Sunday’s caucus of state Senate Democrats was a big moment for women in Vermont politics and for Southern Vermont, as the chamber nominated the state’s first woman president pro-tempore and elected its first all-female leadership team — all from the Green Mountain State’s four southern counties.
As was widely expected, Sen. Becca Balint of Brattleboro was nominated by the Senate’s Democratic Caucus as the party’s nominee for president pro tem. But the caucus also chose Sen. Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor, as majority leader, and Sen. Cheryl Hooker, D-Rutland, as assistant majority leader and whip.
If elected by the full state Senate when it returns to work in January, Balint would be the first woman and the first openly gay person to hold the position. She’s in line to succeed state Sen. Tim Ashe, who stepped down from the Senate to run for lieutenant governor.
Balint said she woke up Monday “elated” and was heartened to hear from many people by phone, text and email. Well-wishers included friends, supporters and veteran Senate leaders offering their assistance and counsel, she said.
“It didn’t really hit me yesterday,” Balint said. There were so many logistics I was thinking about. But this morning I woke up and was feeling eager to do the work. And a bit daunted.”
Balint wasn’t the only one making history in the Senate. The Republican caucus on Sunday elected Sen. Randy Brock. D-Franklin, to succeed Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, as minority leader. Brock is apparently the first African-American to hold a caucus leadership position in the Senate.
STRONG REACTIONBalint didn’t want her nomination, and the accompanying nominations of Clarkson and Hooker, to be only about historic firsts. She emphasized the skills and experience she, Clarkson and Hooker bring to the table as lawmakers and leaders, and the significant challenges they’ll face in the next two years.
But the reaction Balint received to her nomination let her know that the history she’s making, as the first woman and openly gay person to be nominated as president pro tem head the Senate, is widely appreciated.
“I didn’t fully appreciate that until after vote of caucus [Sunday] and my phone started blowing up with people across the state saying ‘this is really important for Vermont,’” Balint said.
“I know it’s a big deal and I don’t want the story to be just about that,” Balint added. “But I know that for not just women and girls but anyone who feels like they don’t feel like they have an entry into positions of power — people who feel like they’ve been on the outside looking in — this has been a boost to their spirits. I’m trying to get more comfortable in understanding that. The symbolism is important.”
Brock felt similarly about his elevation to the post of minority leader, deflecting a question about it with humor. “As far as I know I’m also the first person to wear an alligator belt to fill that role,” he said.
He then added: “I think it’s incredibly important when we pick leaders we pick them for who they are, not what they are.”
Balint said she was heartened by the fact that some of the messages came from Republican colleagues in the Senate, including former Minority Leader Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, whom she considers “a friend and a confidante.”
“That feels really good to know even before the official Senate vote, of the six Republican senators, three indicated to me that of course, they would support me for president pro tem,” Balint said. “It’s a validation of the work I’ve done to see people as people and not as party.”
TO-DO LISTBalint said her first goal will be focusing on the COVID-19 pandemic, and what could be a very difficult budget cycle if more federal aid isn’t forthcoming. She plans meetings with committee chairs in the coming weeks to discuss policy priorities,
“We all agree in the senate that for the first month plus it’s all hands on deck working on the pandemic,” Balint said. Beyond that, she wants to focus emphasis on issues that impact the state’s smaller rural communities, and the ways in which legislative action affects those communities.
“We’re seeing this became more and more acute,” she said. “We need to figure out how to support our small towns and villages.”
She also wants to continue to be inclusive in the way she runs the Senate, and promote transparency to help rebuild the mistrust of government that has grown in the past four years.
“People sent you here [to Montpelier] because they believed in you,” Balint said of her approach to engaging lawmakers. “So they must think you have something to contribute. So we have to sure that you have the opportunity to contribute in the most effective and powerful way you can.”
Balint’s colleagues in the Senate from Bennington and Windham Counties all expressed confidence in her leadership. Her Windham County colleague in the Senate, Jeanette White of Putney, said Balint was ‘a great majority leader” who brings out members’ strengths. Furthermore, White said Balint reached out the Republican minority on a regular basis — a skill that will serve her well as president of the entire chamber.
“As Majority Leader she represented the Democratic caucus, but she worked very closely with the Republican caucus on issues, so things weren’t surprises,” White said. “She took everybody’s perspective into consideration.”
State Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, concurred with White, adding that having a leader from Southern Vermont could benefit the region and other rural areas outside the Interstate 89 corridor. “She’s familiar with our issues and how far away we are,” he said.
“It’s a tough role for anybody to be new in, but with COVID it makes it all the more difficult,” Sears said. “I’m going to do everything I can to help her.”
State Sen. Brain Campion, D-Bennington, had sought the majority leader role (with Sears’ support), as did Sen. Chris Pearson, P-D/Chittenden. Both stepped aside Sunday when it became clear that Clarkson had more votes. He said he’s “excited” by Balint’s nomination and looking forward to her leadership in the Senate.
“We worked hard to make sure we could be all together and support one person by Sunday,” Campion said of the process. “[Clarkson] had a couple more votes than Pearson and me, and that’s how things sugared off. I certainly support Alison and look forward to working with her.”
GOP LEADERSBenning on Sunday nominated Brock, to succeed him in as minority leader. Sen. Brain Collamore, R-Rutland, will continue as assistant minority leader.
Brock, a Vietnam War veteran and former Fidelity Investments executive who previously served as Auditor, is one of the few African-American members of the Legislature.
“I’m honored that my colleagues in the caucus have selected me. I’m looking forward to working vigorously for all Vermonters on the many critical challenges we are facing,” Brock said in a press release. “We’ll continue to work cooperatively with the majority to get the right things done, but we’ll push back to ensure alternative views are advanced where needed.”
Brock is very familiar with the Democrats’ leadership, having served on the Economic Development Committee with Balint, Clarkson and Hooker, and on the Finance Committee with Balint.
“We know each other well, we know what each of us does and can do,” Brock said. “One of things about the Vermont senate is we may disagree but we aren’t disagreeable. We get along we share ideas and we talk, and that’s what’s really important.”