In the August 9 Primary, Democratic Candidates Compete for the Jackpot: Vermont's Lone U.S. House Seat | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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In the August 9 Primary, Democratic Candidates Compete for the Jackpot: Vermont's Lone U.S. House Seat

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Published July 13, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated August 9, 2022 at 4:24 p.m.


MARC NADEL
  • Marc Nadel

At a fundraiser last month for the Senate campaign of U.S. Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), Tabitha Moore, the former president of the Rutland-area NAACP, took the microphone to make a special announcement.

"We have two very important women here tonight," Moore told the business-casually attired crowd at Hula, an airy coworking space in Burlington's South End. Grace Potter had played a set of bluesy folk-rock; glasses of rosé had been refilled; sliders had been dutifully consumed. The floor-to-ceiling windows behind Moore overlooked the darkening waters of Lake Champlain, adding to the sensation that we were all aboard a victory-bound Democratic Party cruise ship. "Can I get Becca Balint and Molly Gray up here?" Moore asked.

The program was billed as a fête for Welch, whose ascent to the upper chamber of Congress has been all but guaranteed since he announced last fall that he would run to succeed U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who is retiring after 48 years in office. But the race to fill Welch's seat, the first Vermont congressional contest without an incumbent since 2006, is a different story. 

Four candidates are vying for the Democratic nomination, including Sianay Chase Clifford, a 27-year-old from Essex who grew up in Vermont and recently spent a year as a policy fellow for U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), and Louis Meyers, a physician and South Burlington resident who has previously run, unsuccessfully, for the state Senate. But Balint and Gray, the presumed front-runners, have the clearest shots at winning the August 9 primary — and in deep-blue Vermont, the Democratic primary winner will almost certainly go on to victory in the general election. Barring some kind of cataclysm, either Balint or Gray seems poised to become the first woman elected to Congress in the state's history. 

In many respects, the contrasts between the two are easy to draw. Gray, 38, a former assistant attorney general, became a household name in Vermont when she won a long-shot bid in 2020 for lieutenant governor, her first elected position. On the campaign trail, she has touted her experience — as a scheduler in Welch's Washington, D.C., office, her time abroad working for human rights and humanitarian organizations and her current stint as LG — as proof that she has what it takes to succeed in Congress. Gray has enjoyed the support of well-connected Democratic power brokers, including former chiefs of staff to Leahy, and she has been endorsed by Madeleine Kunin, the only woman to serve as governor of Vermont and a mentor to Gray ever since she took Kunin's class on women in politics as an undergraduate at the University of Vermont. In interviews and public appearances, Gray rarely deviates from her talking points; as a candidate, she projects an image of earnest ambition, a born-and-raised Vermonter who seems equally comfortable traipsing around in muck boots at her family's South Newbury farm and making fundraising calls to D.C. lobbyists. Her recent television ad features a cameo by Sen. Leahy, for whom she interned as a college student.

Balint, 54, the first openly gay woman to serve in the Vermont Senate, has pitched herself as an experienced policy maker with a record of leadership on the issues she has pledged to champion in Congress. As the Vermont Senate president pro tempore this year, Balint oversaw the passage of the state's most significant housing investment bill in decades. The litany of progressive reforms she has worked on during her four terms in the chamber — a bill guaranteeing the constitutional right to an abortion in Vermont; an increased minimum wage; a rare successful package of gun-control legislation; a paid family leave program that, ultimately, was vetoed by the governor — has been the centerpiece of her message to voters. Many of her Statehouse colleagues have lined up behind her, including a former rival in the House primary, Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale (D-Chittenden), who dropped out of the race in May and endorsed her. In recent weeks, Ben and Jerry's founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) all gave Balint their blessings, a major boost in the critical stretch leading up to the primary. Balint's television ad opens with a shot of her removing her motorcycle helmet, grinning from ear to ear; in the 30-second spot, she administers two hugs.

