Politics

Vermont Conversation: Becca Balint on her race to defend democracy and make history

Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, Democratic candidate for U.S. House, greets supporters at a polling place in South Burlington on primary day, Tuesday, Aug. 9. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The Vermont Conversation with David Goodman is a VTDigger podcast that features in-depth interviews on local and national issues with politicians, activists, artists, changemakers and citizens who are making a difference. Listen below, and subscribe on Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcasts or Spotify to hear more.

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Becca Balint is on the cusp of making history. On Aug. 9, Balint decisively won the Democratic primary for Vermont’s at-large U.S. House seat, defeating Lt. Gov. Molly Gray by a margin of 24 points. If she wins the general election in November, Balint will become the first woman and the first openly gay person to represent Vermont in the U.S. Congress. Vermont is the only state that has never elected a woman to Congress. 

Becca Balint was born in a U.S. Army hospital in Germany where her father was stationed and grew up in upstate New York. She earned a Bachelor of Arts from Smith College, a master’s in education from Harvard and a master’s in history from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She came to Vermont in the 1990s to be a rock climbing instructor at the Farm and Wilderness Camp in Plymouth, where she met her future wife, attorney Elizabeth Wohl. Balint went on to become a middle school teacher and in 2014 was elected state senator from Windham County. She served as Senate majority leader and is currently the Senate president pro tempore. She, her wife and their two children live in Brattleboro. 

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 

David Goodman  

On election night you told your supporters, “It's finally our time.” What did you mean?

Becca Balint  

I was speaking about the pent up frustration of so many Vermonters who have wanted to see a woman in Congress, and also thinking about the LGBTQ community across the state and representation, but also just about regular people. I talked a lot with Vermonters on the campaign trail about how important it is, given the level of dysfunction in Washington, to make sure that we have people who aren't jaded, aren't part of the system, and just want to go and do good work on behalf of Vermonters. I heard time and time again as I talked to people how nice it was for them to feel like they understood that I was someone who came up as a teacher and understood the struggles of regular families in Vermont. It was a lot of emotion for me that night. And of course history-making but also just on a personal level feeling so proud of the work that my team and all our supporters had done.

A lot is being written right now about the history-making dimension of your candidacy. Does that weigh on you? 

There's a jumble of emotions. I am feeling the weight of that, but I think it's about me wanting to do a really good job on behalf of Vermonters. When you are an elected official you have this incredible sense of responsibility to do your job well. That’s the weight I'm feeling probably more than anything. In terms of the potential history-making dynamic of this, the way that I'm thinking about it is I want to make it easier for whoever's coming up behind me, whether it is a woman, whether it is a person of color, whether it's a queer person, whether it is someone from a working class background, I want to do whatever I can to make it easier for that person to run. That's the weight and responsibility that I feel right now.

You won the Democratic primary by 24 points. That is more than a win — it is a statement. What do you think this statement is from Vermont voters?

I've thought about this a lot because I did think it would be closer because it felt like a very competitive race. But the numbers match what we had been feeling internally throughout the campaign. Our very first internal poll showed us up by almost 20 points. And what we heard time and time again was that people wanted somebody with experience, really working with other people to get hard work done. I did have a record of accomplishment in the Senate, but also I think it really resonated with people that I was a teacher and had spent time working in four different rural public schools and understood the struggles of families. Those are things I heard back in real time from voters. The other thing that I heard was: We are so glad that you're running a positive campaign, that your love of people, the joy of your staff and the work that they're doing on behalf of Vermonters, your real concentration on being both courageous and kind. I can't tell you how many people at events would come up to me and say, That is exactly what I'm feeling right now, that I need to be more courageous, that I need to be more kind. 

People are tired of being angry. People are tired of being fearful. People would say to me, I'm so tired of being distrustful of my neighbors. I want to be able to talk to my neighbors again. Me being able to say, I've got Republicans, Democrats, Progressives, independents, nonvoters supporting me in this campaign — I think people really needed to feel that sense of we can do things differently, we have to do things differently in the way that we talk to one another. 

