Meet our very first congresswoman, Rebecca A Balint

-A A +A

Meet our very first congresswoman, Rebecca A Balint

Sun, 12/18/2022 - 4:02pm -- tim
Rebecca Balint, Vermont's first congresswoman, stands in front of the new mural saluting Vermont and Brattleboro that was painted by the ArtLords. Photo by Randy Holhut.

by Joyce Marcel, Vermont Business Magazine

What's it like to make history?

“A moment that will stay with me for the rest of my life was waking up the morning after the election, on very little sleep, and hearing my wife say, 'Good morning, Congresswoman,'” our new Democratic Congresswoman-elect, Rebecca A. “Becca” Balint, 54, told me after the election.

The enormity of what she's accomplished is still sinking in.

“I couldn’t feel it on Election Night,” she said. “I honestly felt so out of sorts! Proud, eager, curious, daunted, worried, excited. I was careening between emotions all night. I’m certain that was partly because I was exhausted after running this race for almost a year. Now, with a bit more sleep, I can let the news settle in. Yesterday I was out grabbing some groceries in Brattleboro and just about everyone I passed at the store stopped to offer congratulations and high fives and grins. I was in my jeans, sneaks and down vest. People kept saying some version of, 'You are the same person you’ve always been! Look at how you’re dressed! We are sending a regular person to represent us! Yay for Vermont!' By the end of my shopping trip I was grinning ear to ear. I walked out to my car and thought, 'We did it! We really did it!'”

These days Balint vacillates between excitement and terror. Excitement because, well, she's the first woman Vermont has ever sent to Congress; and also because now she has the job she's wanted for a very long time.

Terror because these are dangerous and divided times in our country, not to mention in our Congress, which seems, at this writing, to be breaking Republican. Just weeks before our conversation, for example, some deluded jackass broke into Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's home in San Francisco looking to kneecap her. Instead, he beat her husband Paul with a hammer, sending him into surgery.

Dark times indeed.

Yet they don't faze Balint. An educator who lives in Brattleboro with her attorney wife and their two children, she was first elected to the Vermont Senate in 2014. In 2016 she became Senate Majority Leader and in 2021 she was the first woman and first openly gay person to serve as Senate President Pro Tempore.

Photo: Rebecca Balint, Vermont's first congresswoman. Photo courtesy Becca Balint for U.S. Congress.

In terms of identity politics, she carries lots of labels: she's a teacher by trade, a politician by desire, a Jew by choice, a gay woman, a wife and mother, the granddaughter of a Holocaust victim, and a child of immigrants.

It's no wonder that Balint often used the word “courage” in her stump speeches.

“If we had believed that change was impossible, I would not be standing here tonight,” she told a cheering Burlington crowd after the election results were announced. “Take note and take heart: Vermont is a place where kindness and integrity and courage matter. Vermont is a place where the daughter of an immigrant dad and a working class mom can be the first woman and the first gay person to represent Vermont in the US House of Representatives.”

While her primary race opponent, Lieutenant Governor Molly Gray, also a Democrat, ran on a middle-of-the-road platform with endorsements from political establishment stalwarts like US Senator Patrick Leahy and former Governor Madeleine Kunin, Balint has been progressive from the get-go.

“I give you my word tonight that I will not back down from hard fights in Washington,” she said at the end of her victory speech. “I will carry your hopes and your wishes and your stories with me. I will stay rooted in our communities here in Vermont. And I will work for our most vulnerable neighbors every single day.... because we're fighting for climate action. We're fighting for universal health care. We're fighting for livable wages, for reproductive rights, for the safety of our trans and queer neighbors, for racial equity, for common sense gun laws, for families across the state who want a better life for their kids and grandkids, and for a nation finally as good as its promise.”

Balint may be the first in many things — for one thing, she's from the very first class of Emerge Vermont, the organization that trains Democratic women to run for office; it boasted an 81 percent success rate in the 2022 election — but she certainly doesn't stand alone.

After she won the primary — which practically insured her winning in the general — her endorsements to fill now-US Senator-elect Peter Welch's seat in the House of Representatives came from Welch himself, as well as from US Senator Bernie Sanders — whom she called “the conscience of our nation.”

Sanders took her under his wing and campaigned with her. She was endorsed by US Senator Elizabeth Warren, a host of people in Congress plus many other famous Vermont politicos.

She won many national endorsements, including Emily's List and the LGBTQ's Victory Fund. She's no stranger to the national media: She's been interviewed by The Washington Post, the New York Times, The Boston Globe, MSNBC, etc.

