Politics

Molly Gray touts global experience, Vermont roots, in run for lieutenant governor

Molly Gray, an attorney with a special interest in human rights, says as lieutenant governor she’s ready to defend Vermont citizens and revive the state’s resiliency. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

NEWBURY — Lieutenant governor candidate Molly Gray sat on a picnic table in front of her family’s idyllic farmhouse on a breezy morning in early July. Her business professional outfit — buttoned-up collared shirt, dark blue slacks and matching wedges — clashed with the quaint scene and earthy smells of the family business, Four Corners Farm. Normally, she’d be in work clothes and clogs or boots on the farm. 

Even before Gray listed off the highlights of her resume — which include law school, international human rights law experience, and a prestigious federal court clerkship — it was clear she has lived in two very different worlds: one as an accomplished attorney who has traveled the globe, and the other as a farmer’s daughter in a quiet Vermont town. 

“Vermont is my home,” Gray said. “Wherever I’ve been, be it in Washington or Baghdad, people asked, ‘Where are you from?’ I’m from Vermont.” 

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Gray is one of four Democrats vying for the lieutenant governor nomination, including two senators and a previous gubernatorial candidate, in likely one of the most competitive statewide races of 2020. The Newbury native is running on a platform that centers on Vermont’s need for a rural revival, and she wants to reverse dwindling demographics, sparse broadband access and a growing exodus of professionals — be it doctors, lawyers, or plumbers — in the communities surrounding Newbury, where she was raised, and across rural Vermont. 

“Right here in Newbury, we’ve had more deaths than births. We’ve had three homes empty just in the last year,” Gray said. “Deaths just from just older Vermonters passing away. There’s more lights off than lights on. There’s massive inequity.” 

Because of Gray’s far-reaching travels outside her home state, questions have been raised about whether she meets the four-year residency requirement to run for lieutenant governor — specifically because she lived in Switzerland from early 2017 to mid-2018. Gray, 36, who also lived in Washington, D.C., for periods of time, didn’t vote in Vermont between 2008 and 2018. 

A number of prominent Vermont legal experts have weighed in on Gray’s behalf, arguing that one can legally reside in the state while temporarily working abroad, which would make her eligible for the lieutenant governor’s office. Another candidate would likely have to contest her candidacy in the courts to get an official answer on her qualifications, as both the Secretary of State and Attorney General say it’s not their job to enforce constitutional requirements on office holders. 

Gray’s presumed top rival for the Democratic lieutenant governor nomination, outgoing Senate leader Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, has pressed her on her qualifications for the state’s second highest political office, suggesting a lawmaking role would be a more fitting start to her political career. Another challenger, Sen. Debbie Ingram, D-Chittenden, asked Gray directly about her time living in Switzerland during a VPR/PBS debate mid-July.

“I’m both eligible and I’m qualified,” she said. “I was born on a farm in Vermont. I’m a fourth-generation Vermonter. I went to middle school, elementary school, high school, college, law school in Vermont. I lived and worked across our state, and I have maintained my residency since 2011, when I moved back home to Vermont to serve our state.”

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She said that amid a global crisis, she is the ideal candidate to use the LG’s office to build political unity around solutions to the state’s problems, through her relationships with lawmakers, the governor’s office, and the attorney general’s office. This opportunity to be a political unifier, Gray said, is what makes the position more enticing than a more siloed lawmaker seat.

And while Gray may be a newcomer, as this is her first political campaign, she’s not fundraising like one. Gray has brought in close to $200,000 as of July 10, according to the Secretary of State’s Office, far ahead of Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, who was second among LG candidates with $80,000 raised. 

Gray has also been endorsed by a number of powerful political figures, like former Govs. Madeleine Kunin and Peter Shumlin and former Lt. Gov. Doug Racine. And she has the backing of Jane Stetson, one of Vermont’s top Democratic donors, who is a top booster in Vermont of Joe Biden’s candidacy for president. 

Eric Davis, a political scientist and emeritus professor at Middlebury, said this high-level interest so early in Gray’s political career suggested a shared interest in propelling forward a new Democratic figure to higher office. Vermont remains the only state in the United States to have never sent a woman to Congress. 

Ashe, despite having a more typical track record for an LG candidate, isn’t as bright a political star, Davis hypothesized, and as a lawmaker, he represents Vermont’s most urban county. Gray’s rural credentials, having grown up on a family farm, could broaden her appeal, he added. 

