Balint, Gray Work to Seal the Deal as Congressional Primary Rolls Into Final Week | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Balint, Gray Work to Seal the Deal as Congressional Primary Rolls Into Final Week


Published August 2, 2022 at 6:57 p.m.
Updated August 3, 2022 at 10:02 a.m.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and state Sen. Becca Balint - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and state Sen. Becca Balint

A few hundred people gathered at City Hall Park in Burlington on Sunday to hear Vermont Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint (D-Windham) explain for the umpteenth time why she should be the state's Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress. On this occasion, though, she had a special guest on the stump: U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

Here, nine days before the primary election, her last stop of the day, it all caught up with her. As Balint listened to friends and supporters sing her praises, her shoulders heaved and she wiped away tears. 

In an interview later, Balint recounted the "incredible pride" she felt watching speaker Iris Hsiang, a climate activist and recent Essex High School graduate, describe her as a role model. And, Balint acknowledged, she was "running on fumes" as a result of the "sheer exhaustion" of campaigning. 

Balint and her chief rival, Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, have spent the last eight months touring the state in search of enough votes to get one of them a step closer to being Vermont's first female rep in Washington, D.C. The final sprint has been even more hectic. 

Last Thursday, both were in Johnson, where they participated in a forum about the opioid crisis inside the community and recovery center Jenna's House, a former Catholic church named for Jenna Tatro, who died of an overdose. Free bottles of the overdose-reversal drug Narcan were available on a table near the front door.

The 70 people in attendance sipped coffee and sat on folding chairs in front of a stage. A large American flag and red, white and blue balloons formed a backdrop in front of which the candidates spoke.

The event was "a conversation, not a contest," moderators told the audience, and each candidate had 25 minutes onstage to take questions from workers in the field, people in recovery and those who had lost family members to drugs. They vowed that, if elected, they would secure more federal funding for opioid-use prevention efforts and treatment.

At the end of her allotted time, Balint stopped and whispered something to a woman in the crowd whose daughter died of an overdose in 2020.

Gray publicly pledged to hire a staffer who is in recovery, "to make sure they're the lead on thinking about federal resources. So when someone calls from the state who needs help, that we're able to navigate that."

The following morning, both women were in Burlington mugging for the cameras alongside local, state and federal officials who came to witness the departure of the Queen City's first southbound passenger rail train in about 70 years.

Lt. Gov. Molly Gray at the Jenna's House event - SASHA GOLDSTEIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Sasha Goldstein ©️ Seven Days
  • Lt. Gov. Molly Gray at the Jenna's House event

On Saturday, Gray visited White River Junction to march in a pride parade, wearing a rainbow shirt and waving a campaign sign alongside her staffers. That same day, Balint attended a Castleton candidate forum on racial justice hosted by the Rutland area and Windham County branches of the NAACP.

Gray missed that one. Her campaign manager, Samantha Sheehan, said in a written statement that Gray's staff had "triple booked her" on Saturday and had asked whether Gray could attend virtually.

"Ultimately the organizers said that would not be possible," Sheehan wrote. All five House candidates, Republicans and Democrats, were invited and RSVP'd to attend. But the NAACP said in a statement that "at the last minute, two cancelled in an unprofessional and concerning manner and one simply didn't show up."

Mia Schultz and Steffen Gillom of the NAACP added that they were "profoundly disappointed that there are candidates who decided to deprioritize the only forum addressing racial justice and civil rights."

Sheehan said Gray has offered to meet with members of the NAACP and that "supporting the organization and its members is extremely important to her."

In the meantime, the candidates are working to get out the vote and are booked for one last debate, hosted by WCAX on Thursday, August 4.

"We'll be making calls all week, canvassing communities, and conducting honk and waves," Gray tweeted on Monday. "This is how we win!"

There's not too much daylight between the candidates on many major issues — guns, the climate crisis, reproductive rights — though Balint occupies a more progressive lane than Gray. The latter has pitched herself as someone who will follow in the footsteps of retiring U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and the current holder of Vermont's lone House seat, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.).

Leahy revealed last Friday that he'd voted for Gray, a non-endorsement endorsement after his spokespeople spent months saying the dean of the Senate would not publicly back a candidate in the primary. He also funneled Gray $5,000 through his Green Mountain PAC.

