Politics

Women of color running for office push for inclusion and advocacy for marginalized groups

Kesha Ram Hinsdale speaks at a press conference on Wednesday. She was among seven women of color who are running as Democratic candidates for various offices across Vermont who gathered at the Statehouse. Photo by Lia Chien/VTDigger

Seven Democratic candidates for various offices across Vermont gathered at the Statehouse Wednesday morning, all unified by two characteristics: They’re all women of color running in a historic election season.

They stood beneath the portrait of Alexander Twilight, the first portrait of a person of color in the Statehouse and the first person of color to serve in the Vermont Legislature. 

Kesha Ram Hinsdale, who was the first woman of color to serve in the state Senate and briefly ran for Congress this year before dropping back to a state Senate run, began the press conference by highlighting the fact that there are no portraits of women of color in the Statehouse.

“We are here, we exist,” Ram Hinsdale said. “And we’re excited to use our voice in the Legislature to make a difference in this critical time for our state and for our nation.”

Seven candidates for various offices across Vermont gathered at the Statehouse Friday morning, all unified by two characteristics: They’re all women of color running in a historic election season. Photo by Lia Chien/VTDigger

Throughout the event, Proposals 2 and 5 — proposed amendments to the Vermont Constitution — were the issues most highlighted by the candidates. This November, voters will decide whether to add amendments to the state constitution that prohibit slavery (Proposal 2) and protect the right to reproductive autonomy (Proposal 5). 

Jessie Nakuma Palcsewski, who is running for one of Franklin County’s two Senate seats, would be the first Latina woman to serve in the state Senate if elected.

Palcesweski urged passage of the two constitutional amendments. “When we don't codify our rights in our constitution, they can be taken away,” she said, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court decision last month to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, which guaranteed abortion rights.

Lauren Dees Erickson speaks at the press conference. Photo by Lia Chien/VTDigger

Beyond the constitutional amendments, the candidates emphasized that their campaigns would bring more change and support to the most vulnerable Vermonters.

Rep. Rey Garofano of Essex, who was appointed in January and is now running uncontested to hold onto her seat, is the first woman of Middle Eastern descent to serve in the Vermont House. She described her work in the past legislative session in support of affordable housing, mental health supports and workforce development.

Garofano said those issues “disproportionately impact people of color in Vermont” and that she looks forward to continuing that work in the next legislative session.

Similarly, Leonora Dodge, a House candidate in Garofano’s same two-seat Essex district, emphasized the need to bring equitable living conditions to Vermonters of color. If elected, Dodge would be the second Latina woman to serve in the House.

The candidates hope to make history in their run for public office. Photo by Lia Chien/VTDigger

“Our housing expansion must take into account the needs of new Vermonters,” she said. “And we must ensure that communities of color have access to fresh food, green spaces and clean air and water.”

Several candidates said Vermont’s population growth is largely due to people of color moving to the state, and if elected, they would work to make the state feel like home for those new and diverse residents. 

According to the 2020 census, populations rose for all racial and ethnic categories in Vermont except for “white alone.” But the candidates who gathered at the Statehouse made it clear that people of color still face significant challenges.

“We want Vermont to be a safe, welcoming and inclusive place, but then when folks of color come here, they are oftentimes met with the harsh reality that there are some folks who don't believe in that,” said House candidate Saudia LaMont, who would be the first Black woman to represent the towns in the newly drawn Lamoille-Washington district.

Sianay Chase Clifford speaks during VTDigger’s debate between U.S. House Democratic primary candidates at the Double E Performance Center in Essex in June. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Many of the candidates gathered at the Statehouse have an easy path to the November election, but others have competition in the Aug. 9 primary election.

In the new Chittenden Southeast Senate district, Ram Hinsdale is competing among five candidates for three seats. She had been one of the six senators representing the Chittenden County mega-district, which no longer exists; that district has been replaced by three districts, two with a trio of senators and the third with only one.

And in the race for Vermont’s lone seat in the U.S. House — which has never been held by a woman, let alone a woman of color — Sianay Chase Clifford is competing with Dr. Louis Meyers as well as two current office holders with broad name recognition: Lt. Gov. Molly Gray and Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham.

Others could face competition in the general election. Palcsewski and House candidate Lauren Dees-Erickson are both set to advance, but both are set to face off with current legislators in battleground Franklin County districts in November. LaMont, in the Lamoille-Washington district, is set to join four candidates vying for two seats.

Saudia LaMont speaks on Wednesday. Photo by Lia Chien/VTDigger

Yet, as these candidates face their own unique campaign challenges, they said they recognize similar obstacles they face as women of color in government.

At Wednesday’s press conference, Ram Hinsdale spoke about former state representative Kiah Morris, the second Black woman to serve in the state Legislature, who faced harassment in her hometown of Bennington and eventually resigned from office. Ram Hinsdale said racial harassment is a pressing issue that Vermont politicians must solve. 

“It is getting scarier and more dangerous for women to run for office, and particularly women of color,” she said.

Ram Hinsdale pointed to efforts by the Vermont Office of Racial Equity to gather data about harassment of political candidates and politicians. That data would form the basis of efforts to make Vermont more welcoming to diverse experiences.

“We don't know what we need to tackle unless we have the data,” she said.

Kesha Ram Hinsdale speaks in front of the Alexander Twilight portrait. Photo by Lia Chien/VTDigger

Many of the candidates said they want to make public office more accessible to people of color. 

“If you feel strongly about something, you should run; you should put yourself out there,” said Dees-Erickson, who would be the first Black woman to represent St. Albans. “It's not out of the realm of possibility.”

Chase Clifford said, “We need to have folks at the table who know what it feels like to be left out of those conversations. Who know what it feels like to try to put together a life in a state that sometimes isn't always the most welcoming.”

And while the candidates have different backgrounds and experiences, they are united in their commitment to working for the most vulnerable Vermonters. 

“When we meet the needs of the most marginalized, we meet the needs of everyone,” said LaMont.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated where the candidates stood during the press conference.

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Lia Chien

About Lia

Lia Chien is a student at American University in Washington, where she is majoring in journalism and working on the student newspaper, the Eagle. A resident of Bolton, she also was the editor of the Profile at Mount Mansfield Union High school and comes to VTDigger as a Dow Jones News Fund intern.

Email: [email protected]

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