Editorial: Vermont Will Make Political History — Again

  • During an editorial board meeting in West Lebanon, N.H., on Oct. 31, 2018, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott talks about his decision to support gun control in the state after police in February charged a teen with planning to carry out a mass shooting at Fair Haven Union High School. "He had a hit list with 32 people on it," Scott said. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Vermont gubernatorial candidate Christine Hallquist answers a question during an editorial board meeting in West Lebanon, N.H., on Oct. 24, 2018. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Friday, November 02, 2018

No matter how the race for governor in Vermont sugars off on Tuesday, Vermonters will send a message to the nation, something with which they have long experience.

In 1954, for example, Republican U.S. Sen. Ralph Flanders, of Springfield, introduced the resolution that led to the censure of the “Red-baiting” Joseph McCarthy. More recently, Republican U.S. Sen. Jim Jeffords “single-handedly bent the arc of politics,” as The Washington Post put it, at least for a short time, when he left the Republican Party in 2001. A year earlier, Vermont took the lead on the equal-rights front when its new civil unions law made the state the first to give same-sex couples the same legal rights and responsibilities as those enjoyed by married couples. And then there’s U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent iconoclast whose campaign for the 2016 Democratic nomination very nearly scuttled the Hillary Clinton juggernaut — and who continues to barnstorm the country on issues such as the $15 minimum wage and Medicare for All.

As these examples show, tiny Vermont has long punched above its weight on the national political stage, and Tuesday’s vote in the gubernatorial race promises to burnish that well-deserved reputation. Barring an unlikely surprise victory by one of several minor-party hopefuls, Vermonters on Tuesday will elect either incumbent Republican Gov. Phil Scott or Democratic challenger Christine Hallquist.

Either way, the outcome will be national news.

If Scott wins re-election, it will be seen as a reward for one of the few Republican politicians in America with the backbone to stand up to the National Rifle Association.

In April, at significant political and personal risk, Scott sat behind a simple desk on the steps of the Statehouse and signed into law Vermont’s first meaningful gun legislation. Just a few feet away, angry opponents, resplendent in their blaze orange, shouted “traitor” from the peanut gallery. (The bills had been passed by the Legislature in the wake of the Valentine’s Day massacre at a Parkland, Fla., high school, and the subsequent shooting threat directed at a high school in Fair Haven.) As promised, a primary challenge to Scott was mounted, but it mustered just 32 percent of the vote.

The gun legislation drama likely will be seen as the defining moment of Scott’s first term, which also was marked by bruising budget and tax battles, a record 14 vetoes, widespread consternation about education policies and spending, and the threat of a government shutdown. Some, mainly Democrats in the Legislature, complain of what they see as Scott’s bullying and inflexibility. Others see him as a much-needed counterweight to Democratic dominance in Montpelier. In the end, though, Scott’s courage in signing the gun bills may well win him enough Democratic, Progressive and independent votes to more than make up for those withheld by Republicans who feel betrayed. “I wouldn’t do anything different,” he told the Valley News. “I chose action over inaction.”

On the other hand, if Hallquist is able to engineer an upset, her victory will be seen as a watershed. As the first openly transgender person to be nominated by a major party in a gubernatorial race — historic in itself — Hallquist has become a standard bearer for LGBTQ citizens in Vermont, and across the country, even though she works assiduously to keep the focus on the issues and not on her gender.

The former chief executive officer of the Vermont Electric Cooperative, the state’s second-largest electric utility, Hallquist has made bringing fiber-optic internet to everyone in Vermont a major focus of her campaign, along with boosting the state’s renewable energy efforts. She also proposes to work with other states to establish a Medicare for All program, supports raising the minimum wage and would reduce the state’s prison population by improving the treatment and assistance programs available to inmates suffering from addiction and mental illness. In the absence of federal leadership on the issue, she proposes a regional approach to addressing climate change that would include Canada.

But it is her status as a transgender political pioneer that, should she win on Tuesday, will set off a tsunami of national media coverage, and not just because it would represent an important step toward equality and justice for a community that has long been denied those basic human rights. A victory by Hallquist also would be a pointed rebuke to the Trump administration, which is reportedly considering defining an estimated 1.4 million transgender Americans out of existence by officially establishing gender as a biological condition determined by a person’s sex organs at birth. When asked in an interview at the Valley News about Trump’s effort, Hallquist called it “the classic work of a despot.” She concluded by saying, “Bring it on, Don.”

A VPR-Vermont PBS poll shows Scott well ahead at 42 percent, while Hallquist trails at 28 percent. Significantly, however, 22 percent of those polled remain undecided. Hallquist has history against her: Vermont has not unseated an incumbent governor since 1962. For his part, Scott faces the prospect of a “blue wave” of energized Democrats working to counter what they see as a complicit Republican Party aiding and abetting the corrupt and benighted Trump administration, although Scott is in no way a Trumpian.

Whatever the outcome, Vermonters will be sending a message to the country on Tuesday. And the more Vermonters who vote, the more meaningful that message will be.