Becca Balint’s one-sided primary victory leaves only token obstacles in her path to Congress. This is obvious.
What’s less obvious is that it puts Balint on track to become the most powerful person in Vermont Democratic politics. This is the extra dimension of the primary’s import. It was a hinge moment in the party’s progress.
Follow me, if you will, down a wary-too-soon but perfectly logical rabbit hole.
Patrick Leahy and Peter Welch are extremely powerful presences in the Vermont Democratic Party, more so than is visible publicly. (Bernie Sanders is treated with veneration but as a resolute independent, he doesn’t have the same level of influence.)
Leahy is about to exit the stage and take on an emeritus-equivalent position in the party. He’ll have a say as long as he draws breath, but he won’t have the power of the office anymore. His people took a huge hit in the primary. Most or all backed Molly Gray, or even worked on her campaign. They might never recover, especially given how negative Gray went in the closing weeks of the primary campaign. That won’t endear any of them to Balint.
The primary campaign was a rough one for the Vermont Republican Party. While the Democrats had enough good candidates to populate several robust primary contests, the Republicans offered the usual collection of unknowns, kooks and zealots in such low numbers that H. Brooke Paige reprised his ever-popular “run for a bunch of offices” ploy just to prevent Democrats from winning Republican nominations via handfuls of write-in votes.
Well, primary day has come and gone, and somehow things have gotten even worse for the VTGOP. First, we have the usual aftermath of the Paige maneuver: As he has done before, he withdrew from all but one race to allow the party to choose replacement candidates. Second, we have a Republican Congressional nominee who’s treating the nomination like it’s dogshit on the bottom of his shoe.
Back to the Paige situation. The VTGOP now has to scramble to find people willing to fill out the ticket even if they have no chance of winning and will barely even try. These are people who didn’t want to run in the first place. They’ll get a terribly late start on what will surely be underfunded, low-wattage efforts that might bear the slightest of resemblances to real, functional campaigns.
This has become SOP for the VTGOP, but it should be seen as the disgrace that it is. In a system with only two parties competing statewide, this Republican failure is not only bad for the party, it’s bad for democracy.
In addition to that, we have the embarrassment of a top-ticket nominee who wants nothing to do with the VTGOP.
This week’s primary was a banner day for Democratic women. Becca Balint. Charity Clark. Sarah Copeland Hanzas. Becca White. Tanya Vyhovsky. Wendy Harrison. Anne Watson. Pending recount, Martine Larocque Gulick. I could go on.
On the statewide level, the only man who defeated a viable woman was David Zuckerman, and he beat Kitty Toll by less than five percentage points. Otherwise, when given a choice, the Democratic electorate seemed to express a built-in preference for female candidates.
(Republicans, on the other hand, were like schoolboys with a NO GURLZ ALOUD sign on their clubhouse. At the statewide level, every female Republican candidate was rejected.)
This is partly because many liberal voters want to eliminate the persistent gender imbalance in Vermont politics. The breaking point may have been when Mississippi elected Cindy Hyde-Smith to the U.S. Senate, leaving progressive ol’ Vermont as the only state never to have sent a woman to Congress.
But the biggest factor is Emerge Vermont. It equips smart, qualified, energetic women and sends them out to conquer new lands. Emerge has ensured that there are top-quality women ready for any electoral challenge. There were 48 Emerge alums on the primary ballot; 44 of them won. Another 13 had just completed an intensive campaign training; 11 were victorious.
The second-biggest winner of the campaign cycle so far is (I would argue) Mike Pieciak, newly-minted Democratic nominee for Treasurer. (Lovely 8-bit illo courtesy of Epicenter, a podcast devoted to blockchain, cryptofinance, and other stuff I am blissfully ignorant about.)
I say so despite, and because of, the fact that he sailed unopposed to the nomination.
I completely underestimated the guy. When he entered the race, I saw him as the unknown technocrat who, like Chris Winters, would be vulnerable to a Democratic officeholder with relevant expertise. Kitty Toll, perhaps. Shap Smith. Mitzi Johnson. Etc.
Turned out he wasn’t another Winters. He was another Beth Pearce, a technocrat who blossomed into a political force.
