- James Buck
- Sue Minter on election night
After delivering an election-night concession speech, Sue Minter stepped offstage at Burlington's Hilton and exited the limelight.
Now, nearly a month later, the former Democratic gubernatorial nominee is opening up about why she lost, what she might do next and what role her gender may have played in her defeat.
Many political observers predicted a close race, but Republican Phil Scott won by nearly nine points. "I definitely was not expecting those results," Minter told Seven Days last week in one of her first interviews since the election. "I felt it was a toss-up."
The prevailing postelection analysis has been that the incumbent lieutenant governor won because he was well-known and well-liked. Minter calls that a "core part of his success," but she doesn't think popularity alone carried her opponent to victory.
She suggested that Scott benefited from Vermont's 54-year tradition of alternating between Republican and Democratic governors — and from voters' desire for balance of power. Even stalwart Dems had told her they worried about single-party rule, Minter said.
Scott owned the message of economic opportunity, Minter conceded: "People who were concerned about the economy felt he would be a stronger candidate than they felt that I would be, because it was hard for us to define myself that way."
Minter said she thinks Scott had a head start on messaging since he'd already held a statewide post for nearly six years. "He had a very simple, simplistic way of talking about it — that things were unaffordable," she said. She maintains that her own plans to address the issue, which included making community college free and raising the minimum wage, were more concrete than Scott's.
Minter also pointed to certain strategic disadvantages — most notably that her campaign was practically broke after the primary, leaving her powerless to combat a pro-Scott TV ad blitz paid for by the Republican Governors Association. (While the RGA ultimately outspent the Democratic Governors Association by a roughly 2-to-1 ratio, other pro-Minter groups — such as the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, League of Conservation Voters and EMILY's List — helped close the gap.)
When outgoing Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin was asked about Minter's defeat during an interview last month on Vermont Public Radio, he offered a different theory: "Let's talk about gender here for a second ... We still discriminate against women when we choose chief executives."
VPR's Alex Keefe responded, "It's kind of an extraordinary thing to suggest that people who elected Phil Scott over Sue Minter may have just been looking at the fact that she was a woman."
Shumlin pressed on: "I think there's no doubt, and we can live in denial if we wish, that the reason it's so difficult to elect women governors and that we've never elected a president of the United States who's a woman is because we hold them to a different standard when we're hiring a chief executive."
Vermont ranks second in the nation for gender parity in its legislature. Forty-one percent of the state's lawmakers are women, according to a 2016 report from the organization Representation20/20, which works to elect more women to political office. But Vermont is also one of three states that has never elected a woman to Congress, and only nine women have ever held statewide political posts.
"People have theorized that voters tend to feel more comfortable with women in the role of advocate rather than executive, and you certainly see that borne out in the numbers," Minter said. "It is pretty extraordinary."
Felicia Kornbluh, a gender studies professor at the University of Vermont, suggests this effect "may be especially acute [in Vermont] because the leap from a local legislative seat to one of the very few statewide opportunities is a great one — and the queue of talented people waiting is typically long." Since the state is so solidly Democratic, turnover in the top ranks tends to be slow — particularly in the state's congressional delegation.
Minter didn't dwell on gender's possible role in her defeat. But she has considered whether it affected the way voters viewed her.
"We don't have any exit polls in Vermont, so I can't speculate, obviously. But we just have to look at the fact that, as of this January, there will be a total of four woman governors in the United States," Minter said.
Asked if she faced sexism while on the stump, she hesitated for a moment. "I did not — not overtly. But I think I encountered it."
No one wore T-shirts declaring Minter a bitch, as some did Hillary Clinton. But people did question her fortitude. At one meet-and-greet event, Minter recalled a man asking her, "Are you prepared to be tough enough to be governor?"
"I thought it was a joke," she said. "I literally took off my jacket. I'm very lucky to have grown up as a figure skater, and I have strong biceps, so I just made a muscle and said, 'Hey, are you gonna question me now?'
"Then," she continued, "I realized the guy wasn't joking."
When the same question came up at another meet-and-greet in the Burlington area, Minter was better prepared. That time, the former state transportation secretary talked about running an agency where women are "underrepresented, to put it mildly."
