In Vermont, transgender nominee catapults to national attention
Chances are, many people hadn’t heard of Christine Hallquist before Tuesday.
The former Vermont utility executive has been campaigning for governor on not-very-glitzy priorities like connecting every home and business with fiber optic cable.
But since she is also a transgender woman, her victory over three other candidates in Tuesday’s Democratic primary catapulted her into the public consciousness and the political record books.
“I’m proud and honored to be helping America widen its moral compass,” Hallquist told the Globe on Wednesday. “Somebody has to be a first. Then there will be a second. And then there will be a third.”
As the nation’s first openly transgender candidate for governor from a major party, Hallquist spent Wednesday dashing between interviews with national media outlets, including MSNBC and CNN with Anderson Cooper. Chelsea Clinton spoke up for Hallquist on social media after a Fox News host referred to her as “that transgender.” Asked about the slight, Hallquist demurred — she hadn’t seen it personally — but she acknowledged that the primary victory has amped up the stakes in a campaign that’s suddenly being eyed for its national significance.
“It puts pressure on our team because we really need to be perfect with everything we say and do, and we need to be very careful not to respond to some of the negative things that are thrown at us,” Hallquist said. “We have to be perfect. We’re going to be under the magnifying glass.”
The novelty of Hallquist’s candidacy may mean more nationally than it does in Vermont — a rural but liberal state that distinguished itself as the first to allow civil unions for same-sex couples 18 years ago. Indeed, several voters interviewed in Brattleboro on Wednesday expressed a lack of interest in the candidate’s gender identity.
“The story the national media missed is that Vermonters couldn’t care less that she’s transgender,” said longtime Brattleboro resident Ann Zimmerman. “Vermonters are very open-minded people.”
Remy Anderson, a Brattleboro resident of over a decade, used the same term in discussing the type of politician he favored.
“I just want someone open-minded,” he said, adding that he considered her the most “stable” candidate in the primary field.
And to transgender activists, there’s beauty in the sheer mundanity of it all.
“The importance of having a transgender viable candidate running at the gubernatorial level cannot be underestimated,” said Elliot Imse, senior director of communications for LGBTQ Victory Fund, which helps elect LGBTQ candidates and endorsed Hallquist’s campaign. He noted that only 13 transgender people have been elected to office anywhere in the country. The first openly transgender state legislator was elected just last November, in Virginia.
“I really think Christine’s victory, being the fact that it was a gubernatorial race, really signifies a moment in a trans political revolution that is just beginning and cannot be stopped at this point,” Imse said.
Hallquist, 62, came out just three years ago — at age 59. She has been married to her spouse, Pat, for 38 years and has three adult children and two grandchildren. Her son, Derek, made a documentary called “Denial,” chronicling her transition, which occurred while she was CEO of the Vermont Electric Cooperative. She stepped down earlier this year to run for governor.
On Wednesday night, she joined members of Vermont’s Democratic Party at a unity rally at the Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center in Burlington, where Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman introduced her as the “next governor of Vermont.”
“I couldn’t in my wildest dreams have imagined being here,” Hallquist told the group.
Having won the primary, she’s now going to take a day to celebrate and strategize with her campaign team and volunteers — staging a campout and sleepover party along the Green River Reservoir where she lives.
“We’ll get a pony keg of beer and enjoy each other’s company,” she said in an interview. “That’s my leadership philosophy. People come up with the best ideas when they’re having fun.”
Still, no one is underestimating the challenge ahead of her in November. Hallquist is taking on Republican incumbent Governor Phil Scott, who was elected in 2016, and first-term incumbents are almost never ousted in Vermont; the last time one was unseated was 1962.
While Scott’s popularity has dipped in recent months, that was largely within his own party, after he alienated conservatives by signing a gun control measure. Polls showed he retained support from Democrats, meaning his highest hurdle this election cycle may be behind him, with his victory over challenger Keith Stern in Tuesday’s Republican primary.
The Cook Political Report, an independent nonpartisan newsletter that analyzes elections, still rates the Vermont governor’s seat as “solid Republican.”
“I don’t want to diminish the historic nature of her victory,” said Jennifer E. Duffy, senior editor for the publication. “At the same time, just because you won the game at half time you haven’t won the game.”
Hallquist’s sudden renown as the first openly transgender gubernatorial nominee could help her raise money nationally — which is vital, Hallquist noted, since she has refused corporate donations, and the Republican Governors Association has poured funds into backing Scott.
“We’ve got a dollar disadvantage, but we’re going to make up for that with emotional commitment and scrappiness,” she said.
But her distinction probably won’t sway many voters, who will instead focus on the economy, the incumbent, and their impressions of her positions, said Eric L. Davis, professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.
“A few people will vote for her because of that, a few people will vote against her because of that,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to make a difference to the outcome.”
Rather than gender identity, many were focused on political distinctions: Zimmerman said she didn’t vote for Hallquist because she judged her to be the least politically progressive of the four Democratic candidates. (Hallquist claimed 40 percent of the vote, while James Ehlers and Brenda Siegel each drew about 18 percent, and Ethan Sonneborn, who is 14 years old, drew less than 7 percent.)
Likewise, Nancy Braus, the owner of Everyone’s Books (a bookstore “for social change and the earth” in Brattleboro), said that Vermont’s Democrats could have elected a more politically progressive candidate.
Hallquist acknowledged voting for her Republican opponent two years ago, when he was first elected governor, Braus noted.
But Braus wants to see what Hallquist would do in office.
“A lot of people are counting on her to be the progressive she said she was during the race,” Braus said.
Said Davis: “Christine Hallquist has some work to do to win over the most progressive part of the Democratic base, just as Phil Scott has some work to do to win over the most conservative part of the Republican base.”
“Phil Scott’s challenge is getting these pro-Trump, pro-Second Amendment, really conservative Republican base voters to vote for him in November,” Davis added. “They’re not going to vote for Christine. The question is do they vote at all — or do they simply stay home?”