Three Democratic state officeholders — Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale (D-Chittenden), Lt. Gov. Molly Gray and Vermont Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint (D-Windham) — have all confirmed to Seven Days their interest in running for Congress should a vacancy arise.
Gray hired a full-time campaign staffer in January, which sparked speculation about her intentions. Since August, Ram Hinsdale has had a full-time staffer of her own.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), 81, is expected to announce in coming weeks whether he plans to retire or run for reelection. Leahy's departure would have a domino effect on Vermont's political landscape. It could lead to a vacancy in the state's lone U.S. House seat were Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) to run for Senate.
Many view an opening as an opportunity for Vermont, which has never sent a woman to Congress, to finally do so.
Elected last November, Ram Hinsdale already has one "first" under her belt as the only woman of color ever elected to serve in the Vermont Senate. In August, more than a year before she's up for reelection, Ram Hinsdale hired Riley Janeway, to help with "supporter outreach."
Ram Hinsdale has filled her schedule in recent weeks with forums on state pension reform, housing issues and refugee resettlement, work she said "makes me a better state senator, regardless of whether or not a [congressional] seat opens up for me to consider.
"If a seat does open up, it's something I would actively consider and would be able to do with a lot more context from around the state," she said.
Janeway is a Colgate College graduate who worked as campaign manager last year for the successful run of Rep. Tiff Bluemle (D-Burlington). Ram Hinsdale also employs a paid intern through a program with the University of Vermont and has volunteers, whom she provides stipends, helping her with legislation ahead of the upcoming session.
“Showing people that you’re listening outside of an election year is really critical for them to feel like you’re having an authentic conversation with them and not just asking for their vote in the three months before an election,” Ram Hinsdale said.
Some of those conversations are about spending federal coronavirus relief funds.
“We have to build together, and that's why I'm getting much more organized than I have in the past,” Ram Hinsdale said. “We have people who really want us to get outside of Montpelier and listen to them.”
Balint, the Senate pro tem, has also been busy in recent weeks with statewide community conversations and visits to business groups and nonprofits. She's also made no secret of her interest in a congressional run, saying on Friday she is “definitely” interested in running for U.S. House if the seat were open. But she has no intention of running against Leahy, Welch, or Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and praised the work of each. Sanders isn’t up for reelection until 2024.
Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint
Balint said she has had a part-time campaign intern this year “just helping me wrangle the job of keeping up with my social media and engagement when I have so many responsibilities as a senator.”
“I've been doing a fair amount of work over the last year just to get a network in place, and so have brought on a digital team that's been helping me build out my email list,” Balint said. “I've got a core group of friends and advisers, [and] we meet regularly. But until there is an actual race, it seems premature to hire a full-time staffer to be doing that work.”
First-year Lt. Gov. Gray, who’s been backed by Leahy and his current and former staffers, has telegraphed her ambitions for higher office. Gray hired a political adviser, Liz Brown, in January of this year, a decision that drew attention for how early it was in the cycle. (Gray was sworn in that month and isn't up for reelection until November 2022.)
For months, Gray has declined to say whether she was interested in running for higher office. But on Monday, she told Seven Days she "would give a run for Congress strong consideration" if Leahy were to retire and Welch ran for U.S. Senate in 2022. Gray did say she hopes Leahy runs again.
The question of Gray's future "comes up pretty regularly" with constituents, she said, but "I've really tried to focus on my job as lieutenant governor."
When asked about her interest in a congressional run, Gray cited the Recover Stronger tour she held this summer. She said she spent a day in each county to hear from Vermonters about how they want the state to spend the federal $2.7 billion in COVID-19 relief cash.
"The needs of Vermont aren't going to solely be met by our state," Gray said. "We are going to continue to need strong federal partners. And should we have an open seat, given what I know, given my experience working in Washington and living and working across the state? I know I could be that strong federal partner to keep our strong relationship with our federal delegation going."
File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
Lt. Gov Molly Gray last year
None of the three potential candidates has filed with the Federal Election Commission, a review of the FEC database showed. A candidate is required to file if they've raised at least $5,000 for a federal political campaign.
Gray did raise $50,000 for her state lieutenant governor's campaign fund between January 1 through June of this year, according to campaign finance filings from July. That money is not transferable to a federal campaign, and Brown, Gray's political adviser, noted the LG had spent $32,000 during the same period.
That sum, though, is far above the other potential candidates. Ram Hinsdale brought in $630, including $500 she loaned herself, while Balint reported $770 in contributions. The next state filing deadline is in March 2022.
Ram Hinsdale acknowledged that her decision to hire a staffer might also spark speculation about her plans, but she was reluctant to confirm she’d run for Congress if a seat opens. Ram Hinsdale did say she was “honored” to be among the names floated as potential candidates.
“People are excited because they need to know who their champions will be in Washington,” Ram Hinsdale said. “I welcome the conversation. I just don’t have anything more definitive or exciting to say.”
"I just try to be a champion for Vermonters who don't feel like they have a voice," she added, "and it seems to be gaining traction."
Leahy has previously said he expects to announce his intentions about a year before the election. Reached on Friday, his campaign manager, Carolyn Dwyer, said that ballpark is still a good bet. She declined to disclose which way the senator was leaning and indicated that Leahy is busy in Congress as Democrats try to push through several massive pieces of legislation in a very divided chamber.
“He did sign a bill continuing the operations of the Department of Transportation today,” Dwyer said. “So that’s where his time and attention is at the moment.”
Leahy’s reelection announcement “is obviously subject to the whims of Congress, which is very whim-y at the moment,” Dwyer said, noting the senator’s goal was still to decide in the near future.
As of the end of September, Leahy had about $2 million in his campaign war chest, including about $980,500 raised since the beginning of 2021.
“He’s comfortable with where he’s at and comfortable with the ability to raise,” Dwyer said, noting that COVID-19 precautions have hindered fundraising efforts.
Ram Hinsdale said she has no intention of running against either Welch or Leahy — or pressuring either into making a decision about their futures.
“I definitely want to give our federal delegation time and space,” Ram Hinsdale said. “I am really hanging back and doing a lot of listening and feeling really encouraged by what I'm hearing, about the need for a bold defender of democracy and our vision for a multicultural, more perfect union in the country. I think Vermonters want to have a very inspiring discussion and debate about who they send to Washington.”
Leahy isn't the only octogenarian in Vermont's delegation; Sanders is 80. And Welch, at 74, isn't much younger. So that debate could be happening very soon.
“You’ve got three people in their seventies and eighties,” Dwyer said. “So at some point, things are gonna change. It just may not be the point people want or expect.”