BRATTLEBORO — When Vermont Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint, who is running for the state's lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, attended a grand opening event for Groundworks Collaborative's new shelter and administrative offices on Oct. 13, she came not as a politician, but as a neighbor.
Balint and her family live on South Main Street, just up the hill from Groundworks. She knows firsthand what the nonprofit does and whom it helps.
Calling the staff “the real heroes, the real people that understand the need for this building,” Balint praised their work toward the goal of ending homelessness and hunger in the area.
“There has been so much suffering that has happened for families and individuals here in Brattleboro and across the state,” she said. “The work that we do day in and day out is not just about meeting immediate needs, it's about alleviating suffering long term.”
Balint said that she has been “a fierce advocate for a long time in the Legislature for more housing that's affordable” because “I've seen the real need up close in my own neighborhood.”
While Vermont has made “huge investments” in affordable housing, Balint said that Brattleboro and Windham County was “kind of the canary in the coal mine” when it came to shortages of affordable housing and the rising levels of poverty.
She said that Groundworks shows what can be done when “you create a space that really meets the needs of the people who come here, and the needs of the community.”
“At this time, when everybody is feeling so disconnected from each other, we need places like this that bring people back together,” Balint said, adding that “I pledge, for the rest of my career, whether I am in Congress or not, to continue to work on the issue of housing.”
“This will be my life's work from now until I'm under the ground,” she said.
The power of empathy
Balint, who won the Democratic nomination in the August primary by a margin large enough to surprise many state political observers, is facing Republican nominee Liam Madden of Rockingham, Libertarian Party nominee Ericka Redic of Burlington, and independent candidates Matt Druzba of Burlington, Adam Ortiz of Rutland City, and Luke Talbot of Brighton in the Nov. 8 general election.
In a way, Balint's remarks at the Groundworks event summed up her reasons for running for Congress. Her philosophy combines empathy with a solid conviction that only when people come together can progress be made toward creating a better world.
“You also have to listen deeply and find common ground,” she said in a brief interview with The Commons after her Groundworks appearance.
On the housing issue, Balint said that “it's really important for us to understand that 'neighborhood' means all of us, and I think sometimes we forget that.”
“One of the things I've noticed as I've campaigned for the past 11 months is just about every community right now is struggling with homelessness and housing,” she added.
“What is difficult is that whenever we are able to make some investments and get something off the ground, it becomes a flashpoint in a community,” Balint observed. “I've come to understand that we as communities need to be more honest and candid with each other that housing has to go somewhere and that safe and affordable housing is the lynchpin for everything else.”
She said the big issues facing Vermont - the opioid crisis, the mental health crisis, funding for public education, workforce shortages - all circle back to the lack of affordable housing.
Balint also fears that if Republicans take back control of either the House or the Senate, or both chambers of Congress, funding for priorities such as housing, public education, and human services will be sharply cut or eliminated altogether.
“We have really clear choices ahead of us,” she said. “Are you going to support a party that fundamentally does not believe in government, doesn't believe that government can be a force for good, and doesn't believe that government has a role in taking care of the most vulnerable - and also, perhaps, doesn't fundamentally believe in free and fair elections?”
“So, it's all tied together, and it's very alarming,” Balint said.
She said in recent months, she has gotten to know U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Maryland, who serves on the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on U.S. Capitol.
She has also come to understand “just how high the stakes are now,” she said. Essentially, Balint said, Raskin's “life's work from now until he no longer serves in Congress is protecting our democracy.”
“It's very inspiring,” she said.
Living in the limelight
Balint said that the national media attention that has been focused on her campaign “is very strange. It's exciting and it's kind of terrifying.”
She has attracted that much attention because, if elected, she would become the first woman to represent Vermont in Congress, and she would also be the first lesbian to be elected to federal office from Vermont.
She said that what gives her hope and the courage to be in the public eye in such a turbulent time in American politics and culture is “all the Vermonters who come up me at the store, at the post office, and just tell me 'thank you' for running in this incredibly dark time. That's what keeps me going.”
She said she believed that she and her campaign “were on to something” even before U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) endorsed Balint in the weeks before the August primary. Balint said the campaign's internal polling showed support shifting away from her primary opponent, Lt. Gov. Molly Gray.
“As more and more people got to know me and understand and who I was and the work that I've done - not just as an elected official, but also as a teacher - that resonated with people,” Balint said. “We said early on in the campaign that I had to be myself.”
She pointed to a photo that her campaign staff posted early in the primary race.
“It was after a debate, and I was sitting in the living room of a friend's house just petting her dog,” she said. “I didn't have my shoes on, just my Darn Tough socks. My campaign manager posted it, and she later asked if I thought it was too revealing.”
“I said, 'No, that's who I am,'” she said. “'That's how we're going to win this thing.'”