For Christine Hallquist, a fight on many levels in Vermont
BENNINGTON, Vt. — One day recently, Christine Hallquist walked into the Two Brews Cafe, a homey, quirky coffee shop in this sleepy college town, and sat down at a pair of dark oak tables with a dozen local activists.
They were trying to get a measure of this political neophyte who is mounting a seemingly long-shot campaign for governor. She seemed to share so many of their values, but was she serious about this? Should they go out and work for her?
For Lesley Jacobson, a retired high school teacher who especially likes Hallquist’s Medicare for all pledge, one thing especially bothered her. She looked Hallquist in the eye and said one word: signs.
“There’s nothing here. No signs,” Jacobson said. “You wouldn’t know there’s an election on.”
Hallquist, a Democrat, sheepishly informed Jacobson that the campaign had more or less run out of signs, and one reason for that may be who she is, the first openly transgender gubernatorial nominee from either major party. Her distinctive blue signs are being pilfered all over the state — 150 had just gone missing in Brattleboro — and she doesn’t think it’s because they’re considered collector’s items.
She has also received death threats, so her campaign doesn’t put her daily schedule out in advance, which doesn’t help a fledgling politician who remains largely unknown to so many voters.
Hallquist is surely fighting prejudice and ignorance in some quarters as she barnstorms across the Green Mountain State. But she’s also fighting low name-recognition, political inexperience, and the sheer power of incumbency as she tries to knock off first-term Republican Governor Phil Scott.
Her campaign got some bad news last month when a Vermont Public Radio/Vermont PBS poll showed that only 28 percent of likely voters say they’ll back her. Scott came in at 42 percent. More worrisome for Hallquist is that Scott was drawing 26 percent of Democrats. Virtually no Republicans said they’ll vote for Hallquist.
Hallquist’s staff say their internal polling shows a much tighter race. And the VPR/VPBS poll suggested it’s not just Hallquist who faces an uphill battle: All of Vermont’s incumbent statewide officeholders had comfortable leads as their campaigns headed into the final week.
If Hallquist, 62, is worried about the polls, she isn’t showing it. Instead, she’s out there every day, all day, fully aware that, as a newcomer to politics, she has to earn every vote, and that with some 28 percent of the electorate undecided, it’s all in play.
Her campaign has attracted a lot of national and international attention. When out-of-state journalists ask her what it’s like to be standing on the cusp of history, Hallquist can’t resist tweaking them, saying she realizes no one’s knocked off an incumbent governor in Vermont since 1962.
Hallquist is wary of labels, seeing herself not as a transgender gubernatorial nominee as much as a gubernatorial nominee who happens to be transgender. And while she holds progressive views on health care, climate change, and income inequality, she’d rather be known as a pragmatist. She is more policy wonk than standard-bearer. But she proudly wears her heart on her sleeve.
“Medicare for all, ending homelessness, that’s not being progressive,” she said. “That’s called being a civilized society.”
Scott, for his part, has not made Hallquist’s gender an issue and has condemned those who have made threats against her. Scott’s supporters like to point out that Hallquist voted for him two years ago.
Hallquist shrugged that off. “Everybody makes mistakes,” she cracked.
A native of upstate New York, Hallquist was initially known as David and moved to Vermont at 20 when her father relocated to Burlington for work. Trained as an electrical engineer, she served as CEO of the Vermont Electric Cooperative for a decade, known for her innovative approaches to energy policy. She publicly transitioned in gender in 2015, and within a year had something of a political epiphany as powerful as the personal epiphany that led her to live openly as a woman.
“November 9th, 2016,” she said, referring to the day after Donald Trump was elected president. “I woke up out of my comfortable coma. I marched. But I realized that’s not enough. That’s why I’m running.”
The Trump administration’s recent initiative to define someone’s gender as determined at birth and solely by anatomy shocked but did not surprise Hallquist.
“He’s coming after my folks now,” she said. “If I do nothing else, I will make Donald Trump uncomfortable.”
Trump remains wildly unpopular in Vermont, and Hallquist has tried to link Scott to the president. Scott scoffs at that, saying he has not been afraid to criticize Trump’s more outlandish rhetoric and actions. Polling, meanwhile, suggests that Scott has lost support not with Democrats so much as Republicans, largely over his support for gun control.
Hallquist says her gender rarely comes up on the campaign trail. She says voters are interested in issues like health care and the cost of housing, not with the one that has garnered so much attention outside of Vermont.
Barnstorming the state briefly took a back seat to brainstorming at Two Brews with the assembled activists.
Hallquist outlined her belief that optimizing the electrical grid is the key to solving climate change, and her contention that the biggest issue facing Vermonters as it loses population and struggles to keep young people is connectivity.
Living in Hyde Park, in northern, remote Lamoille County, Hallquist doesn’t have broadband.
“In the 1960s, it was electricity. Today, it’s connectivity,” she said. “The digital divide increases poverty and flight to the cities.”
To get her chance to replace a substandard connectivity infrastructure, she has had to throw herself into campaigning. Her longtime friend and driver, Brenda Churchill, is transgender, easygoing, and a good conversationalist, which comes in handy, given how much time they spend in the car. They tool around in an orange Jeep, crisscrossing the nation’s second least-populous state, where there are not only 623,960 people, but, it sometimes seems, 623,960 opinions.
Hallquist prides herself on being good on policy, but has had to push herself to engage with the people and communities she would need to represent as governor.
After reading about a 30-year-old mother who died of an opioid overdose, Hallquist attended the funeral in Burlington.
“Maddie, the young woman who died, had a 4-year-old son. I cried the whole time, because Maddie reminded me so much of one of my daughters,” Hallquist said. “I came out of that funeral changed.”
She’s a quick learner. Within days of hearing it from supporters, her campaign signs were all over Bennington and Brattleboro.
Hallquist was standing on a traffic island recently outside a shopping plaza in Springfield with a group of Democrat candidates, taking part in a Vermont campaign staple: the honk and wave.
About an hour into the exercise, the assembled group looked to their left, up the hill that is Route 106, otherwise known as River Street. A man on a bicycle was racing down the hill at breakneck speed and narrowly missed getting hit by a car as he braked hard and jumped off his bike at the traffic island.
The man, the sort Vermonters charitably describe as a character, launched into a diatribe about drivers refusing to share the road with bicyclists, before announcing that fossil fuels “have killed more Americans than Osama bin Laden.”
Without another word, the man climbed back on his bike and pedaled away.
Christine Hallquist watched the man’s image fade in the late afternoon light, shrugged, and deadpanned, “Well, I wouldn’t have put it that way, but he wasn’t wrong on the issues.”