Photo: Becca Balint on the campaign trail with Senator Bernie Sanders and Senator (former congressman) Peter Welch. Photo courtesy Becca Balint for U.S. Congress.

Why has it taken so long for Vermont to send a woman to Congress? (Vermont is the last state to elect a woman; even Mississippi beat us.)

Well, Vermont only has one seat in the House and two in the Senate, and those elected to fill those seats tend to remain in office for a long time — or until another slot opens up higher up on the food chain. Leahy is retiring from the US Senate after a remarkable 48 years. Welch was a congressman for 15 years; now he's moving up to Leahy's seat.

There weren't many women seeking political office when these guys took office, but thanks to Emerge Vermont, things have certainly changed.

One person who isn't surprised that Balint is going to DC is her long-time friend and advisor Liz Bankowski, who ran Kunin's successful campaign and then served as her chief of staff.

“When Becca puts her mind on something — and never doubt that she has taken a completely studied view of any situation — she's proven that she can win,” Bankowski told me. “Those of us who have known her well and followed her career are not surprised by this outcome. She's a natural leader, more so than a lot of people in politics that I've seen, although I don't know if she even sees it in herself. She has such an authentic and genuine quality about her. She's so deeply informed about issues, and politically she's a very smart strategist. She knows how to get things done.”

Balint will now be thrust into a political world often categorized by corruption, selfishness and a kill-or-be-killed demand for party loyalty. How will a woman who chose “kindness” as a campaign slogan fare in the current atmosphere of national politics?

Bankowski is unconcerned.

“My heart sank a little when she said she was running for Congress,” Bankowski said. “My first thought was, what words do we even use? It seems to me to be almost a thankless thing to do in a world so brutal. It's basically open warfare. If you win, I lose. Absolutely. Nobody gives anybody any consideration. I hate to see her having to get into that kind of role. But I'm sure she carefully considered running for Congress or waiting around for the right time to run for governor, and decided she wanted to be in national politics. Now I'm feeling that with her winning, and maybe if there are a few more like her, they will be a bit of a light in the darkness. It remains to be seen, but I think she's got all of the qualities necessary to have an impact. We're living in a time where we need to remind ourselves that there is something incredibly important about the ability to show kindness towards each other.”

Balint is tough, Bankowski said.

Photo: Becca Balint on the campaign trail. Photo courtesy Becca Balint for U.S. Congress.

“What are the deep motivations in her heart around being in the public arena?” she said. “It has to do with how meaningful the Holocaust was in her family. It has to do with growing up gay in a tough world that wasn't accepting of who she was. These things are deeply rooted in who she is. She will step up and fight. She will engage around basic human fairness and dignity and human rights. She will be as tough as the rest of them. I don't worry about it at all.”

Balint, 54, defies easy categorization. She's small, wiry and athletic under a helmet of black bobbed hair. She's bright, quick-thinking, fast-talking, charming, funny, energetic and earnest. She's irrepressible and serious, all at the same time.

“She's an extraordinarily kind and extroverted woman who very quickly makes people feel really, really comfortable,” said Julia Barnes, former executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party and a woman Balint calls her “close friend and adviser.”

“I'm a little bit of a political cynic,” Barnes continued. “And I sometimes think maybe our citizen legislature doesn't provide people the opportunity to become really good policymakers or leaders of people. I had a dinner with Becca, I think, in 2018, to talk about what she wanted to do in the future. I went into that dinner liking her very much personally, but being unsure of what her trajectory could be. And we sat and we talked for almost two hours. She learned all about who I was, what my philosophy was, what I thought her advantages were, what her challenges were. And she listened deeply and ultimately started to prove, very clearly, that she's a policy wonk. She is a person who thinks about the impacts of government on everyday people. It took one dinner and I was more than convinced that this was the person who not only was going to be in a future leadership position for Vermont, but was the epitome of what we want our elected officials to be.”

“She is the type of person who is in this business because she wants to truly help people,” said Winooski councilor Thomas Renner. “The way that she talks to single mothers and people who are having difficulty paying their rent or having difficulty with medical bills? She really comes to those conversations from a place of compassion. I've just been awestruck by the true nature of caring for Vermonters that she's shown me she has.”

Also, Balint is fun to watch, Renner said.

“We've all seen her dancing on the campaign trail,” he said. “I believe she's an incredibly warm and kind and very smart person, and that belief strengthened as I've gotten to know her over the subsequent months. She's a diligent worker, and she isn't afraid to reach out to people that she disagrees with. She's going to have to deal with people like Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Georgia), and that doesn't intimidate her. She knows that it's going be rough. She knows that many times people are out for themselves in D.C. But I think she's focused on Vermont and on Vermonters and I have no fear that she will be overwhelmed by the unfortunate negativity that exists in D.C.”