“I think some of the support that Molly Gray is getting from the establishment is because people see her — if she’s elected to lieutenant governor — as someone who could be an addition to the Democratic bench, so to speak,” Davis said. 

Gray has also touted her status as would-be newcomer to the Democratic top ranks, and bashed Ashe’s recent record in the Senate. “And I’m running because of your failed record on paid family leave,” she told Ashe during the VPR/PBS debate. “I’m running because Vermonters still don’t have child care. I’m running because a fourth of Vermonters still can’t get online.”

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Also during the debate, Ashe questioned why Gray was running for LG and not a House seat, if passing a paid leave bill, which the Legislature failed to do this past session, was a priority for her. Gray implied that Ashe’s question was sexist.

“Throughout this election people have asked, ‘Molly, why don’t you run for city council, or why don’t you run for the Legislature?’ Those are questions that men ask women running for office,” she said. “No one’s asked Senator Leahy, a 32-year-old prosecutor who was elected by Vermonters to go to Washington and serve our state, whether he had the experience.”

When asked if she had ambitions for higher office, Gray responded: “This is an opportunity to continue to do what I’ve been doing throughout my career, which is to serve Vermont and to continue to do that for the rest of my life.” When pressed for specifics about whether that means she plans to pursue higher office, she said, “I’ve answered your question.” 

But Gray’s political alliances didn’t form out of the blue. They emerged from her years working in and around the political sphere, a career she began even before she graduated from the University of Vermont in 2006, interning for Rep. Peter Welch’s U.S. House re-election run her senior year. 

She was brought on as a scheduler as soon as she graduated, and continued on Welch’s campaign through the summer. She organized his tour of all of Vermont’s towns, which gained him the 251 Club title, for that race. When he later won his campaign that fall — running against Martha Rainville, the former adjutant general of the Vermont National Guard — Gray continued her role as a scheduler and executive assistant for Welch in Washington, D.C. 

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While Welch isn’t officially endorsing her, he contacted VTDigger to express his support for her campaign. 

“Molly was someone we could rely on,” Welch said of her involvement in his campaign. “She has excellent judgment. As I worked with her and got to know her, she was just an extremely positive person.” 

Gray’s initial stay in Washington came at the height of the Iraq War, and Congress was consumed by conversations about weapons of mass destruction and Guantanamo Bay. Gray had a front row seat to these hearings and it sparked her interest in international humanitarian law. So when a job opportunity arose with the International Committee of the Red Cross, she took it. 

Gray’s job was to take U.S. lawmakers to detention centers all over the globe, to help drive their understanding of the sometimes brutal conditions detainees face, and consequently affect the U.S. foreign policy decisions. She would organize trips to the Congo, Uganda, Georgia and other countries where conflicts were taking place. 

But still, she said, she missed home. “Just being far away from my family and being far away from this place,” she said, referencing the farmhouse behind her, which she was born in, “is just extremely hard for me. I decided that I didn’t want to take lawyers to meet with lawyers anymore.”

“I wanted to be the policymaker at the table,” she said. “Or the lawyer at the table who is able to effect change.”

So she came home and enrolled in Vermont Law School, where she focused on human rights law. Upon graduating in 2014 she secured a prestigious clerkship with Judge Peter Hall in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, one step below the Supreme Court. When that clerkship ended a year later, she was one of two United States citizens to be accepted at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, in Geneva, Switzerland, where she earned her Master of Laws in International Law.

Gray returned to Vermont briefly to study for the Vermont bar, which she passed in February 2017, when she was recruited by the International Code of Conduct Association, which she first worked with while studying in Geneva, to launch an international partnership to hold private security companies accountable to human rights laws. 

“It was almost two years of going back and forth between Newbury, Washington — because we were working with Congress as well to get the Department of Defense to change its behavior — Geneva, Baghdad, Nigeria and East Africa to help get this organization off the ground,” Gray said. 

This is the time period that calls into question whether Gray meets the four-year residency requirement to become lieutenant governor. According to several legal experts, they say Gray qualifies, because she never gave up her legal residency in the state. The Vermont Supreme Court has not officially settled whether “resided” — as stated in the Vermont Constitution — means actually living in the state, or can be where one claims legal “residence” while living elsewhere.  