As much as people resonated with that message, they also wanted to make sure that I wasn't naïve and that I knew what I was getting into. And I always said to them, Hey, you can't be a woman or a queer person in this nation and be naïve because there are times when you're just beat down all the time. So for me, it's not about naivete. It's about we as a nation know where it's going to end up if we continue on this path of fear mongering. We have examples in history. That's what I think this vote was about. It was about the experience. It was about the style of the campaign. It was about who I am as a person and what I brought to the table. 

A pivotal moment in the campaign came in May when Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale withdrew and backed you. Tell us the backstory of that decision. When did you and Sen. Ram Hinsdale begin discussing the possibility of her withdrawal and endorsement?

I think you're going to be surprised to hear that my team actually didn't have any inkling of that until the day that the deadline came for getting names on the ballot. We were getting ready for a forum in Shelburne, and Kesha, who is a friend, sent me a text and said, Hey, I'd love to chat today. I said, Great, how about I call you in 45 minutes? And she said, No, no, no, I want to do it in person. We're in the midst of a heated campaign. So I said to Natalie (Silver), my campaign manager, Oh my gosh, what do they have on us? Like they were tipping their ace card. Then it was clear that she wanted to just have an in-person sit down at her house and talk about the race. We got there and there were a couple other people in the room who were close to Kesha. And we just talked about the state of the race. She felt in looking at where her campaign was in terms of momentum, in terms of dollars, and where we were, she had made a very difficult decision. 

It's not easy to decide to drop out and pivot. I think she had had a lot of really intense conversations with her family and with her team and it seems like it crystallized for her in that previous 24 hours that she actually wanted to go back to the state Senate. She felt like she had work to do there. There were about 10 senators who had decided to retire and there was a real need for somebody who understood more of how the Legislature works. It all happened so quickly. She said, “So I'm going to drop out. I'm going to endorse you, and I want to get on the state ballot.” So we actually sent our campaign team out in the field to help her gather the signatures to get on the state ballot. It happened in just a couple hours. It was her story to tell. She wanted to do it on TV and with us together. It was a whirlwind day. When we woke up that morning, we had no idea what she'd been thinking about, and by the end of the day, we had that really beautiful piece on the TV news with us standing together by the lake

For me, it was such a great model for politicians generally about how we can do this. We don't need to tear each other down. We don't need to eat our own. For her to stand with me and for me to see her graciousness in doing that and then to have her say to me at an event, “I learned from Becca that sometimes you have to be a fighter. Sometimes you have to be a defender. And sometimes you have to be a peacemaker.” It felt so wonderful for me to see that she saw the work that I had been trying to do in the state Senate. My team felt like this was a game changer for us. 

Do you think you would have won had Ram Hinsdale not pulled out? 

It's always hard to say. I do feel like I had assembled the best campaign team. My field team, the people working for me and my surrogates were phenomenal. So I do think in the end, we would have eked out a win. But it would have been much more challenging. Obviously, there were so many voters who have told us that they were trying to decide between the two of us. We felt like that day really kickstarted the momentum that carried us through and we just kept building and building and building after that in quick succession. A lot of her donors or endorsers came to us. It was a tremendous day for all of us. We felt really good about how that all unfolded.

Bill McKibben wrote a piece in The Nation shortly after saying that what you and Ram Hinsdale did was a model for progressive candidates. I will just add that this never happens. Right here in New England we have the example of Paul LePage, a very extremist, right wing governor of Maine who won twice because he ran in three-way races with both of the other candidates to the left of him. He never would have won had one of those candidates backed out. Three-ways are wildly unpredictable and you can have candidates win who otherwise wouldn't have a chance. But enough about the primary. You introduced us in your campaign to your grandfather Leo Balint, who died in the Holocaust. Tell us about how your grandfather's experience affected you and your family growing up and how it informs your work today.

Leopold was incarcerated at the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. I have traveled there, and I've seen the town and the camp where he was. I went there in high school. To see the camps and all the horrors that were happening there and how close they were to the town, and just trying to understand how do people integrate these horrors into everyday life? The pieces of the story that always resonated with me the deepest were that they were on a forced march from the camp. In the waning days of the war, the Nazis were trying to outrun the Allies, and he stayed behind on part of the walk to try to help another prisoner who had fallen behind. They were warned that if they didn't catch up, they would be punished. And he put the man's arm around him and carried him for a little ways. And then they were both shot to death. They never recovered the bodies. They were thrown into the Danube River. 