"Candidates are supposed to be likable, and they're supposed to be strong, and that is easier for men than women," she said. Minter noted that after debating Scott, some observers suggested she was "too aggressive."
On the other hand, the RGA implied she was too passive in a series of TV ads that portrayed Shumlin as "Minter's mentor." Republicans were bound to try to saddle the Democratic candidate — regardless of gender — with Shumlin's legacy, but some considered the suggestion condescending.
"I didn't focus on it," Minter said, though she added, "Certainly, my daughter was outraged by it."
Minter did take note of a postelection analysis by columnist Jon Margolis that appeared on VTDigger.org and included this observation: "After some of the candidate debates, especially the Vermont Public Radio debate last week, some voters found Minter's constant attacks on Scott too shrill for their taste."
While campaigning for Minter, Sen. Becca Balint (D-Windham) said she heard comments about Minter's style of dress and her size, "which made me feel like we really had not come so very far in our view of women in politics."
Madeleine Kunin, Vermont's sole female governor, has spent years recruiting women to run for office. One of Minter's most prominent supporters, she said it's "hard to say" if gender was a factor in Minter's defeat. "I think her biggest challenge was that running against Phil Scott was almost like running against an incumbent, because he had so much more name recognition," she said.
It's also possible that Minter's gender worked to her advantage. The prospect of electing Vermont's second-ever female governor likely galvanized some voters. It definitely attracted well-heeled national organizations devoted to electing female candidates, such as EMILY's List.
"Certainly, being connected with those networks was very helpful in terms of fundraising," Minter said. Beyond the financial support, organizations such as the Barbara Lee Institute for Women Political Leaders provided training and other support.
Locally, Kornbluh said, "There is a very strong women's network right now, and Emerge Vermont is the tip of the spear." That organization trains women to run for office, and although its tax status prevents it from explicitly campaigning for candidates, many of the organization's members supported Minter individually.
The jury's out on whether ads criticizing Scott's stand on abortion ended up helping or hurting Minter. Vermont's next governor has long characterized himself as pro-choice but has supported certain restrictions on abortion.
"I do believe that it is because of those ads that I have now been painted in some people's minds as having run a negative campaign," Minter said. Unfairly so, she claimed, since a super PAC funded by the DGA and Planned Parenthood Action Fund were behind them. However, Minter never disavowed the ads during the campaign. Last week, she suggested that if more people had expected president-elect Donald Trump to triumph, the issue of abortion rights might have given pro-choice Vermonters another reason to vote for her.
Defeated candidates often declare some degree of victory to console supporters and campaign staffers. In Minter's case, she may indeed have accomplished something: A large part of the struggle to achieve gender parity lies in convincing women to run, and her campaign may inspire other candidates to come forward.
She trounced two male opponents during a competitive Democratic primary. "I don't think I was particularly taken seriously until I won soundly in that primary," Minter said. And while Scott's general-election victory was decisive, she claimed the largest portion of the vote — 44 percent — that a female gubernatorial candidate has won since Kunin left the fifth floor of the Pavilion Building.
"I think every time a woman is in the arena, they help change the conversation," Minter said.
Will she return to compete again?
Last week, Minter was content to be in Florida, belatedly celebrating a wedding anniversary that fell during the height of the campaign. She said she'd been "devouring books" and was reading The Group, Mary McCarthy's novel about Vassar College grads during the Depression.
Minter told Seven Days that she's definitely not done with public service. As for running for office, she said, "I don't think it's going to be in the very near future ... But I can imagine getting back to that." Minter said the Scott administration hasn't offered her a position, and she's not angling for one.
Meanwhile, at the Statehouse, women are assuming leadership positions that can serve as launchpads for higher office. Rep. Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) has the votes to become the third-ever female speaker of the House, and Rep. Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington) was elected House majority leader on Saturday. Balint is running for Senate majority leader. Meanwhile, several other top leadership positions in the Senate will remain all male, following Sen. Claire Ayer's (D-Addison) failure to win either of the two posts she sought.
Even in the relatively female-friendly legislature, women are no strangers to sexism.
"Where do I start?" Johnson said with a laugh. "There has been enough progress so that it's more subtle."