When the new state Legislature starts work in January, it will do so with an unprecedented number of women in key leadership positions, including two from Windham County: Becca Balint of Brattleboro and Emily Long of Newfane.
Balint will serve as president pro tempore of the Senate, where she represents Windham County, and Long, who represents the Windham-5 district (Marlboro, Newfane, and Townshend), will be the House majority leader.
Both Balint and Long were voted into their respective posts by consensus within the Senate and House Democratic caucuses. Both elected in 2014, they rose swiftly through the ranks. By the 2019–20 biennium, Balint was elected Senate majority leader and Long, the Democratic whip.
They are part of a strong group of women who will take on top leadership roles on the Democratic side, including Molly Gray as lieutenant governor and, in the Senate, Allison Clarkson of Woodstock as majority leader and Cheryl Hooker of Rutland as the assistant majority leader.
The Democrats' nominee for Speaker of the House, Jill Krowinski of Burlington, will presumably be elected to that role when the House reconvenes. Republicans, for their part, have nominated Patty McCoy of Poultney as minority leader.
The question of what it means that so many women will hold power in the coming two years is a complex one. Many women have played leadership roles in the past, although only one female governor - Madeline Kunin, who served three terms in the 1980s - has held that office.
Balint is the first woman to hold her position. She also is the first openly gay person to do so.
“For me, as a woman and as a queer person, it means finally getting to do the thing I was always called to do, despite obstacles, despite not having a clear entrance into that line of work because I did not have political connections, I didn't come from a lot of money, all those things,” said Balint in an interview with The Commons.
“For me, the way I have been talking about it with constituents who aren't women, who aren't queer, [is] that if you are coming from a working-class background in the Northeast Kingdom, if you don't see yourself represented, [my election to president pro tem] is about someone who was always on the outside looking in finally getting a chance,” said Balint.
“I really want this to be a signal to all those people who have not felt on the inside of their communities of governance that there might be a new opening of opportunity, an opening up to new voices in the room,” said Balint.
All 92 members of the Democratic caucus in the House supported Long, who has lived in Vermont all her life. She and her husband, John, an artist, have run an arts business in Newfane for 20 years. She credits her extended service on local school boards with teaching her the skills required to find consensus within conflict.
“School issues - issues around schools and parents and community - are very personal issues, and you have to learn to really listen to make sure that needs and concerns and desires are addressed,” Long told The Commons. “So I learned that part back then.”
“I was also taught this growing up in a large family, too,” said Long. “We didn't have a lot of money, and we all had to work together.
“You learn how to do that when you stay focused,” she said.
Long believes her experience as Democratic whip will also serve her well in her new role. A whip is responsible for counting legislators' votes on legislation in progress and, in so doing, is responsible for reconciling party unity with individual legislators' views and their districts' needs.
“When you're a whip, you really get to know every member of your caucus,” said Long. “I spent a lot of time getting to know our caucus members and really hearing what they had to say, because every part of our state is different, and everybody has a different view.”
“In the end, we're all here to do what is needed for the broader good, and that's about bringing everybody's voice to the table,” said Long.
'We're not all that far apart from each other'
Both Long and Balint said that it was important to recognize the divisions that exist in Vermont, where about 30 percent of the electorate voted for Donald Trump and where political issues sometimes pit more-rural areas against more-urban ones.
Differences around racial equity and diversity have recently echoed in different ways across the state. Economic inequality is less severe here than it is nationwide, but still, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the top 5 percent in Vermont makes 20 percent of the income in the state, and the top 20 percent makes almost 50 percent, while the bottom 40 percent makes 13 percent.
Balint talked about the need to have conversations that may not always be comfortable and described discussions with people who feel that Democrats, and people on the left, in general, can be “tone-deaf” to what “real” Vermonters are dealing with.
“And so we unpack that,” Balint said. “When you say 'real Vermonters,' what do you mean by that? When you say 'tone deaf,' what is that? What does that look like? What does that sound like?”
She looks for “a place where we can come into a conversation not feeling defensive.
“But I do think it takes a certain amount of trust - that even if you have tension at first, you are going to be able to get to a substantive conversation.”
After growing up in Windham County, Long spent nearly a decade living in the Northeast Kingdom, and she said that experience influenced her sense of the diversity of Vermont's regions.
“It was a really good perspective for me to live there that long and get my roots down in a place that is incredibly rural,” Long said. “Coming back here, I couldn't get over the fast pace compared to the Northeast Kingdom, even though it is not really very fast-paced here.”
“You know, I come from a pretty rural part of the state, and, in fact, a part of the state that for those of us who live in southern Vermont can often feel somewhat neglected,” said Long. “I think it is truly important that voices from rural parts of Vermont are heard.”
“The issues that come up for rural Vermont need to be addressed, there's no doubt about it,” she said. “We're not all that far apart from each other. We're not all that unlike.”
'A new kind of urgency'
While having two top leaders in the legislature gives Windham County a strong voice in Montpelier, both Balint and Long emphasized how important it is for Vermont not to split into factions, but to find common ground between different regions and across party divides.
As Balint and Long join their colleagues for the new legislative session in January, the main issue facing the state is the pandemic, a life-threatening health crisis that has also caused a crisis in education and the economy across the state.
Both lawmakers talked about how vital it is to address the immediate challenge of the pandemic, and also how important it is to look beyond it.
The uncertainty caused by how easily the virus spreads and how hard it may hit Vermont in the coming months is matched by uncertainty at the federal level as the Trump administration continues to focus on re-litigating the recent election, and the administration of President-Elect Joe Biden waits until Jan. 20 to take control.
The pandemic has already changed things in Vermont, with families from other states relocating to second homes and sending their children to local schools, and with a small boom in the housing market fueled partly by out-of-state buyers.
At the same time, the hit to businesses has been severe, with many closed or in danger of closing, and the question of how to manage a tourist economy as the pandemic's new surge sweeps across the Northeast is hard to figure.
Immediate questions, such as how the recently-approved vaccine will be distributed and to whom, how the governor's executive orders on health care will be implemented, and how to manage educational systems in a pandemic that is predicted to grow worse in the next two months, will be a priority at the state level.
The question is still open as to what sort of federal dollars, if any, will flow to the state to support businesses and other key sectors.
Balint said that issues that were already on the table before the pandemic, like broadband access, child-care support, and affordable housing, have gone from being good ideas to essential policy.
“There is a new kind of urgency, and now these issues are imperative,” Balint said. “This isn't a choice about whether we have to solve [these problems] or not. We have to for our own survival.”
“This is a challenging time for all of us, with a lot of concerns and trepidations right now,” said Long, who hopes the state will be “headed into better times.”
“So if we're going to be headed into better times after the pandemic, we need to be prepared,” she said.
“We need to be thinking long-term about what we do in our next step,” said Long. “I am excited about that.”