I tell this in this graphic way because for me, knowing those two things, one, that my grandmother never got to bury her husband, there is no place to go to honor him. And also that we had eyewitnesses who saw it happen, who were able to get the story to my grandmother after the war. That's always been a story of how does someone continue to be humane even in the midst of depravity? How did he have the strength to make that decision, regardless of what was going to happen to him, to try to help this man and alleviate his suffering? I fixated on that for a lot of my life: How did he have the strength to do that? 

I've come to understand in my life that that is actually the wrong question to ask myself. Very few of us will be faced with such a stark choice in our lives. The real question is: Do we have the strength day in and day out to be kind to people, to be humane to people, even when they are disagreeing with us politically, even when they maybe are treating us disrespectfully? That is something that has really guided me since I turned 40, this sense of how do I really embody that in my own life? 

I don't always hit the mark. Sometimes I'm a jerk just like anyone else. But I try to lead with a sense of deep compassion. When somebody is saying horrible things about me or someone that I love, what is underneath it? What is their hurt? And how do I continue to show up as someone with deep humanity even in those hard moments? That really is part of the campaign of leading with both courage and kindness. It’s about not giving in to those basic human emotions of fear and anger and hate.

As your profile raises both in Vermont and outside the state, have you received threats that go beyond name calling?

There was one email that came to both me and Sen. Ram Hinsdale when we were in the state Senate last year that was from a white nationalist in New Hampshire, targeting her because she is a woman of color and also of Jewish descent, and me as a gay person of Jewish descent. That was the first really direct one that I got. We turned it over to the Capitol police. I don't read my social media comments unless they're positive. My team flags positive things to read. I know there's hate out there. When we were passing the reproductive rights bills here in Vermont, we all got called horrible, horrible names. One of the most disturbing comments that I got repeatedly was likening my championing of reproductive rights to me being a Nazi. It's just this twisting of history and of experience. 

I know as my profile raises that there will be more vitriol and anger coming my way. And I actually was thinking this morning about how I want to reach out to some folks in Congress (to discuss) how to stay true to myself and my values even when that onslaught of hate and anger comes. Because I'm certain there are people, certainly women and men of color in Congress, who are getting that on a regular basis. 

If you are elected to Congress, you'll be serving alongside many of the 147 Republican members of Congress who voted to overturn the election results of 2020. These include people like Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz, Lauren Boebert and Scott Perry, who seem to consider a primary part of their job to be provocateurs and trolls. How do you find common ground with them?

I talked with Congressman (Peter) Welch, Congresswoman Sharice Davids (D-Kansas) and David Cicilline (D-RI). I've gotten close to some members of Congress over the last six months, and people have been very kind in talking with me about some of this stuff. And what they said was, there are definitely people that you don't find common ground with. The shorthand is, don't waste time on those people who are there for ego or to be provocateurs. But there are people on the other side of the aisle that are trying to do good work on behalf of their constituents back home. It's always about trying to find the overlap, whether it's on agricultural issues or small town life or how do we have a green economy that works for a rural area. That being said, Congressman Welch did say to me that the way things are now is not the way it was even 10 years ago, and you have to be very selective about how you spend your time. 

I'm very curious about what's going to happen in the midterms. I'm feeling really hopeful that we're going to have a strong showing of Democrats in the midterms because of what has happened with the Dobbs decision. I certainly was pleasantly surprised by what happened in Kansas. I'm someone who watches and learns. That's how I was able to be effective in the state Senate. You come in. You figure out who's got hard power, who's got soft power. How are decisions being made? Who are those people that you need to build relationships with to get work done? 

I want to be effective. I don't want to be part of an ego driven narrative about me in Congress and who I am. This is about Vermonters. I've been very clear about that with Vermonters who ask: How are you going to lead? I'm going to lead in a way that's effective. And the way that I'm going to do that is to watch and learn for the first few months and build a network of other people who've been effective who can help guide me. I'm so grateful that I'm going to be coming in after both Congressman Welch and Sen. Sanders, both of whom served in the House and can help me build those relationships.