Balint is so personable that her campaign staff believed that if voters could only meet her, they would flock to support her. So they designed primary campaign around putting her in front of as many people in the state as they could.

“I think having been a teacher for so many years, it's very easy for me to be in front of a group of people,” Balint said. “And so the strategy was always, from the beginning, getting me in front of as many Vermonters as possible, in small groups and large groups. We made 535,000 calls, tens of thousands of door knocks, and we had a really robust field operation. And after the meet-and-greets and events, I would stay for a long time, making sure I answered everybody's questions so they could really get a sense of who I am. I think people also enjoyed that I was able to laugh at myself. I heard that over and over and over again. I was able to make fun of my own foibles, and while I take my work seriously, I don't take myself too seriously. And that goes to all the goofy pictures of dogs licking my face and stupid dances that I did. My team was like, 'What are you doing?' And I was like, 'I'm just gonna be who I am.'”

She easily won against Gray, 60 percent to 36 percent, according to the Secretary of State's office.

“We heard over and over again that constituents wanted somebody who had experience actually passing legislation,” Balint told me. “As much as they might have supported Molly Gray in the role of lieutenant governor, they felt like she hadn't done the work of seeing a piece of legislation from beginning to end and having to bring a caucus together.”

Since Vermont makes a habit of sending Democrats to Washington, once Balint won the primary, her win was a certainty.

One person who fell under Balint's spell early was Melinda Moulton, who developed part of the Burlington waterfront and created Main Street Landing.

“Becca Balint has always been someone who captivated my interest because she is deeply authentic and true to herself,” Moulton said. “Our first close encounter was when she visited my home to pick up my old Concept Two rower which I was giving away for free. Becca returned a few times after that just to chat about the state of our state and to dig deeper into the many challenges facing our citizens: income inequality, racial justice, women's reproductive freedom, disability rights, homelessness... and the list goes on. As I campaigned for her, I noticed the ease at which she bonded with folks. I watched her kneel down in front of dogs — some not so friendly-looking — and give them biscuits and hugs. She never tired of reaching out to connect — with toddlers and seniors alike. Becca's message has always been clear and consistent, and her quick wit, indomitable strength, and brand of truth is sorely missing in our Congress today. Becca has a calling and a majority of Vermonters stood up in her favor and gave her the go-ahead to take her unique and authentic brand of humanism to the United States Congress. This is her time and she will use every second to fight for the health and welfare of our planet and her people.”

 

Early Life

Balint was born in Germany while her father was serving in the US Armed Forces.

“The closest military hospital was in Heidelberg,” she said. “So I was born there.”

This gave Balint duel citizenship until she turned 18.

“Then I chose the US,” she said.

After the war, her father first tried settling back in Germany. It was an odd choice considering that his Jewish father had been murdered by the Nazis.

“When my dad first came here with his mom, they actually didn't feel like they fit in,” Balint said. “They sold everything the first time, came, tried to make a life for themselves here, felt kind of like fish out of water and went back to Germany. It was only on that second trip back when they realized, 'Oh, no. We can't make a go of it,” and came back to the US.”

When her father left the service, the family settled in Peekskill, NY.

“He worked selling communications systems for what we used to call 'Ma Bell',” Balint said. “That was his first job out of the army and he worked there for his whole career. When AT&T was split into all the Baby Bells, he went with New York.”

The Holocaust hovered over her family.

“That trauma really colored a lot of my childhood,” she said. “So if the phone rang while we were eating dinner, my dad would get very anxious about who was calling the house. Or if people stopped by unannounced. Or if he felt like we were, in his words, 'airing dirty laundry in the community' about things that are related to our family. He did not want information about our family to be out in the public. His family had been betrayed by neighbors. And it didn't feel so far fetched that we could be back there again.”

Even though her grandmother was a socialist, she received reparations from the German government for her husband's death for the rest of her life.

“It was money that she was grateful to have, for support,” Balint said. “But I think there was ongoing trauma from the Holocaust. Not knowing who you could trust, or where you can put roots down. I think it scarred us. It was certainly hard for my dad. When I first ran for office, he would call me just about every month and start the conversation with, 'They hate you yet? Are you getting prank phone calls? Are your constituents supportive of your family?' He was very, very worried. I don't think that ever goes away. It goes down through the generations.”

Her mother had a number of jobs; she worked for a while at the Croton watch factory repairing watches; she worked on a rescue squad; later when Balint was in high school, she did a stint with Blue Cross Blue Shield answering calls.