As a first-year representative, neither Balint nor Gray would have any real clout in Congress at the outset. The key to getting things done for Vermont, Welch said in an interview before his Hula rally, is to form strategic coalitions. "You have to be able to find common ground in the particulars," said Welch, who has so far declined to weigh in on the race. "So I would approach my colleagues by asking them, 'How's broadband in your district?' 'Do you have veterans who have been affected by burn pits?' And, invariably, the answer was yes, because the problems that we have are universal."

Balint and Gray have staked out similar positions on many of the big-ticket issues: Both promise to support universal health care, a transition to renewable energy, a national paid family and medical leave program, and protecting abortion access at the federal level. The two candidates differ in the details of some of their stated policy goals — Gray, for instance, has said she would support President Joe Biden's plan to cancel up to $10,000 of student debt; Balint doesn't think $10,000 in loan forgiveness is sufficiently high, though she has not indicated what her ceiling might be. Gray, who has made clear that she does not support certain progressive agenda items, such as reducing law enforcement budgets, has been playing for the votes of centrist Democrats and moderate Republicans; Balint has more appeal on the left.

But campaigns, of course, are not just about issues, and both candidates have made their personal narratives the focus of their pitch to voters. As the primary looms closer, the race has also become a contest of authenticity, or what passes for it in the public relations theater of campaigning.

When Moore summoned Balint and Gray to the stage at Hula, she had another kind of contest in mind. "We have two amazing women who are vying for our federal seat," Moore told the crowd. "This is a hard decision! So my thinking is, Maybe we should decide it with a dance battle." 

The audience went nuts.

"Maybe a little hip-hop, a little crunk, a little Latin, who knows," Moore continued. 

Balint promptly walked to the front of the room and started to groove. Gray, who took a moment to appear, looked as if she would rather be anywhere else. As Moore egged them on ("Take off those heels!"), Gray shook her head bashfully, her face frozen in a rictus of dread.

Moore, seeing Gray's reaction, quickly called it a night.




'She doesn't get in your face'

Molly Gray at Hula - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Molly Gray at Hula

A few weeks before the Welch fundraiser, the Gray campaign held its own rally at Hula, in the same room where the dance-off between Gray and Balint would ultimately not take place. Gray, who lives in Burlington, operates her campaign out of Hula's coworking space; the company's executives are among her donors. At the June 1 event, Tim Brahmstedt, who works in hospitality management in Chittenden County, explained why he's voting for Gray.

"With some candidates, you have to read into everything they say to figure out if they really stand for your beliefs," Brahmstedt told me after the rally, which featured a stump speech by former Vermont governor and one-time presidential candidate Howard Dean. "But Molly speaks the language of Vermont. It's a comfort." 

Bill Nowlan, whose son, Tom, is the communications director for Gray's campaign, said he feels similarly at ease with Gray. "She's just Vermont, through and through," said Nowlan, a physician who lives in Moretown. "The fact that she went away and then came back — that's every parent's dream."

As lieutenant governor, Gray has few formal duties beyond presiding over the Senate and appearing as a functionary at official events; like many LGs before her, including Dean and Gov. Phil Scott, she has used the post as a perch from which to cultivate a rapport with the public and launch her political career. On the campaign trail, Gray has often cited as an accomplishment the statewide listening tour she undertook last year by spending one day in a different county each week for five months as the state decided how to spend its $2.7 billion in federal pandemic aid. Based on her travels, she produced a nine-page report of recommendations on workforce development, housing, childcare and paid family leave, broadband, and mental health.

Gray's detractors have criticized the report as a performative recap of policy issues that Democratic leaders have long tried to solve. While Gray may have spent her days in the Senate chamber during the legislative session, they argue, she has never participated in creating or passing legislation. Gray and her allies have countered that passing bills in D.C. is a wholly different beast than legislating in the Vermont Statehouse — a direct rebuke to Balint, who has done the latter.

"It's important to know that Montpelier is not Washington and the Statehouse is not Congress," Gray asserted in a recent debate on WPTZ-TV. "I've worked in both. I know how Congress works. I understand the legislative process." 

"I think most people in Vermont have no understanding how Washington works, probably mostly for the better," Dean said by phone in late May. "But Molly is tough as nails, and the real reason I'm supporting her is because I think she's the most likely to be able to get influence in Congress for the people of Vermont. She knows the business, she knows the system, and she doesn't take no for an answer." 