Many of your Congressional colleagues will have won their seats on the basis of having run as election deniers, and you are going to be in committee with people who deny the reality of the 2020 election. How do you respond to a colleague when they state that in a public forum?

It has to be about constantly bringing folks back to reality and not giving in to the anger or the vitriol because that's what they want. They want to increase the level of engagement to a point where it's just two people yelling at each other. But if you are not willing to do that and you are just able to dismiss out of hand like, That's not true. These are the facts, and just continue to do that. I'm not saying that that's going to be able to turn people around. I'm really thinking about how do you use this position to communicate outside of that room. If somebody is going to try to overturn norms in such a grotesque way, how do we bring it back into alignment? 

I read a really interesting op-ed the other day about how some Trump voters actually are starting to think differently now based on the fact that President Trump took classified documents out of the White House. For them it is opening up a crack, that maybe he's not the man that they thought he was. For me, it's always about looking at those tiny shifts in perception. None of us want to admit that we're wrong. I don't care what your political affiliation is. It's the human condition. For me, I really want to be so direct and level headed and think about how am I communicating not just with my colleagues, but with people outside of that room. Because I think most Americans are not happy with where we're at, regardless of political affiliation.

You just returned from a break in Wyoming, which has been in the news lately as the home of Congresswoman Liz Cheney, who has had a very high profile as the vice chair of the January 6 Committee. Tell us about your Wyoming connection and what you heard in your conversations there that surprised you.

My wife grew up in a relatively small town in Wyoming. It is interesting to spend time in Vermont and in Wyoming. They are very similar in many ways. They are very community minded. They're focused on helping your neighbors. We actually lived for a while in Casper, Wyoming, when Elizabeth was clerking for a federal judge. So I know Wyoming pretty well. It is, of course, politically very, very different. On this most recent visit that we had there, the subject of Liz Cheney's defeat in the primary just happened two days earlier. My family are Wyoming Democrats, and it is like being a fish out of water. But my family and extended family all switched their party affiliations so that they could vote for Liz Cheney in the primary because they wanted somebody who was not an election denier. Republicans always win the federal elections in Wyoming. They were pretty devastated that Representative Cheney not just lost but that she lost in a landslide.

She lost by 38 points. 

Exactly. I want to be really clear here: These are people who never ever have supported Liz Cheney and disagree with her on just about every other policy, as do I. It is the level of governmental dysfunction right now that you've got hardcore Democrats voting for Liz Cheney, because she believes in the Constitution. It's an important bar, but it's a low bar for an elected official. So it's been interesting to watch my relatives who love the West, love the western landscape and sensibility of live and let live, do your own thing. This election defeat of Liz Cheney has really shaken them, and they just don't know if they can make a life out there anymore if they are not able to find common ground with neighbors around issues as direct as constitutional rights and upholding fair elections. It's really shaken them to their core. 

Why is this such a gut check? Liz Cheney votes with Trump 93% of the time. They knew they were in a political minority. Why is it so unsettling to the point of thinking they need to leave? I ask that because I think this is going on all around the country. We're now living in a country where half of the states have outlawed abortion rights. The country is splitting along the lines of where women have rights and where they don't.

I think for them it's the sense of, if we can't even agree on what it means to have a president who is not just an election denier, but is encouraging other people to deny any election outcomes that aren't in line with what they want, how are we any different from autocrats around the globe? How are we any different from any other authoritarian regime? You have allies of Trump that are looking to Viktor Orban in Hungary as the model for going forward. If we don't have elected officials who uphold and support the Constitution, if any time an election doesn't go their way they will say it was rigged, then what have we got? We don't have a functioning government anymore. It is deeply terrifying to so many people. 

Why is it (Trump’s loss) as opposed to all those other issues — reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights? That's the reason why my wife and I don't live in Wyoming. We have family there, and they have wanted us to live there. Why would we live there when in Vermont, we and our children have so many more rights and protections? Why is it this? People really do feel that democracy itself is on a precipice and it’s terrifying.

How concerned are you about the threat of fascism, neo-Nazism, white nationalism in America, especially since you have this family history with the Holocaust? 

