In a moment from a House Oversight Committee meeting that went viral, U.S. Rep. Becca Balint, D-Vt., confronts Mandy Gunasekara, a witness who disparagingly referenced transgender children in testimony about investment policies. "Do you really believe that garbage?" Balint asked.
In a moment from a House Oversight Committee meeting that went viral, U.S. Rep. Becca Balint, D-Vt., confronts Mandy Gunasekara, a witness who disparagingly referenced transgender children in testimony about investment policies. "Do you really believe that garbage?" Balint asked.

A scrappy start

Becca Balint, Vermont’s first-year U.S. representative, reflects on going viral on the right-wing demonization of LGBTQ Americans, on the dysfunction in the House, and still making connections in the best interest of Vermonters

BRATTLEBORO — An unexpected consequence of sending Windham County's own Congresswoman Becca Balint, D-Vt., to Washington is that she has become a national media star.

Balint went viral last week when she defended trans kids during a hearing on corporate governance. And why trans kids were being discussed during a meeting on corporate governance was exactly the reason why she went viral.

The House Oversight Committee was holding a hearing on the effects of ESG (environmental, social, and governance), an investing strategy that “[looks] at environmental issues and social issues in terms of how we invest our money for long-term investments,” Balint said. “And that could mean divesting a portfolio from fossil fuels, for example.”

First, she said, “you think about who are the witnesses that are coming, and you develop a line of questioning.”

The Republican majority invited a former Trump administration official and others from the political right. The Democrats' witness would be “talking about the extent to which anyone managing investment funds should be keeping the best interests of their clients in mind,” she said.

Balint said she developed “a whole separate line of questioning I was going to follow” - but that was before she saw the June 6 testimony from Mandy Gunasekara.

The director of the Independent Women's Forum's Center for Energy and Conservation called ESG “a tool to advance the Left's broader cultural agenda” like “efforts to promote 'gender transitions' for children.”

Balint had arrived at the hearing fresh from meeting with a group of parents of trans kids. The words made her furious.

“The juxtaposition was just so intense,” she said. “I thought, 'Well, this is exactly what those parents and kids were talking about - the cruelty of the Republicans bringing this issue into whatever other issue we're supposed to be talking about.' They are demonizing and dehumanizing, and it is incredibly important for us to take it on in real time.”

So Balint spoke.

“One of the things that you said in the information you provided is that the dangers of ESG include promoting gender transitions in children,” she said to the witness. “And I want to know, do you really believe that garbage?”

Soon, Balint's remarks were everywhere.

It blew up on Twitter. “Congresswoman Puts Anti-Trans Activist on the Spot” said feminist online gossip site Jezebel. “Democratic Congresswoman Rips Anti-Trans GOP Witness” said The New Republic. “Rep. Becca Balint destroys Mandy Gunasekara for her ignorant, disgusting beliefs and rhetoric over 'woke' investment strategies,” said YouTube.

After the hearing, Balint went into a side room full of staffers who, she said, were wiping tears.

“They were saying, 'It needed to be said,'” Balint said. “And 'Thank you for saying it.'”

Balint knew that the GOP had deliberately chosen to demonize trans people, with conservative think tanks writing anti-trans model legislation for state legislatures and right-wing political consultants honing a strategy to use gender identity and expression as a wedge issue - all at the expense of kids who are in the eye of this hurricane.

“This was a calculated decision that GOP strategists made in this last election cycle,” she said. “They literally sat down in rooms to try to figure out who is the next bogeyman we can go after.”

They knew, she said, that the country had “largely moved on from the anger and partisanship around gay marriage. So they needed a new group of people to attack.”

“And they settled on that because they felt like it would rile up their base sufficiently for donors,” Balint said. “It's completely calculated. And very cynical.”

The state representative is amazed by “the level of vitriol that is aimed at trans Americans and the people who love them.”

“It's just a constant barrage of these lies!” she said. “There is an aspect of this that is about education and understanding. And there's also a time to just call it for what it is, which is essentially dehumanizing people and making them the scapegoat of society. It's horrible.”

Support from Democrats

Balint's speech empowered her colleagues.

“I think it inspired a lot of my colleagues to do the same thing in their hearings,” she said. “I've gotten a lot of good feedback that they hadn't really been clear on how to bring it up, and they feel more confident now in doing that.”

Who better than Balint, a lesbian mother of two, to speak out in defense of trans kids? Who better to represent Vermont during Pride Month?