According to voting records obtained by VTDigger, Gray voted in Burlington in 2008. Records show she participated in the 2018 general election, but not in the 2016 election, which occurred toward the end of her first stretch in Switzerland. 

Gray said she had made some attempts to cast an absentee ballot and had followed up with the Newbury town clerk in an email, which was provided to VTDigger, a day before the election. But a ballot was never cast. 

She said the situation was a “huge wake up call” and pointed to a hole in voting accessibility in the state. But she admitted it was also a personal misstep.

“2016 was awful,” she said. “And then to wake up the next morning, yeah, I felt extremely helpless.”

“I’m not proud of it. I learned my lesson. It was extremely frustrating,” she added. “And I’m going to do everything in my power to help Vermonters access voting, not only in this primary but in the general moving forward.” 

Molly Gray at her family’s farm in Newbury on Wednesday, July 8, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Gray said that during her second stretch in Switzerland, the toll of traveling started to affect her again. “I was, I don’t know, sick of living out of a suitcase,” she said. So she started looking for jobs in Vermont and found an opening with the Attorney General’s Office. In August 2018, she was hired as an assistant attorney general in the criminal division. 

And now 36 she’s running for lieutenant governor. So why would her international experience matter to the average Vermonter looking to elect their next lieutenant governor? 

“I feel like all the training and experience I’ve had has led me to wanting to serve our communities,” Gray said. “What Eleanor Roosevelt aptly said as the drafter of the Declaration of Human Rights,” she added. “Where does human rights begin? It begins right here in our communities at home.” 

Gray has taken a different route in life as compared to her family. Her parents, Kim and Bob Gray, run the farm with their two sons, who went to college to study agriculture and returned home. The farmstand, which sits on about 250 acres of fields home to vegetables, fruits and cows, has been operating since 1982. Gray said her family also sells their produce to local farmers markets in Norwich and Hanover.  

When Gray decided she wanted to go to law school, she remembered her father saying, “We don’t need any more lawyers in the world!” 

“I think I surprised them,” she said of her parents’ response. “Working in Washington and fighting for the rights of Guantanamo detainees, you know, that’s a far cry from the farm,” she added. “But I think my dad supports me and fully recognizes that my commitment to getting the skills to become a really effective advocate and leader, it benefits our family, it benefits our community.”

Gray has also become a vocal advocate for a family paid leave plan for Vermonters, a priority shared by the Democratic majority in the Statehouse, but vetoed by Republican Gov. Phil Scott. When she was working as assistant attorney general last year, Gray said she had used up all her vacation days caring for her mother, who has multiple sclerosis, while she was in the hospital. 

While campaigning, she uses this experience to highlight the difficult decision some families have to make between work and caring for a family member. But when it comes to talking about her personal relationship with her mother, and how her caretaking experience has played out, Gray is more reserved. She declined to go into more detail about what the experience has been like.

“I take so much inspiration from her and I care for her and I care for my family. I will do anything for them to make sure they can live as long as possible and age with dignity,” Gray said. “And caring for my mom and caring for my dad is incredibly, incredibly important.” 

Gray’s political ambition hasn’t gone unnoticed by her mentors, one of whom is former Gov. Madeleine Kunin. But Kunin wouldn’t describe Gray as “ambitious” — she thinks the word can be weaponized as a sexist accusation for young women who have achieved success. 

“Especially for women, it can sometimes have a negative connotation,” Kunin said. “But it shouldn’t be. I mean men can be ambitious and that’s laudable. So women should be able to be ambitious, too.” 

Gray speaks with former Gov. Madeleine Kunin at a campaign event in Burlington on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Kunin met Gray when she was a student at UVM. Kunin was teaching a class at the time about women in politics and Gray was a stand-out student, which caught Kunin’s attention. Over the years, they’ve kept in touch, and Gray now considers the former governor a mentor. Kunin has also endorsed Gray for the lieutenant governor position.

Gray said she went to Kunin before officially running for the LG position for advice. Kunin said she was up front with her about the limitations of the post, which she held before becoming governor — whoever is in the role doesn’t have direct impact on policy like lawmakers do. 

Kunin also said that a successful candidate in the lieutenant governor role shouldn’t be spending their time bickering with the governor, if they end up being from opposing parties. She thinks Gray has passion, but enough restraint, to keep a balanced relationship with whoever the governor may be. 

