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Building the Bench: How Democratic Women Are Preparing to Run Vermont

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Emerge Vermont participants and leaders with former governor Madeleine Kunin (center) - COURTESY OF EMERGE VERMONT
  • Courtesy Of Emerge Vermont
  • Emerge Vermont participants and leaders with former governor Madeleine Kunin (center)

When the Vermont House voted last year to codify abortion rights in state law, Rep. Bob Bancroft (R-Westford) led the opposition, introducing a flurry of unsuccessful amendments to restrict a woman's right to choose.

His advocacy didn't sit well with one constituent. "I was angry," said Alyssa Black, a 50-year-old medical billing manager from Essex. "I said, 'I can't believe this guy represents me.' Somebody basically said to me as I was fuming, 'Well, why don't you run?' And my initial response was, 'Well, that's ridiculous.'"

Black soon learned about Emerge Vermont, a 7-year-old organization that teaches Democratic women how to run for public office. She signed up last fall for a six-month, 70-hour training program and, partway through, decided it wasn't such a ridiculous idea after all.

"Frankly, it gave me not only the courage to run but it provided me with the confidence that I could do this," Black said. "And it also gave me this incredible network of outstanding women who encouraged me."

Black is now part of the largest-ever group of Emerge alumnae to stand for election in Vermont. This year, 38 graduates decided to run for the legislature or statewide office — and, after last week's primary, 31 will move on to the general election. Among them are 15 incumbent members of the House and Senate, most of whom face little opposition.

Already, 36 alumnae hold public office in the state, including Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint (D-Windham), House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington), Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore, Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George and Montpelier Mayor Anne Watson.

There's a distinct possibility that women will hold two more key positions next year. Balint, a third-term state senator, is the only declared candidate for Senate president pro tempore — the most powerful position in the chamber. The 52-year-old Brattleboro resident would become the first woman and first openly gay person to hold the post. And Molly Gray, a 36-year-old assistant attorney general and 2020 Emerge graduate, last week won the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor, making her a favorite to become the fourth woman in Vermont history to serve in the role.

"I think it shows that the trainings we provide and the network women plug into — the sisterhood that's created — really does work," said Krowinski, whose day job is executive director of Emerge.

House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski and House Speaker Mitzi Johnson - FILE: JEB WALLACE BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace Brodeur
  • House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski and House Speaker Mitzi Johnson

Though women hold only 63 of 150 seats in the Vermont House — roughly 41 percent — they constitute a majority of the Democratic caucus. Nine of the House's 14 major committees are chaired by women, and the chamber is run by House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) and Krowinski.

The Vermont Senate has further to go in achieving gender parity. According to Rutgers University's Center for American Women and Politics, the high-water mark for equal representation in the chamber came after the 1996 election, when 12 of its 30 members were women. Currently, only 10 are — and, given the dearth of women running for the Senate this year, there's little chance that number will grow in the next biennium.

"Change takes time, right?" Balint said. She attributed the glacial pace to the power of incumbency (16 of the Senate's 20 men have spent at least a decade in state office) and the challenge of serving in a part-time legislature while building a career and raising a family. "That's why we see a lot of older women in the Senate: They did other things first," Balint said. "It makes it challenging to build a bench."

Though Vermont ranks fifth in the nation for electing women to the legislature, according to the Center for American Women and Politics, it has a dismal record of promoting them to statewide office. Only 11 of the 296 statewide officeholders elected since 1778 have been women, according to Change the Story VT, an initiative to economically empower women. Currently, only one is: Treasurer Beth Pearce. Vermont still has had just one female governor, Madeleine Kunin, and it's the only state in the country never to have elected a woman to Congress.

"We have this mini glass ceiling that seems to have sealed over after Madeleine Kunin," said Natalie Silver, a 26-year-old political operative who served as a spokesperson and campaign manager for Attorney General T.J. Donovan and is an Emerge instructor. "It's embarrassing that we've never sent a woman to Washington."

