Politics

Vermont’s left is split on US House candidates — but unified in opposition to Molly Gray

Clockwise from top left: State Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden, Sianay Chase Clifford, Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, and Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham. File photos

Lt. Gov. Molly Gray didn’t attend the Vermont Progressive Party’s state committee meeting on Saturday. But she was certainly a topic of conversation. 

Three of Gray’s opponents in the Democratic primary for Vermont’s sole U.S. House seat were there to seek the endorsement of the state’s left-wing third party. After introductory remarks from the candidates — Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, state Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden, and Sianay Chase Clifford — the event turned to questions. 

One party member, Chris Brimmer, asked: Would any of them run in the general election as a Progressive candidate if the Democratic nomination went to Gray?

“I want someone on the ballot that will hold her feet to the fire,” he said. “And as far as I can tell, she is 100% astroturf, and I really want to know where the money's coming from.”

Both Balint and Ram Hinsdale said they wouldn’t run as a third-party candidate if they failed to clinch the Democratic nomination. But they were still eager to take shots at Gray.

“I think it would be an absolute catastrophe if the candidate representing us on the left was Molly Gray. She is a corporatist Democrat,” said Balint. “I think we are starting to see exactly where her money is coming from. And it is not a good thing.” 

Ram Hinsdale said she had spent “political capital” to call out Gray’s donors. In an April fundraising email to Ram Hinsdale’s supporters, the campaign called out a $5,000 contribution to Gray’s campaign from a political action committee for American Crystal Sugar. (The missive, in particular, focused on the PAC’s generous donations to Republicans who voted against certifying the 2020 election.)

“People in D.C. are already looking at me, already mad, saying ‘(Ram Hinsdale) seems like someone who's not going to be a team player. Big sugar isn't that bad, big sugar gives to Democrats and Republicans,’” Ram Hinsdale said. 

Josh Wronski, the executive director of the Vermont Progressive Party, told VTDigger that neither Balint nor Ram Hinsdale is seen widely by party members as progressive champions, although they are seen as allies.

“I think one of the arguments absolutely is: Who's the strongest candidate to beat Molly? You know, who's the strongest progressive candidate who most reflects our values?” he said.

In an interview with VTDigger on Wednesday, Gray rolled her eyes at the phrase “corporatist Democrat” and argued, “Vermonters want fewer labels and more action.” 

“The biggest challenge right now with Congress is that we see Democrats attacking each other,” she said.

Her campaign has responded in the past to the scrutiny she has received for her donors by saying those connections are a reflection of her time on Capitol Hill, where she was a staffer for U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt. 

“I'm proud to have the support of Vermonters from over 210 towns,” Gray said Wednesday. “I'm also proud to have the support of a lot of Vermonters in Washington D.C. and supporters of (U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.) and Congressman Welch.”

Like Balint and Ram Hinsdale, Gray has signed on to some of the national progressive movement’s signature platforms, including Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. But she is nevertheless increasingly viewed as the establishment pick. 

D.C. insiders fundraising on her behalf — and the corporate lobbyists who have generously given in kind — have attracted attention from the media and other campaigns. (Balint and Ram Hinsdale have also taken money from lobbyists, although far less.) And while Gray has not explicitly identified herself as the race’s centrist, her campaign’s emphasis on her perceived strength as a general election candidate implies it. 

The candidate, too, has occasionally drawn contrasts that cast her in a more moderate light. At one recent debate, for example, Gray went out of her way to say she did not support defunding the police and pointedly asked another candidate where she stood on the matter. “We need to be investing in public safety,” Ram Hinsdale replied.

Balint and Ram Hinsdale, meanwhile, have been jockeying for months to capture the party’s left wing. Both sponsored high-profile progressive legislation over the course of the last legislative session — on ranked choice voting, for example, and a measure to ban qualified immunity. Both efforts failed.

The two have also sought — and won — several major labor endorsements. (Gray has received the backing of one union, and could earn more.) Ram Hinsdale has also received nods from former congressional candidate Nina Turner, a co-chair of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign, and U.S. House Progressive Caucus chair U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash.

Ram Hinsdale herself on Saturday acknowledged the hesitance some may feel about her, telling party members in the meeting she might even have “the most complicated relationship” with progressives of all the candidates present. Ram Hinsdale did not elaborate, but she has clashed with the party in the past when she ran against Sen. Chris Pearson, D-Chittenden, and former Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, both Progressive stalwarts.

“At the same time, I feel like it's fair to say there's probably no one who spent more political capital holding the Democratic Party accountable publicly — particularly in recent years,” she said, noting, for example, the steps she had taken to criticize Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, her old boss, on police reform.

Balint, too, acknowledged that she was not a member of the Progressive Party, but said she was “completely in alignment” with its platform, and said that her “top priorities” would be investments in housing, Medicare for All, climate change, as well as reproductive rights and racial and economic justice.

“But fundamentally, the reason why I am running right now is because our democracy is completely and totally in danger right now,” she said. “We are watching the Republic slip away.”

Chase Clifford, a former aide to U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., has seized on the Progressives’ apparent ambivalence toward both Balint and Ram Hinsdale.

“There are candidates who have run before and haven't sought your endorsement until now, until it's become politically convenient. In this, my very first campaign, I reached out to you all first,” Chase Clifford told party members at Saturday’s meeting.

But even if left-wing politicos believe that Chase Clifford is the candidate whose values most closely align with theirs, she also has the least likely path to the Democratic nomination. A recent survey of likely voters found her polling at less than 1%, and she has fundraised a tiny sum compared to Gray, Balint and Ram Hinsdale.

To the question of whether she would stay on the general election ballot as a Progressive, Chase Clifford said she’d consider it.

The party’s executive committee members have until Friday to cast their ballots and decide who will get their stamp of approval. Wronski noted that an endorsement requires a two-thirds majority to agree, a threshold perhaps no candidate will meet.

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Lola Duffort

About Lola

Lola Duffort is a political reporter for VTDigger, covering Vermont state government, the congressional delegation and elections. She previously covered education for Digger, the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire and the Rutland Herald. She has also freelanced for the Miami Herald in Florida, where she grew up. She is a graduate of McGill University in Canada.

Email: [email protected]

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