The Gray Eminence

Lt. Gov. Molly Gray is, as far as I can tell, an unprecedented phenomenon in Vermont politics. (Someone with longer tenure than I may recall a comp.) In a state where “Wait Your Turn” is the norm, she entered the arena at the age of 36, ran for a statewide office, defeated a strong field in the Democratic primary, and defeated Republican Scott Milne by a comfortable margin in the general election. Considering the dominance of Democratic men in higher offices, her gender makes the accomplishment even more impressive.

Somehow, I don’t think we’ve fully appreciated how rare and special this was. In February 2020, as she was preparing to launch her campaign, she was an almost complete unknown. (Well, she was an assistant attorney general, but there are dozens of those.) Nobody in the Statehouse had a clue, nor did they take her seriously at first. The betting favorite, and it wasn’t close, was then-Senate president pro tem Tim Ashe.

Once in the race, Gray ran a nearly flawless campaign despite having no experience in electoral politics. That’s immensely difficult to do.

But Gray has often received more criticism than credit. (Yes, including from me.) There are good reasons for some of that; but much of it has to do with two things about Gray that are rare in our politics: Her age and her gender. And that’s troubling.

Let’s take the “good reasons” first. She entered the race with, to put it charitably, a spotty voting record. That’s reasonable grounds for criticism; she couldn’t be bothered to vote consistently, and yet she wanted to be a heartbeat away from the governorship? But let’s look at it the other way: Media coverage focused heavily on that fact, but she overcame it and sailed to victory. The voters either decided that her voting record didn’t matter, or that her strengths were more than enough to compensate for her irregular attendance on Election Day.

The second “good reason” was her lack of policy profile. She ran a campaign that was heavy on personal biography and Democratic bromides. That was irksome to the political class, including candidates, activists and reporters. Speaking for the latter, we tend to focus largely on policy, as we should.

But that didn’t matter either. Why not?

Unpleasant reality: Policy specifics don’t matter to most voters. They like “real people.” If Vermont voters decide you’re A-OK, whether you’re Bernie Sanders or Pat Leahy or Peter Welch or Jim Douglas or Phil Scott or Dick Snelling or, good God, Fred Tuttle, they’ll vote for you until you retire or the Sun goes supernova.

Gray’s biographical emphasis was smart in two ways. First, she was introducing herself to Vermonters for the first time. She had to make herself familiar, and that meant telling her life story ad nauseam. (If you repeat yourself so often that reporters start moaning at your talking points, then you’ve almost repeated yourself enough to get through to voters.) Second, emphasizing person over policy is a proven piece of campaign wisdom. A few years ago I attended a Democratic National Committee-sponsored all-day training for candidates and campaign staff. To candidates, one point was hammered home: Tell your own story. Make yourself relatable as a human being. When you do talk policy, ground it in your own lived experience.

This is also, from what I hear, a point of emphasis in Emerge Vermont’s training sessions. Gray learned that lesson well. She convinced tens of thousands of voters that she was the right person for the job, policy specifics or no.

Now let’s turn to the bad reasons — ageism and sexism.

Vermont politics is inhospitable to newcomers. Democratic Party functionaries talk endlessly about getting more young people in the door, but when young people try to enter, they find the way blocked by respect for tenured officeholders and “We’ve Always Done It This Way,” which is the response (spoken or unspoken) to any suggestion of doing anything differently. Even if what they’ve always done doesn’t work.

Molly Gray ignored all of that, walked through the door and up to the front of the room, and made herself at home. That was really annoying to people who’d been “waiting their turn,” which includes most of the upper tier of Democratic politics.

Now we turn to gender, with a thought experiment. If a 36-year-old man of similar background had run for lieutenant governor last year, would he have been received better than Gray? I’d say the answer is an unqualified yes. Sure, the guy would have taken flak for his inexperience and lack of policy specifics. But he would also have been credited for, to coin a phrase, having a pair. It’s a good thing for a man to be ambitious and self-assertive. Too often, a woman with those same characteristics is pushy, doesn’t know her place, is maybe even a rhymes-with-witch. Clearly, Gray got some of that treatment.

Would I like to see her take clear positions on issues? Sure. But she’s got time for that, and her office is a great place to keep in touch with Vermonters and develop a political agenda. Does it make me a little uncomfortable that she’s suddenly a first-tier candidate for the next big opening — in Congress or the governorship? Sure. But again, she’s got time. And she has work to do. She has to keep on expanding her political vision and honing her ability to connect with the voters.

I wouldn’t bet against her. And frankly, the Democrats need more people who are ready to take the next step. Molly Gray is on her way to becoming a tremendous asset to the Democratic Party.


1 thought on “The Gray Eminence

  1. David Ellenbogen

    John, I completely disagree with this: If a 36-year-old man of similar background had run for lieutenant governor last year, would he have been received better than Gray? I’d say the answer is an unqualified yes.

    Were it not for the Me Too movement (and, by the way, Sue Minter’s unsuccessful run for guv in which she touted her gender as a qualification for statewide office), Gray would have had much more of an uphill battle. Being female and — not irrelevant — reasonably attractive, worked to Gray’s advantage and was a large part of why Tim Ashe was seen as ‘condescending’ in the Lt Guv debate.

    My two cents.


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