Or maybe it was there all along, and I wasn’t in a position to see his appeal to Democrats of all stripes. As it turned out, Pearce quickly endorsed Pieciak and nobody else even tried to enter the race. (H. Brooke Paige falls into the category of “nobody.”)
Pieciak will be our next Treasurer, and it’s absolutely not out of bounds to see him as a viable gubernatorial candidate in a few years’ time. Maybe even 2024.
Well, primary night turned out to be quite a bit less exciting than we thought. With a few exceptions, the races that seemed unpredictable weren’t, in the end, very close at all. What follows is a selection of post-midnight thoughts, none of which are about the gubernatorial race because the primaries were uncompetitive.
1. Those unbelievable polls were right about the Democratic primary for Congress. Becca Balint beat the metaphorical pants off Molly Gray. In the end, the margin was 23 percentage points. Remember back in January, when Gray had gotten off to a hot start and Balint was entering the race at the same time she had to manage the Senate Democratic Caucus? Seemed like Gray had the edge. Hell, it seemed like Balint might get squeezed between centrist Gray and progressive Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale.
I think Gray did have the edge at the time. So what happened? Balint caught fire with the Democratic electorate while Gray’s bio-heavy, policy-lite approach wore out its welcome. When it became clear that Balint was pulling ahead, Gray started flailing around, presenting herself as a pragmatist (be still, my heart) while depicting Balint as a Bernie Sanders clone. Yes, Bernie, Vermont’s most popular politician. Gray’s attack lines were implausible from the get-go. Did anyone really believe that Balint was an uncompromising ideologue or a captive of shady out-of-state money? No. For an attack to be effective, it has to be plausibly based in a candidate’s real or perceived weaknesses.
2. Everyone involved in Gray’s campaign has some soul-searching to do. Not only because they lost badly despite the very public blessing of St. Patrick Leahy, but also because they burned a lot of bridges in Democratic circles by going negative.
2a. Is this the end of Team Leahy’s dominance in Democratic politics? They bet big on Gray, and she rolled snake eyes. Leahy will remain a beloved figure but a sidelined one. His team, meanwhile, soiled themselves and dragged Leahy down with them. If there was any belief that they had the corner on political savvy in Vermont, well, that balloon has burst.
3. Oh Lord, the Republicans. They emerge from the primary with a statewide “ticket” of Gerald Malloy, Liam Madden, Phil Scott, Joe Benning, H. Brooke Paige, H. Brooke Paige, H. Brooke Paige, and H. Brooke Paige. The VTGOP now has a few days to cobble together a slate of candidates to supplant Paige, and none of them will have a prayer of a chance. Besides Scott, Benning is the only winner who’s not a walking, talking joke, and his campaign is operating on a shoestring. He’ll be a decent candidate, but he’s not going to win.
I am not bound by the journalistic tradition of staying away from political reporting while the polls are open, and there are a couple things I’m itching to write about: Whether Molly Gray is burning every available bridge in the desperate closing days of her campaign, and how Ted Kenney’s stand on substance abuse reveals him to be unqualified for the position he seeks.
But Gray and Kenney won’t be relevant much longer, and Kenney’s statement is only the second stupidest I’ve seen from a Vermont lawyer this week.
Number one with a (metaphorical) bullet is Grand Isle State’s Attorney Doug DiSabito’s letter depicting Burlington as a lawless hellhole with gunfights and stickups around every corner and no home safe from invasion. The letter he was so proud of that he posted it on Twitter. Good God.
I was 13 years old in 1967. Two years earlier, my family had moved from the placid provinces of western Michigan to a Detroit suburb. Then the ’67 riots happened.
It was an upscale burb, but we lived only seven miles away from the Detroit border. My mom kind of freaked out, believing (as many suburbanites did) that the angry hordes would tire of burning their own neighborhoods and storm en masse up Woodward Avenue, looting and trashing their way through White Folks World.
It didn’t happen, but a remnant of those days remained: a corner of our basement where my mom loaded up the shelves with nonperishable food. You know, to keep us fed in case the supermarkets were all destroyed, deliveries stopped coming, and bands of you-know-who were terrorizing the neighborhoods.
It was serious at the time and more than a little racist, but eventually it became a reserve pantry, a useful add-on to our tiny kitchen.