His statement was carefully worded: "I trust Vermonters to make their own decisions about who will represent them."

Leahy's longtime congressional colleague was more decisive. Sanders endorsed Balint in early July, then spent Sunday barnstorming with her. After rallies in Rutland and Montpelier, he found himself before some 350 people gathered in the city where his political career began.

Young and old attendees brought dogs and lawn chairs to City Hall Park, waved yellow-and-blue Balint signs, and nibbled sesame noodles and broccoli salad provided by the Mill Market in South Burlington. The Western Terrestrials, a Vermont-based band known for their tune "Ethan Alien," played a set, including a sing-along rendition of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land."

Candidates in down-ballot races attended, some bearing their own campaign swag. On the steps behind city hall, supporters raised a large Balint banner, and a sign language interpreter stood beside the rally speakers.

The tone and vibe were upbeat. A University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll released last week showed Balint with a commanding 42-point lead over Gray. A second poll released on Monday by Data for Progress, a progressive think tank, showed Balint with a 32-point lead.

Based on small sample sizes and questions asked online and over text message, the polls are likely not an accurate barometer of where the two candidates actually stand. But they're certainly a boost to the Balint campaign, garnering headlines in the days heading into the primary.

"We're feeling strong," Balint told Seven Days in an interview. "But we know that the kiss of death for any campaign is to feel cocky. So I'm still campaigning every day, all day, until the very end."

Sanders took the podium shortly before 7 p.m., then thundered through his greatest hits of rally talking points — wealth inequality and Wall Street, authoritarian-minded Republicans, climate change, gun control, and reproductive rights. Yet, in this version of his speech, Sanders had a new partner: Balint, who would join Democrats in Congress "to stand up boldly for working families, for the middle class and to take the action that we need to preserve American democracy."

"We've got to bring people together around an agenda that works for all and not just the few, and that's what Becca's campaign is about," Sanders said to roars of approval. "That's why she's going to win this primary, and that is why I so much look forward to working with her in Washington."

He also spoke of the influence of money in political races and said Balint would help "end the absurdity of billionaires and their super PACs buying elections," something Balint has agreed is important. But in this race, she's benefited more than anyone from outside spending, specifically from three groups: Equality PAC, LGBTQ Victory Fund Federal PAC and the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC. They've combined to support Balint by spending at least $1.27 million in one month on mailers, TV ads and digital advertising. It's more than she and Gray have each raised — and spent — during the entire campaign.

None of the groups is a super PAC, but the Victory Fund is what's known as a "hybrid PAC," which allows it to raise unlimited amounts from donors and spend freely — much like super PACs.

Asked after the event about the outside spending in the race, Sanders told Seven Days he's "not a great fan of super PACs."

"I'm impressed that Becca has raised a whole lot of small-dollar donations, and I hope we pass legislation to end Citizens United and get rid of super PACs," Sanders said, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 decision that allowed "dark money" contributions into politics.

Pressed on whether he considers the outside spending in Balint's race to be problematic, Sanders refused to answer.

"Thank you very much," he said as he walked away down Church Street. "Thank you."

Gray has repeatedly brought up the outside spending in the race, saying PACs shouldn't be putting their thumbs on the scale. Leahy, in his statement, seemed to agree.

"These are two qualified women who are capable of running their own races without outside interference," he wrote. "I think Vermonters will judge if this outside spending is welcome in such an important campaign."

On Tuesday morning, just a week before the primary, Gray and a handful of campaign staffers staked out a spot in front of Buffalo Wild Wings on Shelburne Road in Burlington, holding "Molly Gray for Congress" signs and waving frenetically at passing cars. Their goal, Gray said, was to achieve 30 unique honks from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. About half an hour into their vigil, a Food Club semi supplied No. 17. 

"Does any of this work? Who knows?" Gray mused. In spite of the spitting rain, she insisted that she was "feeling great."

"I'm asking Vermonters to hire me," she said, "so I'm going to give this everything I've got until the second the polls close." The campaign had not yet settled on a venue for primary night, she added, but the evening would likely be a "more intimate" affair.

Chelsea Edgar contributed reporting.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Housestretch"