“One of the things that has been really delightful for me, in being a congresswoman right now, is having so many families come visit me in D.C.,” Balint said. “Sometimes they are parents of queer kids. Sometimes they are trans or nonbinary. And sometimes they're just kids who are really interested in politics and have no idea how to get into it.”

She called such interactions “a really a fantastic way for me to celebrate Pride Week.”

“I can say, 'Hey, I didn't know if I could ever get to this place, either. So let's talk about your dreams. Let's talk about how you get there,'” Balint said. “And I get so much joy from from having those meetings with families.”

In D.C. Balint feels accepted by her party and its leadership.

“I feel very supported by leadership within the Democratic caucus,” Balint said, describing House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), House Democratic Caucus Chair Peter Aguilar (D-Calif.), and House Minority Whip Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) as “really, really good on these issues.”

“And my colleagues who have come in with me in the 118th Congress, my new Democratic freshman colleagues, are also incredibly supportive,” she added.

Balint did not think her sexual orientation would matter so much when she ran for election.

“I knew it was a big deal to a lot of people,” she said. “But I didn't know to what extent parents would want to bring their kids to come in to meet me. I just hadn't put that all together, honestly.”

Defining herself in three words

Balint's general openness and willingness to speak out is making her stand out as a leader in this new Congress.

Take her catchphrase “Scrappy Little Dyke,” now on T-shirts and coffee mugs everywhere, as well as the inspiration for the title of a Burlington fundraiser later this year: “Scrappy Little Disco.”

Where did the phrase come from?

One organization, Elect Democratic Women, wanted to introduce all the new members during tbeir orientation.

“And there are so many of us. This is the most diverse class we've ever had - more women, more people of color, more immigrants, more queer people. And so it was a very exciting time for all of us to introduce ourselves.”

With so many new members, leadership announced that each person should introduce themselves with only three words.

A long silence followed.

“I could feel my entire class take a step back,” Balint said. “That's really hard. It's just three words.”

Her three words “popped into my head,” she said. “I just thought, 'It will sort of break the ice. Everyone will realize they don't have to obsess over their three words. They can just make it fun.'

“So I grabbed the mic, said I would go first, and said, 'Scrappy little dyke.' And it was really fun, because it brought the house down.”

Others followed her lead with irreverent phrases of their own.

“And some of the older women in the caucus came up to me afterwards and said, 'We didn't realize that we were being so tame in the way we were interacting with each other. Now we feel like there's a newfound freedom for us to talk more candidly about our experiences.' And that's all great.

The next thing she knew, “lots of people were coming up to me saying, 'That was so great.' 'We felt so seen by you.' 'Thank you for saying that.'”

Soon, her campaign staff wrote about it. Shirts and stickers followed.

Some constituents were offended. “They felt it was too much, and that was surprising to me,” Balint said. “But you can say anything, and somebody is going to get offended.”

Balint said she did some fundraising in Los Angeles recently for a group that supports queer and trans candidates around the country - “and people out there who had been following me on Instagram said, 'Can we get some of those stickers, too?'”

“So I think it's just fun,” she said. “I just can't take myself too seriously. I take the work seriously, but not myself.”

The Republican majority

Because of her position, Balint was a witness to the reaction of far-right Republicans to the recent last-minute debt ceiling deal negotiated between Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and President Joe Biden, a Democrat - a deal that saved the United States from defaulting on its loans and causing a worldwide financial crisis.

“The Republicans didn't have enough votes procedurally to bring the bill to the floor,” Balint said, calling the problem “a height of dysfunction.”

“If your own conference can't have enough votes in support of a bill, you're not going to get very much done,” she said. “And they didn't have the votes.”

“And so Hakeem Jeffries essentially had a meeting with McCarthy and said, 'We will help you get this over the line, but we want to make sure that when there are investments being made locally, that Democrats who have projects that they want to see funded are going to get funded as well,'” Balint said. “That was an important aspect of this showdown that, I think, in the end is going to benefit Democratic members.”

After the bill passed, those representatives farthest to the right protested by sitting down on the floor of the Chamber. According to Balint, these Republicans are now “eating their own.”

“I'm just watching the dysfunction,” Balint said. “We actually only voted on bills on Monday. And then the most extreme wing of their conference sat down the floor because they were mad at McCarthy for coming to a compromise with the president.”

Today's Republicans, she said, “believe that we are the devil and he should not be making compromises with the Democrats,” she continued. “I don't quite know what to say about it. And one of the things I was reading this morning is that there is no expectation that they will have this sorted out anytime soon. This could go on for days or weeks.”