One of Gray's "terrific" qualities, in Dean's estimation, "is that she doesn't get in your face." He said he first connected with her when she called him in the spring of 2020 and told him she was running for lieutenant governor. Gray asked if he would meet with her. Dean had been close with her uncle, the late U.S. attorney Bill Gray, "who was basically a saint," Dean explained. So he got together with Gray, he said, and asked her whether she had considered starting her political career with a less ambitious run — say, for the Statehouse. 

"She smiled at me sweetly and didn't say anything," he recalled. Three months later, then-Vermont Senate president pro tem Tim Ashe, Gray's opponent in the Democratic primary, posed a similar question to Gray during a Vermont Public Radio debate. "Those are questions that men ask women running for office," she deftly responded. 

Dean, who heard the exchange on the radio, was floored. 

"That's obviously what she was thinking when I said it, but she was too smart to say it," he said. Her superpower, in other words, is her ability to hold her tongue. 

Of course, Dean noted, "people" are sick of Washington, D.C., which he described as "middle school on steroids," and they love Sen. Sanders, because he gets in people's faces and talks about how awful Washington is. "But basically, I think, people are comfortable with Molly, because her demeanor is very professional and sort of sympathetic and thoughtful," he said. 

Is it problematic, I suggested, that Sanders can be grumpy and abrasive and remain beloved, while Gray, a young woman, has to modulate herself so as not to alienate potential voters? Dean replied, without hesitation: "Of course." And her demeanor, he added, is precisely why he thinks she'll win: "She'll get a lot of Phil Scott Republicans who can't stomach the Republican Party, and she'll be unbeatable in the general election."

Carolyn Dwyer, a longtime Democratic operative who has managed campaigns for Leahy, hired Gray as a scheduler for Welch's 2006 Congressional campaign and later recommended her for a position in his D.C. office; when Gray ran for lieutenant governor in 2020, Dwyer offered strategic advice. Dwyer has had informal conversations with many Democratic office-seekers over the years, she said, including Balint, who met with her before Welch's seat was up for grabs. But Dwyer is backing Gray, she explained, because she believes that Gray possesses the experience in Washington and the interpersonal skills to succeed in a fractured House. 

"I just see her working with all kinds of different people from all different backgrounds," Dwyer said. "She doesn't tend to attack people or isolate herself when she has a disagreement."

I asked Dwyer to cite a recent instance of Gray working through a disagreement. Instead, she offered: "I guess an example I'd use is that she often talks about working at her family's farmstand. She would come across people from all walks of life there."

Gray's family still lives and works on the South Newbury farm where she grew up; her two brothers, Charlie and Peter, have taken over the management from their parents, Bob and Kim.

Her family story has figured prominently in her campaign — particularly the story of Gray's mother, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when Gray was in middle school. In 2019, while Gray was working as an assistant attorney general, her mother was admitted to the hospital with severe illness, Gray said, and it wasn't clear whether she would survive. After Gray had used up all of her paid time off, she wrestled with an impossible choice: take unpaid leave to care for her mother, or keep working so that she could afford her rent and pay down her $125,000 student debt.

Ultimately, her mother's condition improved, and Gray did not have to choose. But that same year, a paid family and medical leave bill died on the Senate floor, and Gray was furious. 

"For me, that was the reason to run for lieutenant governor," she said. "My goal was to change the conversation. And I think I've been able to do that." 




Sticking points

Becca Balint - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Becca Balint

Balint, a committed reader of the Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, thinks a lot about a concept called shenpa, the state of being pulled inward, away from the present moment, when someone or something upsets you. "It's that tightness you feel in your chest when something's hooked you, when you're getting stuck in a bad cycle with a person or a thing that's trying to get a rise out of you," she explained as we walked down Main Street in White River Junction on a drizzly afternoon in early June. 

