverage of her campaign. I wanted to hear her for myself.”
Shaunna Shaw of Guildhall didn’t need much convincing. “She’s genuine and authentic, and it’s time for a change,” Shaw said. “I believe her experience in the Vermont Electric Co-op is just proof of what a smart, forward thinking person she is."
Val Davis of East Burke was the opening act, singing a number of sixties and seventies protest songs from the stage. He works at VEC and sees Hallquist as an experienced, talented chief executive. “If you worked with Christine, she is truly a transformational figure,” he said. “I’ve only been at the Co-op a few years, but within just a couple of days of being there you realize that she created something remarkable.”
Hallquist’s speech began with her key issue: rural economic development, which she said she would boost through “strategic investments” that would extend “fiber-optic cable to every home and business in Vermont, so every Vermonter can partake in the 21st-century economy.”
This has long been an unfulfilled political promise. Hallquist said it could be done economically by giving the job to electric utilities, who already run and maintain power lines to virtually everyone in Vermont.
She then ran through a list of core Democratic issues: access to health care, quality public education, increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour, full legalization of marijuana, fighting climate change and boosting Vermont’s homegrown renewable energy sources. She not only endorsed the gun legislation now awaiting Gov. Scott’s signature, she called for a ban on assault-style weapons as well.
Hallquist also talked about management process, citing her success as VEC's longtime chief executive. She described a cooperative style that involved working alongside her employees rather than dictating from on high. Without naming Scott, Hallquist slammed what she characterized as his top-down approach to cutting school spending. “Anyone who thinks that solutions … can be dictated from the fifth floor of the Pavilion Building is only fooling themselves,” she said, referring to Scott's Montpelier office. “It is the job of the governor to empower those in the trenches to implement creative solutions, not to set mandates.”
Hallquist spent little time on her gender identity, but she did say her experience living as a woman has shown her that “the pervasive nature of sexism is not a thing of the past.” And she noted the historic nature of her candidacy.
“The idea that I’m standing here today is a miracle, and a testament to the character of Vermont,” she told the crowd. “Vermont is ready to elect a transgender governor.” Not because of her identity, she added, but because of “my résumé, my leadership, and my agenda.
“I don’t want people to support me because I’m transgender, and I don’t want them to write me off because I’m transgender, either.”
Christine Hallquist and her daughter Jillian
Her daughter Jillian, who had flown to Vermont from her home in San Francisco for the event, gave the fundraising pitch, asking the crowd to give what they could. Attendees were also encouraged to sign her candidacy petition and take away pins, yard signs and stickers with the “Christine for Vermont” logo: an outline of two mountaintops and a full moon inside a capital letter “C”.
The kickoff highlighted some of the real contrasts in Hallquist's campaign: a high-tech vision straight out of rural Vermont; a pro-business, pro-growth candidate with a progressive agenda; an executive who doesn't believe in top-down management; and a non-politician aiming to challenge an incumbent governor who's never lost a campaign.
She'll get that chance if she survives a rather peculiar Democratic primary that includes a utility CEO, an environmental advocate and a middle school student. It remains to be seen if the 2018 gubernatorial campaign will be a close one or a blowout, but it'll be fascinating at the very least.