I see the rotten, fearful spirit of those days in DiSabito’s letter. It’s not pretty.
Of all the contested Democratic primaries up for grabs on Tuesday, one race has effectively split the Democratic base in two more or less equal parts. Well, equal in import if not in numbers.
All of the liberal and progressive interest groups — labor, environmental, political — have all lined up behind former lieutenant governor David Zuckerman. They include VPIRG Votes, Vermont Conservation Voters, Sierra Club Vermont chapter, Sunrise Montpelier, Vermont State Employees Association, Vermont State Labor Council, AFSCME Local 93, American Federation of Teachers, Sheet Metal Workers Local 93, Rights & Democracy, Renew U.S., and Our Revolution.
At least two unions have not endorsed: Vermont NEA and the Vermont Troopers Association.
As for former Rep. Kitty Toll, the “Endorsements’ page on her website includes no organizations of any kind. She has an impressive list of individuals on her side, but none of the groups that normally support Democrats.
This is not true of any other primary race I know of. The groups are split between candidates.
What are those organizational endorsements worth? That’s the question, isn’t it?
The ability of TV cops and lawyers to mete out justice in a cool 42 minutes notwithstanding, America’s criminal justice system is an unholy mess and a human rights catastrophe. We lead the planet in prison population and incarceration rate.
According to World Population Review, the United States is the only country on earth with more than two million people behind bars. China is second in the counting stat with 1.7 million — but they have a much larger population, so its incarceration rate is pretty reasonable, actually.
Our rate is, hip hip hooray, number one in the world. 629 of every 100,000 Americans is behind bars. We’re the only country over 600. There are only four other countries over 500, and it’s not a group you want to be part of. The four are Rwanda, Turkmenistan, El Salvador, and Cuba.
And yet we often live in fear of crime and violence. Funny, huh?
The system badly needs an overhaul. Progressive prosecutors around the country are trying to nibble away at the worst excesses of the system. They need to be supported and validated by the voters.
Which is why incumbent Sarah Fair George not only has to win the Democratic primary for Chittenden County State’s Attorney, but she has to win by the widest possible margin. Ted Kenney has to lose, and lose badly.
Three days after it posted a thinly-veiled endorsement of Molly Gray by an advisor to the Molly Gray campaign, VTDigger has thought better of it and taken it down.
Not sure why they did it, but to judge from the above Editor’s Note, lawyers may have been involved.
For those just joining us, on August 3 VTDigger posted a commentary by Carolyn Dwyer, longtime Pat Leahy consigliere and advisor to the Gray campaign, that laid out the attributes Dwyer wants to see in our next U.S. Representative. Those attributes closely tracked with Gray’s own biography. Dwyer also tried to posit Becca Balint as an “ideological warrior,” which is laughable considering that Balint has spent the past six years in Senate caucus leadership. In that position her first duty is to keep the caucus united, not impose her own policy vision. And the biographical note accompanying the essay failed to disclose Dwyer’s role in the Gray campaign.
I wrote up this adventure in journalistic carelessness soon after it happened. The next day, Digger rewrote the biographical note to include a reference to the Dwyer/Gray relationship.
Which only made posting the piece look worse, because it was a tacit admission that Dwyer was, in fact, promoting her candidate on Digger’s commentary page. That’s a no-no, and Digger has apparently realized that only three days late.
More signs of flailing from Lt. Gov. Molly Gray’s campaign for Congress. She’s now attempting the astounding feat of presenting herself as simultaneously (1) a paragon of Vermont values and (2) a Washington insider.
I dunno. Simone Biles might balk at that bit of gymnastics.
Gray’s last pre-primary (read: last) campaign ad leans heavily on her ties to Sen. Patrick Leahy, prominently featured, and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, who is named but not shown. Maybe Welch is being more judicious than his Senate colleagues and staying out of the primary. Or maybe, just maybe, he prefers Gray’s opponent?
But that’s not why I called you here on this muggy day. My purpose is to look at a couple of issues with Gray’s fundraising. The first is the portion of her war chest (obligatory “war chest” reference) that she can’t spend before the primary. The second is how much money this living embodiment of Vermont values has raised from inside the Beltway.