That morning, Balint had made a stop at Dan & Whit's, a Norwich institution that sells everything from bananas to refills for self-inking stamp pads. Near a display of Wiffle Ball bats, she chatted with third-generation owner Dan Fraser about the need to invest in water and sewer infrastructure to build more rural housing. In the checkout line, she discovered, over the course of a two-minute conversation while paying for her iced tea, that she had attended elementary school in the same upstate New York town where the cashier had grown up. "Guilderland!" she exclaimed. "What are the odds!"

As we waited in line for coffee at Piecemeal Pies, Balint talked about how being attuned to shenpa has helped her navigate conflicts in the Vermont Senate. "You actually have to address the person in front of you and reach an understanding of why they feel the way they feel before you can move forward on the thing, because the conflict is never about the thing," she said. 

Sen. Phil Baruth (D/P-Chittenden), who was the chamber's majority leader when Balint arrived in the Statehouse in 2015, believes that her emotional intelligence has allowed her to be an effective leader in difficult negotiations, particularly on this session's housing bills. 

"We've often been hamstrung by the attempt to build more housing quickly by pairing that with environmental legislation, which would become kind of a poison pill for the governor's team," Baruth said. "And this past year, that same dynamic was clearly going to happen again." 

In a caucus meeting on the final day of the session, Balint convinced her fellow legislators to set aside the environmental provisions in the housing bill so that Scott wouldn't veto it. 

"You have to play the hand that you're dealt," Balint told her colleagues. "Housing is the No. 1 issue for most Vermonters. I think we have a responsibility to make good on the promise that we're going to do everything we can, with the tools that we have, to provide more housing for Vermonters."

"There are a lot of people in the Senate who are very independent-minded, who are tough to convince," Baruth recalled. "And that was one time when I saw everybody in the room nod their head, and we moved forward, and we got it done."

This session, the legislature eked out a deal to address the state's growing pension shortfall that will ultimately require state employees to pay more into the system. When the bill passed, Balint called it a "major win for Vermont public employees and for Vermont taxpayers." Peter Langella, a librarian at Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg, objected to Balint's characterization of the deal as a victory. 

"The messaging from Sen. Balint and some of the other leaders has been that everything was saved," Langella said. "Meanwhile, I'm going to be paying $1,200 more per year for the same benefit within the next three years. So I have a hard time believing some of Balint's rhetoric about workers and the livelihood of people in this state." Langella said he plans to cast his ballot for Chase Clifford, who is running to the left of both Balint and Gray. 

Sianay Chase Clifford - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Sianay Chase Clifford

A first-time candidate, Chase Clifford grew up in Essex, where her parents, who met in Liberia, moved after the outbreak of the Liberian civil war. After her fellowship in Rep. Pressley's office, Chase Clifford said, she was deeply disillusioned by the power dynamics she had observed among lawmakers in D.C. "The idea that people have of politics in Washington, that there's this excessive focus on the most powerful voices and Beltway advocates, is so real," she said.  

Chase Clifford, who recently earned a master's in social work from Boston College, has embraced a policy agenda that reflects progressive priorities, including high-quality universal health care, free college, the cancellation of all student debt and adding climate resiliency initiatives to the multibillion-dollar federal Farm Bill.

She dislikes the transactional, superficial nature of traditional campaigning, she said, and she's eschewed some of the conventions of candidate communications. Many of her emails end with "Love, Team Sianay"; after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, she wrote in a brief message to her supporters: "This is really traumatic shit, and if you need anything — resources, a space to grieve, vent, scream — call me or text me." (Gray also sent out a campaign email that night, which read, in part: "Having grown up on a farm in rural Vermont, I've also seen what responsible gun ownership looks like. However, as an Assistant Attorney General, I witnessed firsthand the impact of firearms in the wrong hands." Balint supporters summarily blasted her on social media for talking about "responsible gun ownership" in the wake of a massacre.)

Chase Clifford has impressed at debates and generated considerable buzz, but her lack of a fundraising apparatus puts her at a disadvantage against Balint and Gray — yet another instance, Chase Clifford said, of how the political system reinforces itself. "Regular people should be able to run for office," she said. "This is not something I've been planning my whole life. But I know what's at stake, I found the race wanting, and so I dove in." She has the endorsement of the Progressive Party and said she would consider running on the Prog line in the general election. 