I think about it all the time. Democracies don't fail overnight. Countries don't become autocratic or fascist overnight. It happens little by little, as norms are eroded, as rights are taken away, as democratic ideals are upended. The playbook that Trump used in this election was put into play months before the votes were ever cast. Steve Bannon was saying, Here's what we're going to do, we're going to deny the election. And we're just going to keep saying it over and over and over again. Now we see across the nation in these primary contests the same kind of conversations happening. 

I don't think you can be an engaged citizen right now and not think that we are sliding toward a place where democracy is not functioning anymore. I don't let that fear drive me away from the news. Even some of the people that I really look up to in my life can't read the news anymore. For me, it's about being clear eyed and also saying: This is a time when I need to be not turning away. I need all of us who have the energy, who have the strength, to be able to see it for what it is and not be paralyzed by it. That's my greatest fear — that people will become paralyzed because it seems too big to take on. 

What do you think that you can do as Vermont's lone congressperson to stand up to this?

I am one person. But the reason why I am drawn to legislative jobs is because I love teams. I love building coalitions. I like trying to figure out how, even when we disagree on some things, we can come together on others. I think about how in the Vermont Legislature, especially in the first year of the pandemic when we all met together in the Rules Committee. When we met with the governor there, it wasn't Republican-Democrat. It was, How do we keep Vermonters safe? There were bumps along the way, but I would say most folks feel like we handled it really well. 

Politics at its best is not about connections. It's about relationships. I have a good relationship with (Republican state Sen.) Joe Benning, and with Randy Brock, and with Peg Flory, who's a Republican from Rutland who endorsed me. We disagree on a lot of things. But bottom line, they know that I am a good person. I've tried to take that same model of people seeing me as someone championing Vermonters. I ran on a campaign of pro worker, pro labor, thinking about rural Vermont and what it needs. The only way that you can be effective as one lone person is to build those relationships, and it's something that I'm very good at. 

People ask: How do you know you'll be effective? I don't. None of us know. We are in uncharted territory right now. We don't know what's going to happen in the midterms. We don't know what's going to happen with this democracy. All I know is I'm going to use the skills and the expertise and the experience that I've had for years to try to do a good job. And if I can't do a good job, then I will reassess. I don't know what the formula will be. But I do know that so much of getting work done in a political arena is about relationships. I'm very good at building those relationships.

Talk about your position on abortion rights and your history with the issue in Vermont. 

This is for me a really fundamental rights issue. This is a decision that should be made by a woman in consultation with her doctor and her family, and the state should not be involved in that decision-making. If people truly understood how common it is for women to have an abortion — somewhere between a quarter and a third of all women make that decision for their health, for the fetus’s health, decisions that are fundamentally health care decisions — I think that there would be very different discussions happening. But there's this collective denial among some opponents to reproductive rights. 

This is an issue where people will scream at you. People will call you up and say horrible things in email. And I say to them, given the statistics, I assume that your sister, your mother, your aunt, your neighbor, your best friend's wife, somebody in your life has had an abortion, and I need you to think about how what you're saying to me is actually an onslaught on their rights, their emotional health. The other piece is, don't we want people to have liberty over their own bodies? 

This is a place where I do disagree with my opponent on this issue. It was clear to me that he does not fully support a woman's right to choose. And for me, that is absolutely a fundamental right that women in Vermont have had and will continue to have because of the work that we've done. And I think it's incredibly important.

Your opponent, Liam Madden, who won the Republican primary, said on the Vermont Conversation that he was pro-choice until 24 weeks, at which point he believed it was the state's prerogative what should happen. How do you respond to that specific caveat that he has introduced?

I think it's arbitrary and it's not really based in any kind of science. I'm going to answer you by illustrating something that happened to me some years ago when we were first passing the codification of Roe v Wade here in Vermont. Somebody approached me at Town Meeting in Vermont and he did what many anti-choice activists do, which is that he stuck pictures of an aborted fetus in my face, these huge 8x10 glossies. And he said, well what do you think about this? What do you think about this? I paused and I looked at him and I said, I don't know what to think. I don't know any information about this woman, this family, this fetus, whether it was viable, what the issue was. You have taken a picture completely out of context, completely out of the narrative of this woman and her family's life. I said I can't possibly tell you what I think about it. What I do know is whatever decision that was made was not an easy decision for that woman or her family. And it is fundamental to who we are as human beings for a woman and her health care provider to be able to make those decisions and not have the state making that decision. 

