U.S. Rep. Becca Balint talks with a newly resettled refugee family from the African country of Eritrea during a Feb. 13 visit to the Multicultural Community Center of Southern Vermont in Brattleboro.
Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger.org
U.S. Rep. Becca Balint talks with a newly resettled refugee family from the African country of Eritrea during a Feb. 13 visit to the Multicultural Community Center of Southern Vermont in Brattleboro.

Her choice of guest spoke volumes

Balint makes her way into a divisive Congress and quietly stands firm on her principles as she looks to represent her state as part of an unhinged legislative body.

BRATTLEBORO — U.S. Rep. Becca Balint, D-Vt., is in a difficult position.

On the one hand, she wants to work hard for her constituents, who have serious and pressing needs. On the other hand, she serves in one of the most divisive Houses in history - and she is in the minority party.

“It does get demoralizing when I sit in a committee and what is happening on the other side of the aisle is a lot of misinformation and disinformation,” she said recently at a Brattleboro press conference outside the Multicultural Community Center of Southern Vermont on Birge Street. She was there to hear the concerns of recent refugees and immigrants to Brattleboro.

It is discouraging as well as demoralizing, she said.

“It is discouraging when I see the leadership in the Republican Conference not asking [Rep.] George Santos [R-N.Y.] to resign,” she continued. “It is discouraging when I sit in President Joseph Biden's State of the Union address and hear [Rep.] Marjorie Taylor Greene [R-Ga.], call the president a liar eight or nine times, and other people speaking profanities out loud.

“And the speaker [Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.] is standing there not gaveling back to order, not holding those people to the rules that he passed. Yes, it is absolutely discouraging.”

* * *

But it turns out that Balint can give as good as she gets.

One aspect of American life currently disturbing the right wing is the emergence of gay, lesbian, and transgender people into the mainstream.

“Probably in four or five generations, no one will be straight anymore,” a worried Taylor Greene said in a broadcast last May. “Everyone will be either gay or trans or nonconforming.”

So for her first State of the Union Address, Balint - a proud and out lesbian mother of two - brought Bill Lippert with her as her guest.

Another openly gay former Vermont legislator, Lippert has been a steadfast champion of LGBTQ rights throughout his 30-year career.

In the 1980s, he helped organize the first Pride parade in Burlington, and he was a founding board member of Outright Vermont, Vermont's queer-youth-serving organization.

As the only openly gay member of his era in the Vermont General Assembly, Lippert was instrumental in making Vermont the first state to grant civil union status to same-sex couples in 2000.

Nearly a decade later, he played a critical role in guaranteeing full marriage rights through the state's Legislature.

His work made Vermont a trailblazer as the first state to legalize same-sex marriage without a court order.

“I am thrilled Vermont is getting to share Becca's courage, kindness, and her full authentic self as an out LGBTQ woman with Washington and Congress,” Lippert said before the address.

“Becca is such a hopeful role model for all Vermont young people, but especially of our Vermont queer youth,” he said.

Was Lippert's invitation Balint's way of thumbing her nose at her Republican colleagues?

“In addition to being inspired by Bill and his career, Rep. Balint felt it was important to highlight LGBTQ leaders as we continue to see a rise of anti-LGBTQ hate and violence,” said her spokesperson, Sophie Pollack.

“She is concerned by the anti-trans and more broadly anti-LGBTQ legislation coming out of statehouses across the country,” Pollack continued. “Bill's historic and impactful work in Vermont's statehouse is a powerful statement against threats to LGBTQ rights.”

* * *

Supporting her constituents, any of her constituents, is going to be a hard pull this year, Balint admitted during the event at the Multicultural Community Center.

But first, the empathetic Balint was moved to tears as she sat in a room of about 46 people, including some refugees and asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Guatemala, and Eritrea. Others were their supporters, translators, and English teachers. Others were from the Vermont media.

Southern Vermont has welcomed almost 120 refugees in the past year.

Some of the refugees telling their stories to Balint were old. Some were mothers with babies in their arms. Some women had their head covered; others did not. Children played on the floor as men and women described the difficulties they are encountering while trying to make new lives for themselves and their families in the United States.

One difficulty is learning to operate in a new culture and a new language. Another is the heartache of living apart from loved ones who had to remain behind.

“Speaking from my heart, I promise to do everything we can,” Balint told them. “It's so hard to live your life when you don't have your family with you.”

She talked about her immigrant father who was a refugee after World War II, how he was called “stupid” because he didn't know the language.

“When you can't be your whole self, it has an intense impact on your well-being,” Balint said.

“To be promised that they would be reunited, and still a year later not reunited with their children is absolutely devastating and unacceptable,” she said. “We have a broken system of immigration. It's one of the things that I'm very concerned about.”

* * *

“I want you to know I have heard you,” Balint told the audience at the Multicultural Center - but later, when she talked to the press, she admitted how difficult it will be to help them because of the House's divided nature.

Balint sits on the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability, along with Taylor Greene and a group of other far-righters.

“We have sham hearings about issues related to the border,” Balint said. “We're not doing the hard work of really passing comprehensive immigration and migration and asylum policy. And you see it directly on the ground here in Brattleboro.

“I certainly don't want to overpromise,” she said. “But this is an issue that's incredibly important to me and my staff. We're going to be working closely with the U.S. senators from Vermont; I know they care deeply as well. And we're going to have to push the State Department on this.”

Balint said that she knows some Republicans who want immigration reform but are too afraid to speak up.

“I keep saying they need to jump together, because their voices aren't being heard within their own conference,” Balint said. “I'm just going to keep doing what I can to try to bring together more reasonable minds around this.”

It is the unreasonable ones who have taken control of the party, Balint said.

“Fundamentally, what I see among this extreme wing of the party is that they have hijacked the people who would like to be getting work done,” she said.

“They're afraid of their own base. And that is what's holding us back right now. So I'm going to continue to build relationships, seeing people as people first, politicians second.

“And if we can't get work done in these two years, at least we will build the groundwork so that we can get some work done two years from now,” she said. “But it's incredibly challenging.”

“I won't lie,” Balint said. “Vermonters sent me [to the House of Representatives] because they're worried about the democracy. They're deeply worried, and I can't lose hope. I'm their voice in Congress.”

And that is why she invited Lippert as her guest for her first State of the Union.

It made a definite statement.

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