Louis Meyers - BEAR CIERI
  • Bear Cieri
  • Louis Meyers

The lone man in the race, Meyers, 66, a physician at Rutland Regional Medical Center for the past nine years, interned for the late Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy as a junior high school student and practiced medicine in D.C. before moving to Vermont in 2012. He said he thinks he can offer a valuable perspective, as a doctor and an avid reader, in Congress. His approach to policy, he said, is pragmatic — he doesn't support Medicare for all, he explained, "because it's a political nonstarter." But he holds more progressive-leaning views on other issues: He would support a national paid family and medical leave program, he said, and he also sees the merits of exploring universal basic income. "The research that's coming out seems to suggest that a lot of the indices that go along with being poor are improved — physical health, mental health, children's health," he said. 

Of the presumed front-runners, Langella favors Gray, in part because he witnessed her visit to Hinesburg Community School last year after the vandalism of LGBTQ chalk drawings on school grounds. 

"She spent so much time meeting with the students and telling them how much she cares about them and how proud she was that they were being visible and out and all that stuff," Langella said. "And it was really cool, because there was no news crew. There was no press release put out about it. She just came because she cared." 

It was a moment, in other words, that felt real.




Farm to Congress?

As Gray has noted countless times on the campaign trail, she was literally born on 4 Corners Farm in South Newbury, a 225-acre vegetable and dairy operation, which has served as the backdrop for both of her television ads. The farm's name is an homage to Hartland-Four Corners, where her parents leased their first parcel of land. Welch, whose law office was in Hartland, would occasionally stop by to pick strawberries.

Hannah Calley, who worked for several summers on the Gray family farm in the late '80s and early '90s, remembers how, even as children, Gray and her two brothers never complained about how much they had to work. "They just embraced it," Calley said. "Like, they loved it." The family kept a giant chalkboard in the kitchen, Calley recalled, where the Grays would leave notes for each other and record their tasks for the day ahead. As Gray got older, her job was to keep the farmstand stocked with produce and flowers and work the cash register.

Both of Gray's parents were champion skiers, and Gray, who attended Stratton Mountain School, went to UVM on a ski scholarship. The year she graduated, in 2006, she worked on Welch's winning congressional campaign, which she parlayed into a job as an executive assistant and scheduler in his D.C. office.

Bob Rogan, now retired after years as Welch's chief of staff, said Gray was the nerve center of the operation: She made sure that Welch was properly briefed before meetings, and she was the first point of contact for anyone who wanted an audience, which often meant telling already irate people no. In fact, Rogan said, it was physically impossible for anyone to walk into Welch's office without going through Gray, whose desk was three feet outside his door.

"She had a really high-stress job," Rogan said. "But she never demonstrated that she was stressed. Molly was like that duck that glides across the pond smoothly but underneath is paddling furiously."

Rogan said Gray never struck him as someone with big political ambitions. "I've worked for two governors, one U.S. senator and Peter as a congressman, and I can always see them coming down Pennsylvania Avenue — young people who are on the make, who think they're going to be the next president of the United States," he said. "Molly was not that person. Molly was a head-down, get-the-job-done kind of person." But in hindsight, he said, he thinks she was quietly absorbing her surroundings. 

"She was like a sponge," Rogan said. "She saw and heard and learned an awful lot about politics in that chair outside of Peter's door."




Finding herself

Becca Balint with her wife, Elizabeth Wohl, and their dog, Wheelie, at home in Brattleboro - ZACH STEPHENS
  • Zach Stephens
  • Becca Balint with her wife, Elizabeth Wohl, and their dog, Wheelie, at home in Brattleboro

Balint was born in Germany, where her father had been stationed as a U.S. Army captain. Two years later, the family returned to civilian life in upstate New York, where Balint spent her childhood and adolescence. Her father sold phone systems for AT&T, and her mother worked in a watch factory. Their family vacations were usually frugal jaunts to points of cultural and historic interest; they always packed a cooler, Balint said, so they wouldn't have to spend money on restaurant food. Once, a security guard asked them to vacate the grounds of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts when he found them having an unauthorized picnic.