Balint is the youngest of three children, so her mother also spent time at home being a mom and running the house. Later on she went back to school and got a college degree — “and a black belt in Kung Fu,” Balint once proudly told Seven Days.

Her mother is “a friend to the world,” Balint said.

“She's the one in a mall who will help a lost kid find their parents,” she said, “Or she'll take care of a sick neighbor. Her view of the world is that 'Everyone is a friend you just haven't met yet.'”

Besides teaching her to cook, Balint's parents taught her about generosity and hospitality.

“One of the most important things I learned from my parents is that music, humor and good food will bring people together,” she said. “Being in connection with others while singing and laughing can heal all sorts of pain. Both my parents played guitar and sang to us when we were little. I learned to play guitar at a very young age and sang to my kids, too. Playing music has been a constant in my life. My parents always make way more food than is necessary for any gathering. They want to take good care of people when they come to their home. They want to take care of everything so you can just sit and eat and laugh and unwind.”

Balint's progressive politics came out of this environment, but she was not always sure about her parents' political leanings.

“Because my grandmother was a socialist, she and my dad used to get into it sometimes,” she said. “And because of that, I always thought my dad was more conservative than he is. They were people who really believed in the American dream. He came here as an immigrant to start a new life and he will always be so grateful to this country for giving him a new chance. I think that when I was in my teens and twenties, it became clear that, at least socially, I was more liberal than they were. And I think that was hard for them.”

Early on, Balint's sexual identity began to cause her problems; it was a time when homosexuality was hidden; people didn't “come out.”

“It was a time that was pretty, pretty lonely for me,” she said. “As somebody who was at that time figuring out that I was gay. So 11 years old, 12 years old, 13 years old? That was a rough time.”

Balint was something of a tomboy.

“I was athletic, but also chubby,” she said. “I was quite good at hand-eye coordination. I played ball with the guys in the neighborhood. But also, you know, I was called chubby, which make you feel quite insecure as a kid. And when I was in middle school I started getting 'Lezzie' written on my locker.”

The abuse came from teachers as well as students.

“There was lots of homophobia,” she said. “They had no qualms about saying things about 'that faggot' or 'that queer.' So you learned really early on that it was not OK to be that way.”

Life changed a bit for Balint when she discovered Rita Mae Brown's book “Rubyfruit Jungle.” It helped her to see that she was not alone.

“I knew that I was gay at 11,” Balint said. “But as I said, there were lots of homophobic things said in middle school. Middle school is brutal; it's kill or be killed. So it was really clear to me that I wasn't going to come out. I was going to have to wait. I told my high school friends right after we graduated from high school, when I knew we were on our way to college and other things. But I had my first girlfriend during the summer between my junior and senior year.”

One of the first calls Balint made on Election Night was to some of her closest high school friends, who were watching the returns together.

“When I finally came out to them as gay after high school graduation, they were rock-solid supportive,” she said. “They have believed in me throughout my political journey, even when I doubted myself. They have been such a constant source of strength and love. Hearing their voices over speakerphone, I was so choked up.”

Balint did not come out to her parents until she turned 20.

“They were not happy,” Balint said. “And if they knew beforehand, they certainly didn't say it. And I just want to be clear that my parents are good people. They did the best that they could at that time. But there were some really hard years. They were a product of a different time. But they are very supportive of me and my family now.”

On the day after the election, for example, Balint and her family went out to brunch.

“My parents were just oozing pride and love,” she said. “I could tell how excited they were and how proud they were as other diners came over to congratulate me.”

 

Out And Away

Balint's academic credits are impressive. She graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Smith College and took an MA in education from Harvard. Later she took another MA in history from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

“The first master's was because I knew I wanted to teach either middle school or high school, and I wanted to understand more about theories of teaching and learning,” she said. “That's my master's at Harvard. And I did go on to teach middle school for quite some time.”

Then she decided to become grounded in history and took another MA from UMass.

“I remember my advisers asking, 'So what are you going to do with this degree?'” Balint said. “I said, 'Well, I'm going back into the classroom.' 'Why would you do that?' they asked. I said, 'Well, because I feel really strongly that if I'm teaching history in middle school or high school, I really want to understand it on a deeper level.' I did my research on Native American land claims, and on African American communities and women's clubs within African American communities post-Reconstruction. I loved it. I love learning. Also at UMass, I was really fortunate enough to study under someone who went on to win the National Book Award. I feel like I won the lottery to be able to study with him. He taught me how to write.”

