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Backstory: Most Bewildering Subject

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Published December 28, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


MARC NADEL
  • Marc Nadel

This "backstory" is a part of a collection of articles that describes some of the obstacles that Seven Days reporters faced while pursuing Vermont news, events and people in 2022.


I spent most of the summer chasing the two front-runners in the most aerobic electoral contest of the campaign cycle, the Democratic primary for Vermont's only seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. The challenge of profiling any political candidate is to see beyond the manufactured story, to figure out where the public persona ends and the authentic self begins.

With Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, I never felt like I got there.

Part of the problem was access. For example: In early June I was scheduled to interview Gray at her childhood home in Newbury, then tag along with her for the rest of the day as she careered from one meet and greet to the next. At the last minute, her campaign manager called to cancel so Gray could attend a GunSense Vermont rally in Montpelier.

That's how I became a sunburned witness to a supremely central Vermont tableau of nudists and assault weapons ban supporters, peaceably assembled on the Statehouse lawn. When the rally ended, just as the crowd was starting to disperse, a troupe of naked cyclists gathered on the Statehouse steps for a post-ride group photo, still in the buff.

Ten or 15 yards in front of them was Gray. Realizing that I was perceiving her against the backdrop of spontaneous public nudity, she looked mortified. She asked me not to take any pictures of her, which I had no intention of doing. We talked for a few minutes off the record, as Gray usually requested outside of prearranged meetings.

After that, we had no meaningful interaction that wasn't mediated by her campaign staff.

The other problem, which likely accounted for the first, was Gray's obvious discomfort with revealing much about herself beyond the perfunctory details of her résumé. While her opponent, now U.S. representative-elect Becca Balint, exhibited a willingness to be vulnerable — to talk about her struggles with mental illness and coming out as gay in a less tolerant era — Gray talked about herself almost exclusively in terms of the various jobs she'd held.

In a world that judges ambitious women much more harshly than ambitious men, Gray's decision to focus on what she had done, rather than who she is as a person, made a certain kind of sense — except it backfired, and badly. "I'm asking Vermonters to hire me," she was fond of saying, which did little to dispel the perception that she was striving for her next promotion.

As a result, her particular brand of feminist empowerment read as corporate, devoid of political substance and rage, as if it had come off the same assembly line as those RBG mugs and "Burn the Patriarchy" soy candles. Over and over again, Balint's supporters told me how "real" she was, and that ineffable quality of realness became a foil to Gray's ineffable quality of unrealness, of having been coached.