In middle school and high school, Balint struggled with the knowledge that she was gay. She said her father, especially, impressed upon his children that they should do their best to blend in, which Balint now attributes, in part, to the fact that his own father, a Hungarian Jew, was murdered by Nazis in the Holocaust.

"When I first ran for office, that was his concern, too: 'Don't draw attention to yourself, because people can be horribly cruel,'" she said. 

In fact, Balint demonstrated a penchant for drawing attention to herself from a young age. One of her longtime friends, Michael Kahan, first met Balint in eighth grade, when the two performed together in a musical called Sing Out, Sweet Land, a piece of midcentury agitprop set to various American folk tunes. Kahan, now a professor of urban studies at Stanford University, played a lead role, which required him to sing "Oh My Darling, Clementine" as someone tied him to a rock. Balint, an ensemble character known as "the tough woman," had one line in the production: "I need a hunk of wood. Any of youse got one?"

"She was very, very funny, and she had this confidence and charisma that drew people to her," Kahan said. For Balint, who was still in the closet at the time, humor was also her defense mechanism, a ticket to the social acceptance that she thought she couldn't earn otherwise.

"I thought that if I could make people laugh with me, they wouldn't laugh at me," she said. "I know I'm not the only gay person to feel that way."

When she was a senior, Balint's peers voted her the funniest person in the class. But underneath that bubbly surface, Balint said, she struggled with crushing, near-suicidal depression. Her girlfriend had broken up with her toward the end of her senior year, and Balint, who still wasn't out to her friends or family, felt like she couldn't tell anyone why she was so miserable. 

Balint eventually saw a counselor, and before she left for Barnard College, she came out to a small group of friends, including Kahan. (It would take a few more years for Balint to come out to her parents, who, Balint said, are fully supportive of her now.)

In high school, Balint had dreamed of working in politics — during a mock debate in her junior year, she'd even dressed up as Geraldine Ferraro to Kahan's Walter Mondale. But that aspiration, she said, felt out of reach to her as an openly gay woman. Following an unhappy year and a half at Barnard, Balint transferred to Smith College, where she found her niche on the crew team. (At five feet tall and less than 100 pounds, Balint, a coxswain, earned the nickname "the admiral.") After graduating, Balint went to Harvard University for a master's in education, moved to Vermont and became a middle school social studies teacher in Windham County public schools. During the summers, she worked as a counselor and later as a director at Farm & Wilderness, an outdoor summer camp in Plymouth, where she eventually met Elizabeth Wohl. In 2004, they had a civil union (they would later "upgrade their marriage license," as Balint put it, after same-sex marriage became legal in 2015). In 2007, the couple bought a house in Brattleboro, where they still live.

The same year Balint and Wohl bought their house, Balint gave birth to their first child, Abe. Wohl's career as a lawyer was starting to take off, and the couple decided that Balint would be the stay-at-home parent. Three years later, when Wohl gave birth to their daughter, Sarah, Balint opted to stay home again — a decision, Balint said, that ultimately boiled down to which partner had better health insurance.

A few years into this arrangement, Balint, who had never imagined herself as a stay-at-home mom, felt existentially adrift. She said she entertained various harebrained schemes — opening a doughnut shop, selling handmade elbow-length mittens for children, bottling home-brewed switchel. None of these possibilities sparked joy. Her life coach, Laura Coyle, urged her to think about what she'd always wanted to do, and Balint realized that what she still really wanted to do was go into politics. 

She attended the Campaign School at Yale University, a weeklong intensive for women that provides mentorship and training for first-time candidates, and then she participated in Vermont's inaugural Emerge program, which prepares Democratic women to run for office.

In 2014, she ran for one of Windham County's two Senate seats, figuring she'd lose. To her astonishment, she won, defeating former Vermont secretary of agriculture Roger Allbee by just over 400 votes. 