(For several years Balint wrote a weekly column for the Brattleboro Reformer. Her pieces were collected in a book, “The Girl in the Yellow Pantsuit: Essays on Politics, History and Culture” published in 2022 by Brattleboro's Green Writers Press.)

 

Coming To Vermont

By 1994, Balint was working as a rock climbing guide at Plymouth's Farm & Wilderness Foundation, a group of eight Vermont camps originally run by Quakers.

“I just absolutely fell in love with the Vermont landscape,” Balint said. “And I wanted to transition from my life in the city in Boston to Vermont. I took my first teaching job in Londonderry. I thought Brattleboro was such a neat area. I used to come on my days off from camp. It's such an interesting and vibrant downtown.”

It was at the wilderness camp, in 2000, that Balint met and fell in love with her future wife, attorney Elizabeth Wohl, currently of counsel to Downs Rachlin Martin.

“Her parents had gone to camp there,” Balint said. “They met there. So it's kind of fun that now my daughter was there, so it's the third generation at this random group of summer camps. But yeah, I met her when she was working at one of the other camps.”

The couple formed a civil union in 2004 and moved to Brattleboro in 2007. They were married in 2009, after same-sex marriage was legalized in Vermont. The couple have two children; Abe is 15 and Sarah is 12.

Traditionally, Jewishness is passed down on the matrilineal side, but both Wohl and Balint have chosen the religion of their fathers.

“My Jewish history and heritage is very important to me, although I know that because it is on my dad's side of the family, I am not really considered Jewish,” Balint said. “Same for my wife, who is Quaker on her mom's side, Jewish on her dad's. We try our best to keep Shabbat every week and we love and cherish that time of slowing down and being with each other, connecting with our spiritual side and sitting in deep gratitude. We make fresh challah each week and I find deep spirituality in the ritual of lighting the candles, singing the blessings and reconnecting with my family. I have seriously considered converting at several points in my life, but have come to understand that while the history and culture of Judaism is very important to me, I'm not drawn to organized religion.”

Both Balint and Wohl are guided by the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, which means “healing the world.”

“We've talked about this with our kids from a very young age, and even gave them tikkun tokens to hand out when they saw people doing good for others,” Balint said.

“Tikkun Tokens are small wooden tokens designed to raise up Tikkun Olam, or repair of the world, by amplifying and recognizing acts of kindness and supporting individual and community repair,” according to the website tikkuntokens.org.

Balint and Wohl continue to raise their children in the Jewish faith even though the kids are, if nothing else, skeptical.

“My kids are proselytizing atheists,” Balint said with a laugh. “We've tried to give them various spiritual homes, and they're having none of it. My older kid came home once from first grade or so and said, 'Mom, can you believe there are people who actually believe in God?' 'Yeah,' I said. 'I can, actually. Did you say that out loud?' Because I was just so baffled by it. And then I said, 'Well, why don't we keep that as an inside voice right, now?”

 

Becoming A Politician

Balint thinks she decided to be a politician when she was still in middle school.

“The very first political speech I ever gave was the year of the Iranian hostages,” she said. “My history teacher asked me if I wanted to give a speech to the school about it. I wish I could remember why he asked me. What did I have to possibly offer? As a seventh grader? But I remember thinking about how policy changes lives. Decisions change lives. I was a nerd. I watched the news all the time. I read the newspaper every day. I was watching that split screen on TV, where they had President Carter leaving and Ronald Reagan coming in, and then the scene of the hostages coming home under Reagan's watch. So much was going on there. I wish I still had that speech. I'd love to know what I had to say about geopolitics. I can't imagine it was earth-shattering.”

Balint was always involved with student government.

“You're not really dealing with big policy issues,” she said. “But I love the idea of being able to make policy changes that would make life easier for people. In high school I won a citizenship award. I won the high school competition, and then the town, and then the region. And I went on to the statewide competition. This was in New York State. I mention it for two reasons. One, my dad will never forgive me for having shaved my head into a mohawk days before the big competition; he's convinced that's why I lost. But the other guy was better, and I said, 'I gotta be me.' And when I won the regional one, a newspaper reporter came out to ask me, 'What do you think you are going to do with your life?' I was a senior, and I said, 'I'd like to teach, and hopefully write and then become a politician someday to make life better for people. And my mom always says, 'How did you know that?' And I really don't know.”

Injustice was always her cause, Balint said.

“If I look back, the through-line is thinking about the injustice of my grandfather's death,” Balint said. “Thinking about the injustice that I saw. At the time Harvey Milk was assassinated. Thinking about the Civil Rights Movement. All of those things shaped me into feeling like politics could be an avenue to improve conditions. And Shirley Chisholm was always my biggest political hero.”

