Politics

Senate Democrats raise $20,000 for new staff in virtual fundraiser

Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Ballint, D-Windham, looks on from her desk on the opening day of the Legislature at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Wednesday, January 6, 2021. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Five former leaders of the Vermont Senate and the chamber’s newly elected Senate president pro tempore, Becca Balint, D-Windham, all found themselves in the same virtual room Thursday night.

U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., former Gov. Peter Shumlin, former Lt. Gov. Doug Racine and former senators Tim Ashe and John Campbell — all former pro tems — were among 125 Democratic donors, elected officials and guests who attended a fundraiser to benefit Senate Democratic electoral efforts. 

Balint, who made history in January when she became the first woman and openly gay person to lead the Senate, was the center of attention throughout the event. The former leaders took turns telling stories about their time in office, and feting the new leader.

“She's only the third president pro tem from the forgotten kingdom,” Shumlin said, referring to Balint and her district, Windham County. The former governor, who hails from Putney, used to represent the county himself.

“And you have to remember that, finally, we have a woman,” Shumlin said. “I mean, my God, what took us so long?”

The event, which brought in just over $20,000 for the Vermont Democratic Party, was the first fundraiser hosted by Senate Democrats in years.

While House Democrats have typically held fundraisers during the legislative session, that hasn’t been a tradition among senators. But Democratic leaders in the chamber said that raising money is a priority going forward.

“I'm taking this on as a real issue that we need to address,” said Senate Majority Leader Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor. 

In particular, she believes Senate Democrats need to raise money to hire staff and to help fund future campaigns. The money raised Thursday night will help cover the cost of two part-time legislative aides for Senate Democrats; they were hired late last month.

Unlike House Democrats, who typically invite Statehouse lobbyists to attend and donate to their annual fundraiser, Senate Democrats decided to bar lobbyists and members of special-interest groups from the event. 

Under campaign finance law, lawmakers can’t ask for money from the people or firms who are lobbying them while the Legislature is in session. But political parties and some political action committees can. 

During the House Democrats’ annual mid-session fundraiser, the “Speaker’s Soiree,” legislators haven’t directly accepted money from lobbyists. But lobbyists have still been able to attend the fundraiser and skirt the law by giving money to the Democratic Party, instead of elected officials.

However, Clarkson said Senate Democrats “felt more comfortable” dividing “in-session and out-of-session” fundraising efforts.

“And in-session, we are going to focus on just raising money from individuals, and out-of-session from everybody,” Clarkson said.

Balint echoed Clarkson, saying that senators “all agreed that the thing that felt the most comfortable to us was making it very clear it was for individual donors.” 

Among the major Democratic donors attending Thursday’s event were Bill Stetson and David Blittersdorf. Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, House Speaker Jill Krowinski and other members of the House also took part.

Attendees were free to pay any price they chose to get into the virtual fundraiser, according to organizers. The Democratic Party said a list of donors wasn’t available, though the party will eventually have to publicly report all donations. 

While the fundraiser didn’t take place in-person at a convention center or hotel, its organizers tried to re-create the experience of mingling by splitting off virtual attendees into small “breakout” rooms, where they could briefly introduce themselves to Democratic senators. 

The newly hired Senate staffers are each working 10 hours per week. They will help Democrats track what’s going on across Senate committees, set up virtual meetings with constituents and assist legislators on social media, according to Clarkson.

Balint said senators need the staff members to help communicate information to their constituents about government programs and policies being discussed in the Legislature. She noted that she has a single taxpayer-funded employee in her official role — chief of staff Carolyn Wesley — while the 29 other senators have no dedicated staff. 

“The job has increased dramatically in the last five years or so,” Balint said. “Thousands of emails, texts, social media. We get a tsunami of requests for information and updates. We don't have any staff to help us manage our inboxes to help us keep constituents informed.”

While the new staff members aren’t directly responding to constituent emails, Clarkson said, they will help get the facts about pressing issues to senators so they can craft personal responses for those they represent.

Speaking about Thursday’s event, Balint said several Democratic senators have told her this may be their last term in office. For that reason, she said, it’s important to cultivate relationships with donors now, so they’re ready to support new candidates down the line.

Balint said the party would need to have money available to help candidates who may have a hard time fundraising. She said studies show that, on average, women running for office aren’t able to raise as much money as men. 

“I want to make sure we're getting closer to parity in the Senate, in terms of gender balance,” Balint said. “I want to make sure that any candidate who's interested in running is not put at a disadvantage, as a woman, because she's not going to be able to raise as much money.”

House Democrats plan to hold their “Speaker’s Soiree” on Feb. 26.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Sen. Balint's title in a photo caption.

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Xander Landen

About Xander

Xander Landen is VTDigger's political reporter. He previously worked at the Keene Sentinel covering crime, courts and local government. Xander got his start in public radio, writing and producing stories for NPR affiliates including WBUR in Boston and WNYC in New York. While at WNYC, he contributed to an award-winning investigation of how police departments shield misconduct records from the public. He is a graduate of Tufts University and his work has also appeared in PBS NewsHour and The Christian Science Monitor.

Email: [email protected]

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