“I don’t think she’s an aggressive fighter. That’s not her personality. But she would certainly speak up for the issues she believes in,” Kunin said. “I think she would get along with the governor of either party. I think, what strikes me, is she’s really passionate about Vermont and improving the lives of Vermonters. And admittedly she’ll be on the sidelines but the sidelines can also have a lot of influence.” 

Kunin was lieutenant governor from 1979 to 1983 when Republican Gov. Richard Snelling held the top spot.

Gray’s most recent boss, Attorney General TJ Donovan, hasn’t endorsed anyone in the Democratic LG race, but he has said that Gray provides an important voice in Vermont’s political debate. 

“That demographic of young people coming back to the state facing those challenges whether it’s student housing, affordable housing, jobs — Molly’s got that lived experience and I think her voice is needed on that,” Donovan said when she announced her candidacy. 

The attorney general later arranged a donation of 250 Chromebooks to her home school district, Orange East Supervisory Union, which he said was spurred by a more general conversation with Gray about the rural connectivity divide. (Gray said she never suggested any donation, and Donovan’s chief of staff said the Agency of Education independently selected the school district.) 

Gray has also made an impression on another colleague in the AG’s office, Alison Stone, a fellow Vermont Law School graduate who is currently assistant attorney general in the environmental division. She and Gray first connected when an admissions coordinator asked Stone, then a student, to speak with Gray who was at the time considering admission to VLS. 

“I can’t say I remember the specific details of that conversation but I know I was so energized by it that after we got off the phone I made a beeline for the admissions office and said this is somebody we need to get to Vermont Law School,” Stone said. “We need to get this person into our community.” 

They reconnected a few years later and became even closer as they bonded over early morning conversations while carpooling to work. 

“She’s also just really real, and she’s very funny. She’s a fun person to be around,” Stone said. “She would come over and ask ‘Do you need a break? Do you want me to watch your kids for an hour while you go for a run?’” 

“She’s just a really good friend,” Stone said. 

Stone said Gray also knows how to have fun. “I convinced her to go to a Shawn Mendes concert with me last year in Montreal on a Tuesday night. I don’t think she really knew who he was, but she knew that I needed a break.” 

But even while they found themselves in a sea of young girls swooning over the pop star, Stone said Gray still managed to find deeper meaning in the teenage heart throb’s lyrics. 

“She looked over and was just like, ‘This is awesome! Shawn Mendes is a feminist!’ As he’s standing up there singing ‘I know I can treat you better’ and all these young women were standing there singing his words back to him,” Stone said. “I was just there for my break, but she was like, this is beautiful in this broader way.” 

Gray chats with Haleigh Franco, of Corinth, who works at the vegetable stand at Four Corners Farm, Gray’s family farm in Newbury on Wednesday, July 8, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Back on Four Corners Farm, where the motto is “All we sell is our own,” Gray meandered around the property, striking up conversations with farmworkers and members of the community stopping by at the farm stand who were asking how she’s been. 

“The corn is so high,” she said, admiring the crop in one of the side pastures. “You know what they usually say, knee high by the Fourth of July?” She recalled the days long before she had any fancy credentials when she would pick vegetables and help run the farm stand as a kid. 

“I did a ton of lawn mowing,” she said. “My dad was always like, ‘Many hands make light work.”

But she admitted that her teenage angst may have drawn her away from the farm later on. “When I got my license I was like ‘I’m going to go make some money scooping ice cream,’” she said. “The place was called the Udder Delight and painted like a cow.” 

But the episode didn’t last long. Gray has been drawn back to Newbury repeatedly throughout her life. 

“I’ve been working hard my entire life. Working hard for Vermont and getting the skills to be a really effective and thoughtful leader and working on the issues,” Gray said. “Be it addressing sexual violence in the Congo or the rights of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, or protecting vulnerable adults here in Vermont.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly described Gray’s voter registration record.

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Grace Elletson

About Grace

Grace Elletson is VTDigger's government accountability reporter, covering politics, state agencies and the Legislature. She is part of the BOLD Women's Leadership Network and a recent graduate of Ithaca College, where she was editor in chief of the Ithacan. She previously interned for the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Christian Science Monitor and The Cape Cod Times, her hometown newspaper.

Email: [email protected]

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