After she was married Balint taught history at the Community College of Vermont, spent time at home raising her children, and finally put her political feelings front and center when she went to campaign school at Yale University.

'It's a bipartisan program, one of the few that exists,” she said.

She followed that up by becoming a member of the first class at Emerge Vermont, which was founded by Vermont's only female governor, Governor Kunin, to encourage Democratic women to enter politics.

“It was a wonderful experience to be with other women who cared deeply about politics and policy,” she said. “That very first weekend, we were in the State House; I met some of my now dearest friends in that room. We talked about what it was that drew us to the work. And I was just in awe of the State House, being in there. How it's still such an open building compared to other capitals. At that point, when I first started, I really didn't think that I would run anytime soon, because the kids were so little. I just wanted to go through the process and make those connections. But why go through the training if you're not willing to put yourself out there? I give my wife Elizabeth a lot of credit for pushing me. She said, 'This is something that you've been interested in for a long time. And you just put it on the back burner? Don't you want you to try it? The first time out, you may not win.' I would not be where I am today if it weren't for her incredible support.”

 

In The Senate

For her first-ever campaign, Balint challenged incumbents Senator Peter Galbraith and Senator Jeanette White for a Senate seat to represent Windham County. When Galbraith dropped out, she and White won handily.

In the Senate, Balint helped form the task force that eventually broke the impasse on the state's pension system. And when Governor Phil Scott vetoed the task force's solution, Balint and House Speaker Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington) were able to unanimously override the veto, earning the gratitude of teachers everywhere.

She also gets credit for her work on Article 22, the first amendment in the nation protecting reproductive rights. It overwhelmingly passed into the Vermont Constitution on Election Day.

Photo: Becca Balint in front of the Vermont State House with supporters. Photo courtesy Becca Balint for U.S. Congress.

“Some of the most important work I've done is around housing investments,” Balint said. “We've invested hundreds of millions of debt dollars in all kinds of housing, from rehabbing dilapidated buildings to accessory dwelling units to bringing hundreds of units online. And it isn't enough. It absolutely isn't enough. One of the things that I've learned in the last couple of years — and in working on this issue in earnest — is that rural America is really, really struggling. We can't get out of the housing crisis if we're not investing in housing in small towns and villages. It can't just be Burlington. But in order to do that, you need to have water and sewer investments. I hear from planners across the state that they would like to be able to build more housing in their downtown village centers, but they don't have the water and sewer capacity. So that's definitely something I'm interested in working on in Congress.”

Balint also worked on the issue of food insecurity.

“I'm really proud of the work that we did on universal meals,” she said. “We worked very hard in the last two years to make sure we could fund universal meals for kids in schools, for breakfast and for lunch, as we've seen rising levels of of hunger in the state.”

She also gets credit for helping to pass the first gun safety laws in Vermont’s history.

“It was at a time when everybody said it was the third rail of Vermont politics,” Balint said. “Even the governor thought you can't pass gun violence prevention laws in Vermont because of our hunting culture. But many of us felt there was a difference between the incredible passion that so many hunters and anglers have about the natural world that was very different from what we were hearing. People were fed up with how easy it was to purchase a gun. There was no background check. There was no waiting period. These are common sense laws, and most people were shocked that they are not on the books.”

Balint was on the receiving end of nasty emails and comments for her gun stance.

“It's a really interesting moment when I'm being called a Nazi and a fascist,” she said. “Just think about my own family's experience with that. It was always an interesting mix of emotions that we couldn't even have a civil conversation about something that most Vermonters feel is common sense — to have some gun safety laws on the books. So one of the most important things we did was pass universal background checks.”

Balint also led passage of a paid family leave bill through the senate, as well as a minimum wage increase and a climate bill her website describes as “the boldest climate bill our state's ever passed.”

Balint also made a few mistakes.

“Going back to my first term in office, I am thinking about how I handled a disagreement over marijuana,” she said. “I was not in support of a bill that someone was trying to push through, because I had heard from some local growers who were not supportive. So Senator White and I ended up being on opposite ends of that. I don't regret my position, and I don't regret how I voted. What I do regret is that I was not understanding or sensitive enough about what that bill meant for her. It was an issue that she had worked on for so long. I wish that I had been more understanding and gentle in the way that I dealt with it. I didn't see the big picture. I was very focused on what I felt I needed to do. And I think there was a little bit of self-righteousness in there. I absolutely believe I could have handled that differently.”

Balint admits that she has made other mistakes in the past and is likely to make more of them in the future.

