Parades and Pups: Memorial Day With Democratic Rivals for Vermont's U.S. House Seat | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Parades and Pups: Memorial Day With Democratic Rivals for Vermont's U.S. House Seat

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Published June 1, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


Sen. Becca Balint - BEAR CIERI
  • Bear Cieri
  • Sen. Becca Balint

Becca Balint zipped up and down the sidelines of Middlebury's Memorial Day parade, pausing every few feet to commune with spectators. "I love that dress!" she said to a girl in a blue-and-red gingham frock. "Did you get it special for today?" The girl's mother replied that the dress was a hand-me-down.

"A hand-me-down! I understand!" Balint enthused. "I was the youngest. I always had hand-me-downs." 

Balint, a former schoolteacher and now the president pro tempore of the Vermont Senate, is one of two leading candidates for the Congressional seat held for 15 years by Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), who announced last fall that he would run to replace retiring Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). By noon on Memorial Day, Balint and her top rival for the Democratic ticket, Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, had marched in three parades in 48 hours — first in Essex on Saturday, followed by Middlebury and Vergennes on Monday, a cumulative four-ish miles of walking, fist-bumping and small-talking with the general public. 

The parades, an annual rite for many politicians, marked a new phase in the state's most closely watched campaign season in years. Vermont is the only state in the country that has not sent a woman to Congress, and either Balint or Gray is widely expected to change that. With less than a month to go before early voting starts and a little over two months before the August 9 primary, the candidates have a relatively short window in which to woo voters. 

Gray and Balint have similar policy priorities: Both have promised to protect abortion rights, expand paid family leave, tackle the climate emergency and address Vermont's housing crisis. But for the two candidates, and the throng of other local and state hopefuls who marched with them, the Memorial Day parades were less about educating prospective voters on their platforms than about making a first impression.

The parades coincided with a momentous shift in the race: Last Friday, another contender for the U.S. House seat, state Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale (D-Chittenden), dropped out and endorsed Balint, a major shake-up in a contest that had previously looked like a close three-way split. Ram Hinsdale and Balint had both been vying for the progressive-leaning electorate, and Ram Hinsdale's announcement signaled to her supporters that Balint would be their champion. 

On Saturday in Essex, Ram Hinsdale marched in the rain with Balint. She later tweeted a photo of the two of them, drenched and smiling, the ultimate visual metaphor for their new coalition. "Rain or shine, Vermont, we will be there fighting for you," Ram Hinsdale wrote. 

Balint, the first woman and the first openly gay legislator to lead the state Senate, has served since 2015. In the Congressional campaign, she has positioned herself as an experienced lawmaker with a track record of supporting progressive reforms. Gray, who was a prosecutor in the criminal division of the state Attorney General's Office before she was elected lieutenant governor in 2020, has campaigned on that statewide electoral success as proof that she can unite — and represent — a broad swath of Vermonters. 

Amid the highly choreographed pageantry of the Memorial Day parades — the flags, the fire engines, the pickup trucks, the fife players, the war reenactors, the spectators in lawn chairs, the puppies, the babies crying at the ceremonial gunshots — Balint and Gray became part of the spectacle.

In Middlebury, Balint stopped to hug a woman in a T-shirt bearing the logo for Moms Demand Action, a national grassroots organization that advocates for legislation aimed at preventing gun violence.

"This week has just been so bad for me as a mom, dropping my kids off at school," Balint said afterward, alluding to the May 24 massacre of 19 children at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. "Maybe, finally, just maybe, we'll see something at the federal level." A few blocks later, she introduced herself to a German shepherd. "I think he liked me!" she reported afterward. "He gave me a lean!" Then, to the owners of an enormous black Newfoundland lolling in the shade near the town green: "I once dog-sat for a Newfoundland!" 

Lt. Gov. Molly Gray - BEAR CIERI
  • Bear Cieri
  • Lt. Gov. Molly Gray

Gray, who grew up on a farm in Newbury and worked as an aide for Welch before she earned her degree at Vermont Law School in 2014, likes to signal that she's in touch with the practical concerns of working Vermonters.

"My brothers will be the first to say that you can't tow anything with a Prius on the farm," she said during a recent press conference in which she unveiled her climate policy agenda.

In contrast to Balint, who wore her blue-and-yellow campaign T-shirt, jeans, and pink New Balance sneakers to the Memorial Day festivities, Gray dressed in gray slacks and a sleeveless cream-colored blouse, likely in anticipation of delivering brief remarks in her capacity as lieutenant governor following the parade in Middlebury. 

After that three-minute speech on the steps of Town Hall Theater, in which she noted that she was the proud daughter and sister of two service members, Gray and her campaign team marched in Vergennes, blasting Miley Cyrus' "Party in the USA" and Dolly Parton's "9 to 5" on repeat through a portable speaker. ("This was all Molly's doing!" Spencer Dole, Gray's field director, said of the playlist.) Gray worked the sidelines, offering handshakes and fist bumps. She thanked people in uniform for their service and gave KitKat bars to children.

"Thanks for being here today," she said to person after person. Several dozen yards ahead, Balint jogged with a box of Milk-Bones, having settled upon a canine-first public relations strategy. 

One onlooker in Vergennes, Jim Payea, said he wasn't convinced that either Gray or Balint would lead Vermont "in the right direction," which, in his estimation, is the opposite of where the state and the country have been heading since President Joe Biden took office. Another spectator, Terri Thomsen, an addiction counselor who lives in Bristol, said she didn't yet know enough about Gray or Balint to say which one she'd support. 

"I care about women's rights — I'm pro-choice — and I also care about safe schools. And better health care is top of the line for me, too," Thomsen said. "I guess I want what everyone else wants — to feel like our country is working for us, not against us. Isn't that the American dream?" 

With the legislative session in recess, the candidates will dedicate themselves to the full-time pursuit of undecided voters such as Thomsen. Gray will hold a rally at Hula in Burlington on Wednesday, June 1, featuring former governor Howard Dean, who endorsed her in the race; Balint will attend a Pride-themed event on Saturday, June 4, in Montpelier. Both have forums and appearances scheduled for the next several weeks.

Then, in a little more than a month, Gray and Balint will again smile and wave up and down Main Streets across Vermont for another American summer tradition: parades on the Fourth of July.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Candidates Love a Parade"