Balint Jumps In

As expected, Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint has joined the race for Congress. To get to the payoff right away, I still list Lt. Gov. Molly Gray as the early favorite. But Balint will be a tough, engaging campaigner. And she’ll have to be.

Let’s start with the job she already has. No sign that she’ll step away from the Pro Temship, which would be a disaster for the Legislature; there are no obvious candidates to take her place in a very tricky job. And this is going to be one hellacious session. No time for a rookie leader.

But if she remains as Pro Tem, Balint will have a really difficult job that will take up a lot of time and energy. This session won’t be easy. Can she campaign during the session? Can she wait until June and still manage to be competitive? Can she raise money? Not only in Vermont, but nationally?

Besides all that, when you’re the House or Senate leader, you can’t define your own political profile. Your job is to get a majority together on crucial votes without alienating anyone you might need down the road. Your task is crafting acceptable compromises, not spearheading the charge.

So it ain’t gonna be easy. But Balint is a gutsy, energetic, determined individual — to me, the single most impressive person in the Legislature — and I won’t be surprised if she wins the Democratic primary.

When Gray announced with a glossy campaign video strong on her biography and her folksy Vermontiness and short on policy, I thought it was impressive. Still do.

Balint’s first video is even better.

She hits hard from the jump. The first images are not soft-focused smiling Becca but her grandfather, who lost his life in the Holocaust. That flows into her experience as a gay woman and her work as a teacher and then as Senator, which sets the stage for her pitch: Working together and overcoming differences. It’s cliché as all hell, but her biography gives it substance.

Gray’s video featured a lot of her meandering on trails or gazing purposefully into the distance. Balint’s is heavy on interactions with people. Which, again, underscores her pitch.

And then, in a very brief passage, Balint lays out more policy specifics than Gray. Balint calls for Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, which puts her on the Bernie side of the progressive/moderate Democratic split. She also calls for paid family and medical leave, which will be a tougher sell given the Senate’s orneriness on the issue.

So, great video, professionally produced but with real authenticity.

As for Balint the politician, she was an extremely effective majority caucus leader under Tim Ashe. She took on a lot of the caucus’ comms duties while acting as the velvet glove on Ashe’s pewter fist. She quickly earned broad popularity in her Windham County district; after finishing a close second to perpetual incumbent Jeanette White in 2016, she outperformed White in each of the last two election cycles. Nothing to sneeze at; in legislative races, name recognition trumps all.

As Senate leader, she’s been just as good. She kept the herd-of-cats majority caucus together and worked with House Speaker Jill Krowinski to tamp down the traditional House/Senate combativeness, all while maintaining good relations with just about everybody. When Ashe ran for lieutenant governor in 2020, he was only endorsed by about half of his caucus. I wouldn’t be surprised if Balint scores 100%.

Still, Gray has the early edge. She’s got connections to Sen. Patrick Leahy and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch. They won’t endorse her, but their networks are likely to support her and she won’t have trouble fundraising.

She’s also been a statewide officeholder. For less than a year to be sure, but there’s a huge difference between being a statewide official and being a lawmaker. The vast majority of Vermonters pay little if any attention to what goes on in Montpelier. Balint has been a great success in her district; Gray has run and won statewide. It’s not a credential, it’s just hard political fact.

Plus, Gray won’t be hamstrung in campaigning. While Balint will be grinding away in the Senate, Gray can bang a gavel and then hit the road. Everything she does between now and adjournment will increase her advantage. While Balint is working the hallways, coddling her caucus, and trying to work out deals with the governor, Gray will be issuing bland but appealing press releases, traveling the state, glad-handing, offending no one, and raising as much money as she can.

That’s why Gray is the early favorite. But those who underestimate Balint do so at their peril.

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