In hindsight, Balint said, she had underestimated the name recognition she'd built up from her years as a public school teacher and an op-ed contributor to the Brattleboro Reformer. (A collection of her Reformer pieces, The Girl in the Yellow Pantsuit, was published this June by Green Writers Press.) But she also put in the miles, on her car and pounding the pavement, to get in front of people. She ran a half-marathon in her campaign T-shirt. She went door-to-door. "I did strawberry suppers, apple pie socials, all the retail politics of Vermont," she said. 

Balint loves to talk to people, a tendency that frequently causes her to fall behind the rest of her campaign team on parade routes. But she does not merely chat, said David Scherr, who was the lead attorney in the AG's community justice division and now serves as general counsel for the state Cannabis Control Board. She has an uncanny ability, he said, to cut to the quick of a situation.

At a recent meet and greet, he recalled, someone asked her a question that, on the surface, was about how she would address voters' economic concerns. "But the question wasn't actually about that," Scherr said. "It was really about how she would speak to voters who aren't the lefty Democratic types, and she immediately understood that. And she answered the whole question."




A full résumé

In 2008, Gray left Welch's office to work as a congressional affairs associate for the International Committee of the Red Cross, a job in which she briefed lawmakers on humanitarian issues abroad and led their staffers on trips to some of the conflict zones where the organization maintained a presence, including the Western Balkans, Haiti and Uganda.

"Even just selecting and knowing which staff to invite took a lot of skill," said one of Gray's former coworkers at the ICRC, Sara Schomig, who has donated to Gray's campaign. "She knew her committees and their staff and their schedules, and which offices would allow their staff to go and which ones wouldn't. And she knew all those details because she knew people on the Hill very well." Gray's year as a scheduler in Welch's office, plus her three years at the ICRC, comprise the period she describes, again and again, as her "nearly half-decade working in and with Congress."

In 2011, Gray returned home to attend Vermont Law School. Upon graduating in 2014, she landed a prestigious clerkship under then-judge Peter Hall on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, the bench for which Sen. Leahy had nominated her uncle, Bill Gray, before his death in 1994. 

Between 2015 and 2018, Gray lived on and off in Switzerland, where she earned a master's in international law and consulted for a Swiss organization, the International Code of Conduct Association, which was created to hold private security contractors accountable for human rights violations. When Gray returned home for good, in 2018, she applied to work as a prosecutor in the Vermont Attorney General's Office. "I wanted to be part of the leadership in the state on criminal justice reform and bring my experience to bear on what I understood to be the best practices in the law enforcement and security space," she said. 

Less than a year into her stint, Gray's boss, the chief of the criminal division, left to join the clergy. In a display of the ambition for which she has been both criticized and praised, Gray, who had passed the bar just two years earlier, applied for the job. She didn't get it.

In Gray's two years as a staff attorney, she was assigned to 17 cases, including seven police use-of-force reviews in which she was not responsible for making final prosecutorial decisions. In September 2019, Gray was named cocounsel in a controversial murder case against Aita Gurung, a man who killed his wife with a meat cleaver in Burlington. A state expert had determined that Gurung was insane at the time of the killing, and Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George, seeing no way around an insanity defense, had dropped the charges months earlier. Then-attorney general T.J. Donovan had decided to bring charges again, a decision that Gurung's defense attorneys lambasted as a political stunt.

Shortly after Gurung's arraignment, Gray begged off the assignment.

Gray told me that she asked to be removed from the case because of a philosophical disagreement. "I had different views from the office on the matter, and the attorney general has always respected the differing views of attorneys," she said. She declined to elaborate on this point.

Gray's biggest assignment was the state's inquiry into decades of abuse at the long-defunct St. Joseph's Orphanage in Burlington, which she worked on with another attorney, Betsy Anderson. Her task was to comb through historical records and work with a consultant on a restorative justice process for the victims. Gray didn't stay in the job long enough to see the work completed: The AG published its findings on St. Joseph's at the end of 2020, five months after Gray had left to campaign for lieutenant governor. 

A number of Gray's former colleagues have backed Balint in the U.S. House race. Charity Clark, Donovan's former chief of staff who is now running for attorney general, has donated, according to campaign finance records; so has Scherr, a frequent flier at Balint campaign events. Natalie Silver, Donovan's former communications director — and a former friend of Gray's — is Balint's campaign manager. 