Samantha Sheehan, Gray's 32-year-old campaign manager, said she keeps a pin from Kunin's 1986 reelection race in her bedroom to remind her that the last time Vermont elected a female governor was before she was born. "It's just fundamentally not OK," said Sheehan, who met Gray when the two took part in an Emerge training last year.

In recent years, several women with impressive résumés have mounted strong but ultimately unsuccessful gubernatorial campaigns. Former transportation secretary Sue Minter won the Democratic nomination in 2016, and former Vermont Electric Coop CEO Christine Hallquist followed suit two years later, but both were felled by Republican Gov. Phil Scott. Last week, former education secretary Rebecca Holcombe came up short against Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman in this year's Democratic primary.

"Gender plays a very big role in every race," Minter said. "Research has shown that voters are more willing to support [a woman for] legislator or advocate than for a position that holds the purse strings."

Hallquist, an Emerge alumna, was the nation's first openly transgender candidate to win a major-party gubernatorial nomination. But, she said, "For me, I think the more difficult issue was being a woman rather than being transgender."

Vermont's failure to elect a woman to Congress is at least partly the result of virtually nonexistent turnover in the state's federal delegation. The same three men — Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) — have held those positions for 14 years, with little opposition. Leahy has served in Congress since 1974, and Sanders since 1990.

When Gray was born in 1984, Leahy was already in his second term in the Senate, Sanders was mayor of Burlington and Welch was minority leader of the Vermont Senate.

Some women are eyeing 2022 as the year the logjam could finally break. With Leahy and Welch both up for reelection that year and Scott — assuming he's reelected this fall — completing his third term, it's possible there will be vacancies at the top. Part of Emerge's mission, according to Krowinski, is to establish "a pipeline of women" ready to move up when such a moment arrives.

"This doesn't happen overnight. This work takes years and years," she said. "I bet next cycle we will see more on the statewide ballot."

Balint, Krowinski, Gray and Johnson are all mentioned as potential contenders for Vermont’s top offices, as are past candidates, such as Minter, Hallquist and Holcombe. “I’m certainly thinking about a statewide run,” Balint said. “Women dodge that question, but of course I’m thinking about it.”

One dynamic that could change the face of Vermont politics, according to Silver, is that younger women seem less inclined than earlier generations to "wait their turn" to run for statewide office. "There is less of a sense among people my age that you have to check boxes," she said, referring to the notion that one must first serve on a town selectboard or in the legislature. "There's less of a sense of, 'I have to prove myself for decades.'"

Molly Gray - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-brodeur
  • Molly Gray

Silver said she was surprised by the way some people responded to Gray's decision to run for lieutenant governor in her first electoral outing. One opponent, Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden), suggested in a debate that she should have run for the House first. Another opponent — and fellow Emerge graduate — Sen. Debbie Ingram (D-Chittenden) told Seven Days last month that voters expect leaders "to have run for lower offices and to have acquired all that experience."

"There's no line," Silver said. "We should never be griping about women who have a vision and have a passion for running for office."

Among the many challenges female politicians face is the way they are represented in the news media. A number of prominent Vermont politicos recoiled on Twitter earlier this month after VTDigger.org published a series of candidate profiles that prominently featured physical descriptions of office seekers.

A piece about Republican lieutenant gubernatorial candidate Meg Hansen dwelled on her "youthful and petite appearance," as well as her "bulbous cheek bones and almost shockingly flawless skin," while a profile of Gray began with a description of her outfit, including her "matching wedges." Republican Scott Milne, meanwhile, was described as having "the physical appearance of a classic northern New England politician."

"This has to stop," Balint tweeted, prompting Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas (D-Bradford) to add, "So not cool."

VTDigger managing editor Colin Meyn told Seven Days that the news outlet had taken the criticism to heart. "We did indeed receive significant blowback, both directly and on social media, for these physical descriptions," he said, noting that they are common to long-form profiles. "We have listened to that feedback, as we always do, and will be mindful moving forward of how these descriptions landed with our readers."

