Democratic Vermont senators on Sunday chose women for key leadership posts for the upcoming legislative session, a historic shift that was celebrated by senators and tempered by the daunting task before them.
During a caucus vote Sunday morning, Sen. Becca Balint (D-Windham) won nomination to be Senate president pro tempore. If confirmed in January, the mother of two from Brattleboro would be the first woman and the first openly gay lawmaker to hold the post.
Balint, 47, said little about those firsts and instead focused on the challenges ahead, for which she said she and her colleagues will need to “bring our A games” to address the “Herculean task” ahead.
“Our top priority this session will be to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, while also trying to shift the system and policies to better address Vermonters’ needs going forward,” Balint said.
Balint will succeed Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P- Chittenden), who did not seek reelection to the Senate and ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor. Her nomination had been assured for weeks.
Sen. Phil Baruth (D/P-Chittenden) said Balint was “absolutely the best candidate for the job,” praising her “warmth, energy and strategic intelligence.”
Balint's bid for pro tem opened up her job as majority leader, a position that often is an indicator of upward political mobility. It was less clear prior to Sunday how that contest would shake out.
Sen. Alison Clarkson
Sen. Chris Pearson (P/D- Chittenden) had expressed interest in the post and lined up several supporters. But he identifies as a Progressive first and a Democrat second. That set off some grumbling in the caucus about whether it was wise to have him leading the Democrats.
"I think it's very important to have a Democrat as the majority leader," Sen. Alison Clarkson (D-Windsor) told Seven Days as she rounded up votes to be leader herself last week. "This is the majority party."
Sen. Brian Campion (D-Bennington) had also expressed interest, and had the support of his seatmate, Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), and others. But when Campion withdrew last week, Democrats who wanted a party loyalist coalesced around Clarkson, 65.
The Harvard University-educated mother of two and former Broadway theater producer urged her colleagues to think of the nation’s motto, e pluribus unum — out of many, one — as the “formula for our success” in state government
“My job will be listening to each of you, your needs and priorities, to coordinate those with our work to help our caucus advance our policy priorities and shared vision,” Clarkson said after her unanimous selection. “Together we can accomplish great things.”
Sen. Dick McCormack (D-Windsor) praised Clarkson’s organizational skills, natural leadership and relentless energy, likening her to the “Energizer bunny.”
“Alison is a very present personality,” McCormack said. “In any room where she is, eyes turn to Alison.”
The third woman chosen Sunday for a leadership post was Sen. Cheryl Hooker (D/P-Rutland), who was named whip. Sen. Ruth Hardy (D-Addison) recalled with awe how Hooker, 70, traveled to Montpelier in a blizzard after helping her husband through a medical crisis.
“Having someone who is calm and fair and good-humored as our assistant majority leader, I think, is incredibly important,” she said.
Senators also opted to keep some institutional knowledge handy by leaving Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle) in a key leadership role on the Committee on Committees.
The influential three-member panel makes committee assignments. The two other members will be the pro tem, Balint, and the new lieutenant governor, Democrat Molly Gray.
Sen. Anthony Pollina (P-Washington), noting that House Democrats had selected a woman, Rep. Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington), to be speaker, hailed the changes.
“It’s really a new day, and a new form of leadership,” Pollina said. I’m really looking forward to being part of a Senate and a legislature that is primarily directed by women.”