Politics

Senate Democrats nominate Balint as first woman and openly gay pro tem

Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham County, at her desk at the Statehouse in Montpelier in May 2019, will be the next Senate president pro tem. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The Vermont Senate Democratic caucus named an all-female leadership team Sunday during a virtual meeting, unanimously nominating Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham, to be the upper chamber’s next pro tempore and picking Sen. Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor, as the new majority leader.

Because Democrats will hold an overwhelming majority of 23 seats out of 30 in the next biennium, the caucus choices will be the Senate’s new leaders. Republicans hold seven seats.

“I’m really honored to work on behalf of all of you and all Vermonters,” Balint said after she was nominated. “I’ll work hard, as hard as I can, to build a strong team within the Senate, one that values the skills and the experiences we each bring.”

Statehouse leadership took shape Sunday, just over a month before the next legislative session begins. Senate Democrats also chose the third member of the powerful three-person Committee on Committees that decides who will chair policy committees for the next two years.

The Democratic caucus also chose Sen. Cheryl Hooker, D/P-Rutland, as the assistant majority leader — the caucus whip.

Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle, will return to his role as the third member of the Committee on Committees, which sets the state of play for the upper chamber — including decisions about who will chair committees. 

Mazza joins Balint and Lt. Gov.-elect Molly Gray on the panel.

Balint and Gray replace Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman and Senate leader Tim Ashe who leave office at the end of the year. Clarkson takes over the reins of majority leader from Balint.

When Gray is sworn in in January, she will be the fourth woman to serve as lieutenant governor. Balint will be the first woman and the first openly gay person to hold the pro tem position in Vermont’s history.

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“With all due respect to Sen. Dick Mazza, I’m really excited about the fact that our Senate leadership is primarily made up of women these days and I expect the same will be true in the House of Representatives, as well as in the lieutenant governor’s office,” said Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington.

“It’s really a new day and a new form of leadership,” Pollina said.

While Balint ran unopposed and has been the presumptive Senate leader for months, there had been a three-way race for head of the Democratic caucus, involving Sens. Clarkson, Chris Pearson, P/D-Chittenden; and Brian Campion, D-Bennington. 

However, that contest ended with a unanimous vote for Clarkson on Sunday, and both Pearson and Campion expressed their support for the Windsor County Democrat.

Pearson said he had been thinking about the challenges facing the Legislature, particularly dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic and mending the economy.

“I’m pleased to support Alison,” Pearson said. “It’s my observation that working closely together is how the Senate has significant power and influence and it gives us the best shot at these challenges.”

In the runup to the election, both Clarkson and Campion had said it was important to have a Democrat lead the caucus — a shot at Pearson, who is a hybrid Progressive Democrat.

This election year has not been particularly kind to Progressives. The head of the House Progressive caucus, Robin Chesnut-Tangerman of Middletown Springs, lost his reelection campaign, though the Progressives were able to keep seven seats — the same number they have now in the 150-member House. Zuckerman, a Progressive Democrat, lost in a landslide to Republican Gov. Phil Scott and Ashe lost to Gray in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor. 

“Let me reach out to our Progressive colleagues,” Clarkson said in her acceptance remarks. “We value your membership in our caucus and I thank Chris Pearson for his commitment to our collaboration, as evidenced by his vigorous run for its leadership.”

In the House, Democratic Majority Leader Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, is the party’s only remaining candidate to become the next speaker of the House, where Democrats hold 92 of the 150 seats. Krowinski and others had put their names forward after House Speaker Mitzi Johnson lost her reelection bid, but the others dropped out.

House Democrats are expected to nominate Krowinski Dec. 5 during a caucus that will also decide who will be the next House majority leader.

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Kit Norton

About Kit

Kit Norton is the general assignment reporter at VTDigger. He is originally from eastern Vermont and graduated from Emerson College in 2017 with a degree in journalism. In 2016, he was a recipient of The Society of Environmental Journalists' Emerging Environmental Journalist award. Kit has worked at PRI's weekly radio environmental program, Living on Earth, and has written for the online news site Truthout.

Email: [email protected]

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