Winning the speakership took McCarthy 15 tries, and he made many compromises along the way.

“My friend Morgan McGarvey (D-Ky.), who represents Louisville, said to me yesterday that McCarthy has mortgaged the Speaker's office so much that there's nothing left to borrow, and the money's coming due,” she said.

“And so the most extreme element of the caucus, the so-called Freedom Caucus, wants more concessions from him, but there's really nothing left to get. So I really don't know how this is going to play out.”

'Stuck with each other'

Any Republican representative has the power to call for a motion to “vacate the chair,” or to impeach the speaker and elect a new one.

“The problem is that McCarthy is one of the only people who actually wants the job,” Balint said. “The other being [Majority Leader] Steve Scalise, (R-La.). And Steve Scalise is not somebody who's going to be able to get enough votes to be speaker.”

And so, she said, “they're kind of stuck with each other.”

“It's fascinating,” she continued. “You have to laugh, because the bill that held us up this week was a really, really important bill for us to be considering.”

As it turned out, Balint was being sarcastic. That bill? The Save our Gas Stoves Act.

“It was their own bill, and the Freedom Caucus members who want this bill - because you have to make the world safer for gas - decided they were too mad at McCarthy to even bring their own bill to the floor,” she said. “For us, it's a ridiculous bill anyway. So you know, right now, there's no real damage being done.”

The real damage, Balint said, is that the American people are paying their representatives to do nothing. Also, it does not bode well for the real work the House eventually has to do before the August recess.

“We have to pass a farm bill,” Balint said. “We have to pass an appropriations bill. That's the long-term concern. And I don't know what will happen. But the so-called moderates - I like to refer to them as the 'Timid 20' - have realized, 'Oh, if the extremists can hold the floor hostage, we could do that, too.' This is where we are.

“The Democrats have to be there, not to just be witnesses to the dysfunction, but to try to work within the constraints,” she continued. “To not just hold back the worst of it, but to set up work within the committees and within the caucus so that when we do retake the House, we'll be ready to move on things.”

And that, Balint said, is including a bill to do away with the debt ceiling.

But not gas stoves.

“We have so many important things we should be dealing with right now, and that's not one of them,” she said.

Common ground in a fraught political environment

The Farm Bill, on the other hand, is especially important for a state that is dependent on agriculture.

“It's one of the reasons why it's so critical that the Republicans get their house in order, or in some semblance of functioning,” Balint said. “We have to pass a farm bill. And obviously, there are aspects of the farm bill that directly impact the agricultural industry in Vermont. But a lot of people don't understand that.”

She also pointed out the food programs in the farm bill “that support hungry kids and families across the country,” making it a must-pass this session.

“And I think we'll be able to pass it, with [Sen.] Peter Welch [D-Vt.] sitting on the Agriculture Committee in the Senate. He's got a really great perch from which to protect things that will impact Vermont. There have to be some agreements that get cobbled out, because there are farmers and ranchers across the country that need to be able to grow food for all of us.”

Balint is proceeding with her own priorities during the session, especially with mental health issues and housing.

“It's tough being in a minority,” Balint said. “But I am continuing to focus on mental health and to support any movement we can make on additional housing. Those are two things that are impacting every region of the country.”

She called those priorities “an opportunity for bipartisan work on issues that are not as wrapped up in culture wars, so to speak.”

In May, she and Rep. Bryan Steil (R-Wisc.) co-sponsored legislation “to develop and disseminate a strategy to address the effects of new technologies, like social media, on children's mental health,” her office wrote in a news release.

“I'm always looking for partners across the aisle on anything related to mental health and housing, and I'm going to continue to do that,” Balint said.

The new class of Democratic representatives were all deeply affected by the failed coup that took place as an attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

“So although we come from different districts, and some of us are more progressive Democrats, some are more Blue Dog, or as they have rebranded themselves, the Problem Solvers Caucus, we all have this shared experience of being absolutely horrified by what we saw on Jan. 6,” Balint said. “And that has given us a kinship with each other that transcends where we fall ideologically within the caucus.”

That has drawn them closer.

“It means that when we have tough votes to take, instead of attacking each other on Twitter, we actually sit down together and talk,” Balint said: “'Tell me, why are you thinking of voting this way?' 'Tell me about your district.' 'Tell me about your voters.' 'How did this fit into your long-term strategy?'”

She describes that conversation as “a much healthier way for us to govern with our colleagues.”

“I just couldn't be more inspired by the people that I serve with,” Balint said. “I just couldn't be more pleased to be in such incredible company.”

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