Sen. Debbie Ingram (D-Chittenden) speaks in front of Scott Milne
In a surprising rebuke of her own party's nominee, state Sen. Debbie Ingram (D-Chittenden) has endorsed Republican Scott Milne to be Vermont's next lieutenant governor.
Ingram, who ran unsuccessfully in the August primary for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor, announced her decision Monday morning to a group of reporters gathered outside of the Unitarian Church in Burlington. She argued that Milne, a Pomfret businessman best known for nearly defeating then-governor Peter Shumlin in 2014, has the necessary experience to help the state withstand the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.
"Although I have been a lifelong Democrat and I'm still a Democrat, I believe that Mr. Milne is the best person for this important position at this time," Ingram said, urging "all Vermonters" to vote for the Republican nominee.
Ingram's endorsement follows a bruising Democratic primary in which she and two other candidates — Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) and activist Brenda Siegel — lost to Molly Gray, an assistant attorney general.
Gray, a political newcomer, received 44 percent of the vote; Ingram finished last with 9 percent.
Ingram asserted that her support for Milne was "not so much about" Gray, against whom she holds "no grudges."
"Although I am committed to supporting the advancement of women in our political system, the position of lieutenant governor is too important to decide solely on the basis of sex rather than the many other characteristics necessary for the job," Ingram said. "In my opinion, Mr. Milne's qualities in other respects matter more than electing a woman."
She praised Milne's "attitude of humility" and willingness to work across the aisle. She mentioned his late mother, Marion Milne, who lost her seat in the Vermont House due to her vote in favor of civil unions.
"As a lesbian myself, I have the highest respect and deepest gratitude for lawmakers like her," Ingram said. "That is the family legacy that Mr. Milne possesses."
And while Ingram conceded that she does not agree with all of Milne's stances, she said she appreciated how his recently revealed list of policy proposals show support for growing the state's workforce, developing stronger ethics laws and reforming health care.
"Even within your own party, you don't always agree with people in leadership on every single issue," she said. "So, to me, the traits that he brings to the job outweigh any of the policy differences."
Ingram tried to keep her comments focused on Milne during the brief press conference. But responding to questions about Gray's candidacy, the sitting senator did take a few moments to weigh in on her party's nominee, levying some of the same attacks that she embraced during the final months of the primary.
Ingram said she remains "distressed" at the fact that Gray did not vote in the four election cycles between 2008 and 2018. She also expressed worry over lingering questions about whether Gray's 18 months living in Switzerland in 2017 and 2018 disqualify her from serving as lieutenant governor. The Vermont Constitution says, "No person shall be eligible to the office of Governor or Lieutenant-Governor until the person shall have resided in this State four years next preceding the day of election."
But Ingram's biggest concern, she said, is that the 36-year-old Gray does not have enough experience to serve as lieutenant governor.
"It's important in any job to have experience," she said. "I mean, you'd rather have the person who worked their way up from the mailroom in a corporation be the one who gets promoted then, you know, the nephew of the CEO."
In a statement emailed to Seven Days, Gray's campaign manager, Samantha Sheehan, did not address Ingram's endorsement directly. Instead, Sheehan wrote that her candidate's legal training and work in public policy "uniquely qualify her" for the primary responsibility of the LG position: presiding over the Senate.
“Molly is happy to discuss job qualifications directly with Scott Milne," Sheehan wrote. "That’s why she invited him to attend 8 nonpartisan community conversations she's hosting across Vermont, which he has chosen not to attend."
Democrats were quick to criticize Ingram after news of her endorsement broke.
Sam Donnelly, chair of the Burlington Democratic Committee, wrote on Twitter that Ingram's support for Milne felt like a "betrayal of values."
"Debbie says she is voting for Scott Milne due to his experience being more valuable than Molly Gray’s," Donnelly wrote. "That’s absurd."
Rebecca Holcombe, the former Vermont education secretary who finished second in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, described her reaction with a made-up word: "mystisad."
"Mystification that Ingram did this and sadness that an elected woman leader’s tool of choice to take down another woman candidate is a sexist trope," Holcombe wrote on Twitter.
Even Siegel — who, along with Ingram, accused Gray before the primary of using powerful political connections to catapult her way to the nomination — pushed back on the "experience myth," saying she does not believe people have to climb a "political ladder" to be good leaders.
"If I don't believe that for myself or others, I can't believe that for Molly, either," Siegel said in an interview.
Still, Siegel fell short of throwing her support behind the Democratic nominee. "I haven't considered it," she said, "because her team has not reached out to me for an endorsement."
For his part, Milne noted that his only path to victory as a Republican in a liberal state such as Vermont is to win a "pretty significant share of Democrat votes." He called Ingram's endorsement a "very important milestone" in the race.
"Sen. Ingram's endorsement of my campaign is going to be incredibly valuable," he said.
Indeed, both Ingram and Milne were hopeful that her defection will convince other elected Democrats who are wary of their nominee to come out in support of the Republican.
"Sometimes people think things in private, or say things in confidential conversations," Ingram said. "Sometimes they just need one person to kind of step forward and encourage them to have the courage to follow convictions."
"I'm hoping that that will happen with some of my colleagues," she added.