Between 2008 and 2018, Gray did not vote in four national elections. During her lieutenant governor campaign, her inconsistent voting record had been widely reported before a September 2020 debate in which she claimed that she had "proudly voted for Hillary Clinton" in 2016. Gray's campaign later said she had misspoken.

Gray has continued to rebuff the suggestion that she misled voters at that debate. During a House candidate debate at the end of June, Balint asked Gray whether she owed Vermonters an apology for not being truthful about the fact that she hadn't voted in 2016. Gray responded with what has become her mantra on the subject.

"Let me be really clear," she said. "In 2016, I was overseas, I did not have a plan to vote, I've acknowledged that, and that will always be on me." When Balint pressed her, again, on the truthfulness question, Gray offered this: "If anyone felt like I was being untruthful, I'm sincerely, sincerely sorry." 




Final 'Jeopardy!'

From left: Becca Balint, Molly Gray, Sianay Chase Clifford and Louis Meyers at the WPTZ debate - COURTESY OF WPTZ-TV
  • Courtesy Of WPTZ-TV
  • From left: Becca Balint, Molly Gray, Sianay Chase Clifford and Louis Meyers at the WPTZ debate

The biggest controversy in the race so far has revolved around super PAC spending that has yet to materialize. The Gray camp has accused Balint of red-boxing, a tactic used by some campaigns to skirt laws against communication between candidates and super PACs, which can spend unlimited sums in elections. Red-boxing generally involves the creation of a public page on a campaign website that signals to super PACs the kind of messaging a candidate would want in an ad. Balint has denied the claim.

To date, no super PAC has run any ads in the House race, pro-Balint or otherwise. That fact has not stopped the Gray campaign from trying to seed the narrative, through a series of escalating press releases and a fundraising email with an ominous subject line ("Super PACS will flood the airwaves"), that Balint is courting dark money behind the scenes. This was a touch awkward, because when Gray ran for lieutenant governor in 2020, a super PAC called Alliance for a Better Vermont Action Fund spent more than $70,000 on television ads attacking her opponent, Scott Milne.

In an interview at Gray's home in Burlington's South End, where she lives with her husband, Michael Palm, an airplane pilot, and her two stepchildren, Benny, 11, and Elliot, 13, Gray said she was "horrified" that a super PAC had interfered in her successful 2020 campaign. When I asked her why she didn't publicly denounce the super PAC spending at the time, she deflected with a variation on a line her campaign manager had used in that fundraising email: "I didn't welcome or want super PAC spending when I ran for lieutenant governor, and I don't want it now." Vermonters, she said several times over the course of our interview, should decide the outcome of this election. 

She would say words to the same effect in a press release after Sanders endorsed Balint. An hour later, following a televised debate on WPTZ, the Gray campaign sent out yet another press release, declaring Gray a candidate of "unparalleled experience." 

But outside the relatively small milieu of journalists, Twitter pundits and Vermont politicos, press releases are irrelevant. For most voters, said Christina Deeley, who met Gray through Emerge and is now running for state representative in the Chittenden-4 House district, the decision comes down to how a candidate makes them feel.

"My parents don't know anything about the super PAC issue or anything like that," said Deeley, who supports Gray. "They just know that they met Molly, and she was kind and caring, and she's sometimes a little hokey, but she actually believes that Vermonters can work together and accomplish things with positivity."

Over the next few weeks, the candidates will broadcast themselves across the state, on television ads and talk radio shows and in meet and greets. There will always be one more firehouse or farmers market or brewery to visit in the choreographed dance to the halls of power, even though most people, whether they realize it or not, have already made up their minds.

Correction, July 13, 2022: The length of time Molly Gray spent on a listening tour was misstated in a previous version of this story. Also, in her Red Cross role, Gray briefed lawmakers on humanitarian issues, not human rights issues. This story has been updated.

Correction, July 14: Louis Meyers is actively campaigning in the race. A previous version of this story contained an error.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Congressional Countdown"