Hallquist celebrates historic victory, trains sights on Scott

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Christine Hallquist, a former utilities executive, became the first transgender candidate in the nation to be nominated by a major party in a governor's race, scoring a clear win over three Democratic challengers in primaries on Tuesday.

"We made history," Hallquist told reporters after the Associated Press called the race at about 9:30 p.m. "Now we're going to go on and make history in November."

After winning Tuesday's Democratic gubernatorial primary, Hallquist, 62, of Hyde Park, faces a new challenge: an uphill battle to unseat Gov. Phil Scott in the November general election.

As of midnight, the Vermont Secretary of State's website had unofficial results of Hallquist winning more than 40 percent of the vote, with her leading competitors James Ehlers and Brenda Siegel trailing with about 18 percent each, with Ehlers narrowly ahead. Ethan Sonneborn, a 14-year-old high-schooler, had almost 7 percent (more than 4,500 votes).

Supporters and dozens of journalists packed into the Skinny Pancake in Burlington, where Hallquist hosted her victory party Tuesday evening. National media have trailed Hallquist in recent weeks, drawn to the historic nature of her run.

On Tuesday afternoon, Hallquist was humble about the prospect of her momentous primary win as the first transgender candidate to launch a gubernatorial race.

"I'm honored and I'll be a first and there'll be second and there'll be a third, but eventually this will not be a news story," she said in an interview outside the polls in St. Albans Tuesday afternoon.

"But, that said, I don't think you ever make it here on your own. I'm riding the shoulders of thousands of Vermonters before me that have fought for what is right and just," she added.

Hallquist, who stepped down as CEO of Vermont Electric Cooperative to run for governor, says that in her bid to beat Scott, her strategy will focus on touting her plans to spur economic development, particularly in rural areas.

"The offensive is going to be talking about the long-term vision for our economy," she said. "Because I don't think Phil has any long-term vision for the economy. And there's so much opportunity in growing rural Vermont."

Hallquist has pitched an ambitious plan to expand broadband to every home and business in Vermont by changing the statewide system for installing fiber optic cables.

She says that by shifting that responsibility from rural internet service providers to electric utilities, it will lower the cost of bolstering internet access.

In her victory speech, Hallquist acknowledged that Scott will be a tough challenger in November, noting that he has the financial backing of the Republican Governors Association. In recent weeks, the RGA has poured more than $1 million into a political action committee to support Scott. More than $200,000 of this war chest has already been spent on political advertisements.

"We've got to double down and we will double down," she said in her speech.

But she says her campaign has already succeeded in reaching voters across the state.

"Just like we've got to take care of every marginalized community we've also got to take care of every one of our communities," she said.

"The reason this message has resonated is because it's the right message and because it's the just message. And every single person regardless of where you come from has a right to a bright future."

Ehlers: Not ruling out independent run

A little after 9:20 p.m. at the VFW Post in Burlington where James Ehlers was gathered with a few dozen supporters and volunteers, the room fell nearly silent as the AP called the race for Hallquist. Ehlers walked around the room to hug and thank supporters, many becoming emotional with the news.

Ehlers, of Winooski, congratulated Hallquist on the victory, but plans to hold off on an endorsement until having discussions with her about campaign finance, a hallmark issue of his campaign.

"Of course I'm disappointed, for not myself, for me this has been about service, but for the people who believed in our campaign," he told reporters after seeing the results. Ehlers, who had trailed Siegel through the evening, edged into second place as tallies came in.

"I'm concerned for all the people for who tomorrow is going to be as challenging as it was today," he said.

Ehlers said he will "go home and think about the next steps" and said he is proud of the influence his campaign had on other candidates and issues in the race at large. He actively pressured his competitions to reject corporate donations, prompting Hallquist to return $16,000.

Ehlers said he attributes Hallquist's victory in-part to "establishment organization."

"We know that the party actively recruited opposition to our campaign," he said.

Ehlers will continue to work as executive director of Lake Champlain International, a position he retained during the race. Ehlers said he plans to stay involved in politics "in some form or fashion" but has no immediate plans to run again for state office.

"The list of hard things that people deal with day in and day out pale in comparison to running a campaign and not finishing first," he said.

Ehlers said he has not ruled out the possibility of staying in the race as an independent.

Siegel: Proud of progress, disappointed with loss

Brenda Siegel followed election results Tuesday night alongside her teenage son, Ajna, and two dozen friends at downtown Brattleboro's Echo restaurant.

Some assumed the 41-year-old Newfane resident would be thrilled to learn she was in second place upon announcement of Tuesday night's initial results (she finished in third). But Siegel retained higher hopes, all while acknowledging she had become friends with the evening's leader, Christine Hallquist.

"My goal of course is winning," Siegel said, "but also to make sure people like me have a voice at the table and have access to leadership."

Siegel expressed a bit of frustration that national news outlets had played up the fact Hallquist could be the first transgender gubernatorial candidate for a major party and Ethan Sonneborn is 14 years old.

"They missed my story," the self-described "low income single mom" said. "But that's part of why I'm running. Because that is what happens."

Siegel decided to launch her first try at political office last March, only to lose her 25-year-old nephew to a heroin overdose the next day. Devastated, she nevertheless began campaigning in May and has spent the past three months traveling more than 10,000 miles on a shoestring budget of about $35,000 in contributions and donated services.

"I started three months ago," Siegel said, "so how far I've come is pretty incredible."

Sonneborn: Another political run likely

Ethan Sonneborn, the 14-year-old candidate in the Democratic primary, drew close to one hundred supporters to his campaign celebration in Winooski. People of a variety of ages wearing campaign pins ate cake and stood around as the polls closed.

Sonneborn was at the center of the action, talking with his campaign manager, a fellow student at Mount Abraham High School in Bristol.

The young politician may be too young to drink, but that didn't stop his campaign from setting up a beer tent outside the party.

Sonneborn said before the results were made official that he would "strongly consider" running for office again.

"We did our best, and I intend to stay involved in politics," he said.

Sonneborn has made national headlines for his campaign, which he described as "an enlightening experience." Vermont is one of two states that has no minimum age requirement to be governor.

He said he intended from the beginning to stay in the race until the primary, but the traction his campaign gained took him by surprise.

"I knew that I had a coherent message, I thought about my message," Sonneborn said. "I didn't think I would get this much support, you know 1 percent of the vote, that's a win."

The focus of his campaign has been largely on involvement in politics, particularly with youth.

"It's crucial no matter your age, no matter anything in your background, that you get involved in the process," Sonneborn said. "If you're 75 and you've never voted, it's not too late, get involved in the process."

That message has resonated at home. Sonneborn's father cast his first ballot in this election — for his son.

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