A recent study by the University of Vermont's Center for Research on Vermont found that women are less likely than men to be quoted in stories about state politics and policy. Rebekah Silver, the UVM student who authored the paper, examined 197 stories about the legislature published by VTDigger and Seven Days during the first two months of three legislative sessions, from 2018 through 2020. Only 43 percent of those quoted were women.

That could be the result of sexism or the dwindling number of women in the Statehouse press corps — or it might just be a reflection of the number of women in public office.

Though Emerge Vermont is dedicated to electing women, those women must be Democrats. The organization is a chapter of Emerge America, which operates in 28 other states. As a so-called "527" political nonprofit, it can raise and spend unlimited sums of money, but it cannot explicitly endorse or contribute to candidates.

The national organization's top donors, according to Internal Revenue Service filings, include a variety of foundations, labor unions and investment groups. Burlington-based Burton Snowboards contributed more than $80,000 between 2013 and 2018, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Rep. Heidi Scheuermann (R-Stowe) said she's been frustrated over the years that Emerge bills itself as "a women's empowerment organization" when, in fact, it only trains Democrats. A recent Emerge graduate, Jo Sabel Courtney, is challenging her in this fall's election.

Despite her misgivings, Scheuermann says she respects Emerge's success. "It would be wonderful if there was a similar organization for more moderate women and conservative women, but that's just not realistic," she said, referring to the beleaguered state of the Vermont Republican Party.

Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint - JEB WALLACE BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace Brodeur
  • Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint

The Vermont Progressive Party also lacks an equivalent initiative, according to executive director Josh Wronski, but it has nevertheless been successful in recruiting women to electoral politics. All five Progressive newcomers who won Democratic primary races for the House last week are women, he noted, including Taylor Small of Winooski, who could become the first openly transgender person to serve in the legislature.

Emerge participants run the gamut from recent college graduates to retirees.

Barbara Noyes Pulling, 66, spent decades as a broadcast journalist and, more recently, as a regional planner before deciding to run for the House in her native Rutland Town. Like Black, she was inspired, in part, by the lack of competition her local legislator, four-term Rep. Thomas Terenzini (R-Rutland Town), has faced in recent years.

"This is not really democracy at work if the incumbent doesn't have to answer to his constituency because he doesn't have any opposition," Pulling said.

After her town Democratic committee recruited her to run, Pulling signed up for a weekend-long "boot camp" Emerge runs for those already seeking office. Like the six-month course, it taught her how to raise money, communicate with the media and comply with election laws, among other skills. "It's soup to nuts on how to run a campaign," she said.

Among Pulling's classmates was Tiff Bluemle, 59, a former executive director of Vermont Works for Women who founded Change the Story VT. Though Bluemle had lengthy experience in the nonprofit world, she said she felt utterly unprepared when she decided to run for an open seat representing Burlington's South End in the House.

"I did Emerge because I didn't know what I didn't know," she said. "I was kind of a reluctant candidate ... I found it very difficult to talk about myself."

That's a common phenomenon, according to Mary Meagher, a veteran communications strategist who helps teach Emerge participants how to deliver their stump speeches and deal with the media. "There's a lot of nervousness when we first start," she said. "They're trying to get over putting themselves out there publicly, which is usually a challenge more for women than for men."

When Black, the Essex legislative candidate, decided to run for office, she had already learned how to advocate for policy change. After her 23-year-old son, Andrew, died by suicide in December 2018, she and her husband, Rob, became forceful — and effective — activists for firearm waiting periods. In a single legislative session, they helped push the House and Senate to pass a 24-hour waiting period bill, though it was vetoed by Scott. (Bancroft, who did not respond to a request for comment, opposed the measure.)

Despite her legislative success, Black still wasn't sure she had what it takes to run for public office — at least, until she finished her Emerge training. "I went into it with a lot of self-doubt," she said. "I walked out of it confident that this was something I could do and that I could be successful."