“Of course I'm going to let people down sometimes,” she said. “I'm a human, and I'm going to screw up. But I'm going to do the best that I can. I don't think I have all the answers. I really don't. I should always be very, very curious about what somebody else is bringing into a meeting or a conversation. And I don't think that makes me a weak leader, even though I've been told it does.”

According to Vermont Senator Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle), Balint's most important leadership trait was her openness.

“She treated everyone so fairly and so well balanced,” Mazza told me. “Republicans, Democrats, Progressives, it didn't matter. She always had time. She always took their concerns seriously. And she never had a bad thing to say about them, although she didn't agree with them, I'm sure, about some of the politics. Even the Republicans would speak highly of her. Because to me, that's what it's all about when you're pro tem of the Senate. To me, that's very, very important. I don't like this divisiveness. Her office was always open for any concern. I've had the opportunity to work with many, many, many pro tems, and everyone's a little different. But Becca, like I said, from day one there was something special, in that she was able to listen to all concerns.”

 

The Campaign

When US Senator Patrick Leahy announced his retirement after 48 distinguished years in the Senate, he opened the dam and a flood of politicians swept through — many of them female. Welch would obviously want to move up to replace him, which opened up his seat in Congress.

Balint threw her hat in the ring. One motivating force was the January 6 insurrection.

Photo: Becca Balint on the campaign trail. Photo courtesy Becca Balint for U.S. Congress.

“I was sworn in as president pro tem on the same day as the insurrection in DC,” Balint said. “So I went from the highest high of getting elected to this position by my peers, and having for the first time ever a woman speaker of the house while there was a woman president pro tem. And just a couple of hours later we were sitting in our offices watching the news. So I went from this incredible feeling of elation to terror and a really deep concern about the democracy. Jill and I felt strongly that we had a responsibility to show that in Vermont we could still have functioning government, that as much as we can be frustrated with the governor for vetoing our bills, and not seeing eye to eye on things, we're still going to have a functioning government. That moment I saw that the fight of my life is at the federal level. Voting rights and reproductive rights and the work of the January 6 Commission — all these are fights at the federal level. It felt pretty clear to me at that moment that that's where I needed to put my energy.”

At one point the LGBTQ Victory Fund PAC started pouring money — eventually, $1.1 million, mostly from one person — into Balint's campaign.

Gray rightfully raised the issue of dark money influence. But PACs are not part of any campaign; while they may produce ads, they are not allowed by law to coordinate with a candidate's campaign. So Balint had no say in how the money was spent on her behalf, and it worried her.

“It's horrible,” she said. “It's absolutely horrible. And it was not something I had any control over. There's nothing that a campaign can do about it. And I was incredibly frustrated by that spending. I don't know who the man was and I never met him. As I was holding my breath for weeks, because I didn't want this person or this organization to go negative on my opponent. That would have been a nightmare in every possible way. Not in line with my values, not in line with my campaign. It was an incredibly unsettling time. People in Vermont were so angry at the number of mailers that were coming in. My own wife was upset. And I couldn't do anything about it. It's really unhealthy for our democracy.”

(That $1.1 million came from Nishad Singh of the cryptocurrency exchange FTX. FTX has now fallen into bankruptcy. Another leading FTX executive contributed $2,900 directly into Balint's campaign and also into Welch's campaign; they are both donating that amount to charity.)

PAC money, especially noticeable in negative advertising during a campaign, was made possible by the US Supreme Court's Citizens United decision; it gave corporations the same free speech rights as individuals. Vermont hasn't seen much negative advertising, but neighboring states were drowning in it during the run up to this election. Balint said she would work to overturn Citizens United.

“Short of that, I don't I don't see how you combat that kind of spending,” Balint said. “A lot of that spending is against other candidates. And it's the same horrible ads, like “The radical socialist agenda of Nancy Pelosi...” that kind of stuff. There are steps that we can take to make it more transparent. There's a bill that Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) sponsored called the DISCLOSE Act, making sure folks who are giving donations can't hide behind a straw donor or an outside entity. (It failed on a floor vote earlier this year, 49-49.) But we do we need to overturn Citizens United.”

 

On To Washington

Balint is taking to DC a laundry list of progressive causes to work on. Topping her list is the mental health crisis.

“I've been very focused on it for years,” she said. “That is something I'm going to be really working on in earnest from the get-go. It's clear that we have a shortage of mental health counselors and practitioners at all levels. I think we need some federal funds to help us get those counselors trained up. If you're waiting to get in to see a psychiatrist or psychologist in Vermont there's a long waiting list. We also have a shortage of Masters in Social Work people, and folks who will work out in the field alongside our first responders.”