My opponent did say some things at a forum in Ludlow on the campaign trail that gave me pause about his belief in choice. And I just think that is not the role of the state. We should be having women, doctors and their families making these decisions.

In Congress, you may have the opportunity to vote on federal laws regarding gun rights. In June, Congress passed one of the first gun rights laws in many years. (It expands background checks for gun buyers under 21 and enhances red flag laws, among other provisions.) That signaled that perhaps there was a crack in a wall that has been almost unscalable until now. What do you think you can do to advance the discussion on gun rights?

It’s been a quarter of a century since we've had any movement on this in Congress, so that's very exciting. It’s certainly not as far as many people, myself included, would like to go. I think there is a crack and I heard it while I was door knocking here in Vermont. People would lead with, I am a gun owner, I support the Second Amendment, I have always been a strong supporter of firearms rights. However, they said, what we're seeing right now is not normal. And so even among voters here in Vermont who are gun owners, I hear this sense of it is not normal for us to be worried about dropping our kids off at school. It is not normal for us to be worried about whether we're in a public place and we're going to be the victim of gun violence. The fact that we passed red flag laws here in Vermont and the sky didn't fall, the fact that more and more people actually are talking about how we in Vermont are an outlier on firearms in terms of suicides, and how it impacts a lot of middle aged and older men, I feel like there's an opportunity for us to talk about health more globally, and how does the issue of preventing gun violence fit into the larger conversation about health. I haven't seen that shift in years. So I do feel like there's an opportunity now and I will be a full throated supporter of sensible gun laws in (the U.S.) just like I have been here in Vermont. 

It's often posed in Vermont, well, do you support the Second Amendment? Or do you support sensible gun laws? Of course I support the Second Amendment. We have a strong hunting culture here in Vermont. We have that right guaranteed in the Constitution. But what I'm hearing among Vermonters around being fearful about where we are as a democracy, I'm hearing the same thing around the issue of guns, that it is not normal for kindergarteners and first graders to have to worry about having gun safety drills in school. How do we really put some restrictions on that make good sense and keep people feeling safe and secure?

You've had the unique experience of going around Vermont from top to bottom and just hearing what people think in candid conversations. What do you know now as a result of your travels that you didn't know when you began this race?

The thing that surprised me the most were the number of Vermonters who said, I want to be able to talk to my neighbors again. That even a few years ago, I felt like I could talk to my neighbor even though they were Republican or a Democrat. And now they feel like some community sense of connection has been shattered by four years of the Trump administration and then the Jan. 6 insurrection. I was not expecting that. That's just devastating to hear especially here in Vermont, where if it can't happen in Vermont, where can it happen? We're a small state. We all seem to have two or three degrees of separation. That really concerned me. 

The flip side of that was a sense of hope. People are acknowledging it. The first step is to say it out loud, I don't like this. I don't know how to get back to a place where we were before. People want that. And that makes me feel like there's an opportunity here for us on the town and city and community level, to perhaps have more structured conversations. I don't even mean around political issues in town. 

There are two different organizations that I'm intrigued by. One is called Living Room Conversations that was started by Joan Blades, who founded moveon.org. She wanted a structured set of instructions, essentially, for people to be able to talk with their neighbors about different things. The other is called Braver Angels. If we can't even talk about an issue in the abstract with each other and not have it devolve into to name calling, how are we ever going to govern ourselves? Talking to select board members and school board members on this campaign, I'm hearing the same things. They feel like the tenor of meetings have changed. The sense of distrust has changed in the last few years. And that's really disconcerting. It’s also an opportunity for us to be clear eyed about the challenges ahead of us.

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David Goodman

About David

David Goodman is an award-winning journalist and the author of a dozen books, including four New York Times bestsellers that he co-authored with his sister, Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman. His work has appeared in Mother Jones, New York Times, Outside, Boston Globe and other publications. He is the host of The Vermont Conversation, a VTDigger podcast featuring in-depth interviews about local and national topics. The Vermont Conversation is also an hour-long weekly radio program that can be heard on Wednesday at 1 p.m. on WDEV/Radio Vermont.

Email: [email protected]

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