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Vermont’s first female member of Congress is looking like a sure thing

The chances are starting to look overwhelming that Vermont voters will send a woman to Congress for the first time, and, boy, it’s about time.

Vermont Lieutenant Governor Molly Gray, a Democrat.Wilson Ring/Associated Press

MONTPELIER — They say there are no sure things in politics, but there may be one in Vermont.

After Patrick Leahy, the longest-serving member of the US Senate, announced last month that he would not run for reelection, Vermont’s lone congressman, Peter Welch, threw his hat in the ring.

Welch’s Senate bid makes it almost inevitable that a woman will succeed him in the House, ending Vermont’s dubious distinction of being the only state to have never sent a woman to Washington.

That Vermont has never elected a woman to the Senate or House of Representatives is the source of not a little embarrassment here and flies in the face of the state’s reputation as a liberal, progressive place.

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It’s not that Vermont voters don’t like women. It’s just that they love incumbents, and, in the nation’s second least populous state, with just one congressional seat, opportunities to serve in Washington rarely arise.

Last week, Lieutenant Governor Molly Gray, a former aide to Welch, launched her bid for Congress. On Monday, a week to the day after Gray made her announcement, Becca Balint, the first woman and first openly gay person to serve as president of the Vermont State Senate, said she would run for the seat, too.

Vermont state Senator Becca Balint, Democrat from Windham.Kristopher Radder Brattleboro Reformer/Associated Press

Both Gray and Balint are Democrats, and many political observers here think a third female Democrat, state Senator Kesha Ram-Hinsdale, is likely to run, too. Other women serving in the Legislature are also considering bids.

The only candidate to say she’ll run for the seat as a Republican so far is Marcia Horne, a marketing consultant who ran unsuccessfully for Welch’s seat in 2020 as an independent. Vermont hasn’t elected a Republican to the either the House or Senate since 1988, and both of them, former congressman Peter Smith and former senator Jim Jeffords, eventually quit the Republican party.

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While Vermont’s governor, Phil Scott, is a Republican, and the most popular politician in the state, the smart money in on one of those formidable female Democrats taking Welch’s seat. Scott has said he wants neither Welch’s nor Leahy’s seat.

Once you get past Scott, the most popular and powerful politicians in the state are not only Democrats but mostly women. Besides Gray, Balint and House Speaker Jill Krowinski lead the Legislature.

With women comprising more than 40 percent of the Legislature, Vermont has long been near the top of state legislatures in political gender equality. Nationwide, women account for 30 percent of state legislators, while Rhode Island leads the nation with 45 percent. Massachusetts ranks last in New England, with 31 percent.

Vermont regularly tops Bloomberg’s state rankings on overall gender equality, based on five categories: health coverage, pay ratio, labor force participation, college degree attainment, and numbers living in poverty.

Which makes the failure to send a woman to Washington stand out all the more.

That is about to change, according to Cary Brown, executive director of the Vermont Commission on Women, a nonpartisan state agency that works to advance the rights of and opportunities for women and girls.

If the failure to send a woman to Washington has long been a source of embarrassment, Brown contends the current crop of female politicians “is now an embarrassment of riches.”

Beyond the numbers of women in Vermont’s Legislature, Brown said the most important and powerful committees are led by women, including appropriations and finance committees that were traditionally the domain of men.

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“There has been a lot of attention on developing leadership among women in politics in Vermont,” Brown said. “We are seeing that pay off. It’s high time, and we have a wealth of fabulous candidates.”

Brown said the state’s relatively strong performance on gender equality issues, meanwhile, “is not accidental. These are issues we have been working on for a long time, such as equal pay. We get a lot of credit for success in those areas, and it shows, when you put in real effort, you can make progress. It’s good for democracy.”




Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at kevin.cullen@globe.com.