There is “an incredibly high rate” of both anxiety and depression in young people, teens and people in their early twenties, Balint said.

“I think the pandemic has been incredibly difficult on them,” she said. “And so I think we need additional supports within schools, but also within a communities. I've talked to a lot of teachers about kids being disregulated right now, and they are having a really hard time coming back from the loneliness and disconnection they felt during the pandemic. I think investing in mental health is going to be a signature issue for me.”

She also plans to continue working on housing issues.

Balint believes her experience in the Vermont Senate has given her the tools to get along with people in a difficult and divided work environment.

“We try to get to know people first, before we're trying to do work with them,” she said. “So in that way, I think it will be the same. Having grown up as a gay person gives me a different perspective on how we engage with people we disagree with. You can't be afraid to talk to your neighbor because they have a Trump sign. When you grow up gay, knowing that so many of the people around you don't approve of you, you don't have the luxury of just writing people off. Else you'd be writing off your own family, or your own friends. And so you have to make it work somehow. You've got to find a way to get beyond that, or else you'd be very lonely indeed.”

Since the expected “Red Wave” of Republican Congressional winners never materialized, Balint won't be going into entirely hostile territory.

Photo: Rebecca Balint, Vermont's first congresswoman. Photo courtesy Emily Bowers with the Vermont Democratic Party.

“Clearly, the GOP didn’t have a landslide or a mandate,” Balint said. “They may eke out a win in either chamber, but their numbers aren’t strong enough that they’ll be able to pass legislation without working with the body as a whole. I am certainly still worried about the Trumpists in Congress and the election deniers, but yes, the leadership team on the Dem's side is preparing us. Most folks are feeling really good about where we are right now. We upended 86 years of midterm history!”

Less than a week after the election, Balint flew down to Washington for orientation with the other Democrats.

“I have events with Speaker Pelosi and the rest of the leadership team all this week: Steny Hoyer, Jim Clyburn, Katherine Clark, Hakeem Jeffries and Pete Aguilar,” she said. “I’m sure there will be many conversations and strategy sessions about where we go from here. I also feel like maybe, just maybe, the Trump fever is starting to break, finally!”

Balint has already had some Congressional orientation; a few months ago she was included in a group of newcomers who seemed certain to win their elections and who were flown down to Washington for initial talks.

“What gives me hope is getting to know folks like Jamie Raskin and Adam Schiff and Ayanna Pressley and people who I know are going to be there in the trenches, helping me learn on the job,” Balint said.

On that first DC trip, she learned that this may be the first time members of Congress will have a line item in their budget specifically for security for their homes, and for bulletproof glass in their offices.

“They never had to worry about that before,” Balint said. “How can you sit through a meeting like that and hear what some of the other members have experienced and not be concerned about that? It doesn't take more than a tweet of disinformation to stir people up. So I'm very concerned about how we regulate the social media going forward, how we prevent those kinds of errant tweets becoming weaponized. Security is the thing that wakes me up at night, when I worry about my family being on this journey with me.”

Balint will be living in DC during the week; she plans to fly back each weekend to be in Brattleboro with her family. This isn't unlike her time in the Vermont Senate. When she began, she had a room in Montpelier but came home twice a week; then she and Wohl decided that for the children, saying goodbye twice in one week was too distracting. After that, Balint only came home on weekends.

This past year, campaigning often took Balint away from home. Now she will have a regular schedule again.

“We have been trying to keep things as normal as possible for the kids,” Balint said. “We have been checking in regularly with them to see what they need right now. And we have told them — and their teachers — that we are balancing keeping things normal and calm for them while also understanding that there may be events and gatherings that we want them to attend. I want them to have all the opportunities this affords them–seeing Congress from the inside, watching their mom get sworn in, having them meet my future colleagues. What an incredible opportunity for them to explore all the history in DC and all those fantastic museums and monuments. I'm so excited for them!”

On the day after the election, the family was driving home from Burlington when they made a stop at the Hope Cemetery in Barre.

“The marble carvings there are incredible and my son has wanted to go for a while now,” Balint said. “We took an hour or so and walked around together looking at the craftsmanship and marveling at the talent of those stonecutters. We all love history, so it seemed like the perfect thing to do together. It’s not lost on me that my election has now also made me a part of Vermont’s history. I feel the weight of that.”

 

Joyce Marcel is a journalist in southern Vermont. In 2017, she was named the best business magazine profile writer in the country by the Alliance of Area Business Publishers. She is married to Randy Holhut, the news editor/acting operations manager of The Commons, a weekly newspaper in Brattleboro.