BURLINGTON, Vt. (AP) — Six months ago, Christine Hallquist was leading one of Vermont’s rural electric cooperatives, her transgender status causing nary a ripple as she took part in policy debates about renewable energy and the reliability of the electric grid.
Now, after winning Vermont’s Democratic nomination to run for governor, she’s basking in the glow of her status as the nation’s first transgender political candidate to win a major-party gubernatorial nomination .
She’s got a lot to learn and a lot of money to raise.
Hallquist knows that to defeat Republican Gov. Phil Scott, she’s going to have to explain to Vermont residents how she can do a better job of developing the state’s rural economy, ensuring people have access to health care and quality education.
She recognizes the symbolism of her candidacy and her victory in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, but she still says the people who voted for her did so because of the merits of her message.
“Vermont did not let me down,” Hallquist, 62, told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “I didn’t think it was going to be a big issue at all, and it wasn’t for Vermonters.”
In the Republican primary, Scott survived a bitter backlash from his base, upset that he signed into law a package of gun control restrictions he pushed for after what Vermont officials called a narrowly averted school shooting. Scott said he expected the race, which he won by more than 30 percentage points, to be closer than it was.
Hallquist said she was looking forward to debating the issues with Scott.
“I think we’ve got a really good message here,” she said. “I can’t wait to go one-on-one with Phil on economics.”
The Republican Governor’s Association, through a political action committee, has already committed $1 million to Scott’s re-election campaign.
Despite a flurry of donations in the hours after her historic win Tuesday, Hallquist said she didn’t know if she’d be able to raise as much money as Scott, who has the support of the national Republican Party.
She’s already gotten a big boost from the Victory Fund, a political action committee that backs LGBTQ candidates. The organization calls Hallquist a “game changer,” and its connection with her could prompt its supporters to donate to her campaign.
But victory in November will be about more than money, she said.
“I think what we are going to show people in November is that no matter how much money people pour into campaigns you can beat them with emotional commitment. … If you get peoples’ emotional commitment you can do anything.”
Victory fund president Annise Parker said many political observers once thought it unthinkable a transgender gubernatorial candidate could be elected.
“Vermont voters chose Christine not because of her gender identity but because she is an open and authentic candidate with a long history of service to the state and who speaks to the issues most important to voters,” Parker said.
Roughly 200 LGBT candidates are expected to be on the November ballot across the country for state and federal office, the most ever, according to the Victory Fund. They include Alexandra Chandler, a Democrat and Massachusetts’ first openly transgender candidate for Congress.
In Vermont, home to independent U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and the first state to recognize same-sex unions with its landmark 2000 civil unions law, a precursor to gay marriage, Hallquist’s gender is not expected to be an issue.
The last time Vermont voters ousted a sitting governor was in 1962. And typically Scott could have been almost assured of re-election, analysts said.
“In order for her to win, she needs to make the case that Phil Scott has been a failed governor in his first two years in office as governor,” Middlebury College political science professor emeritus Eric Davis said. “He will claim that he has pushed back against Democratic proposals to raise taxes and fees and that the state’s economy is in better shape today than it was two years ago.”
But politics are different this year. Scott’s once sky-high popularity has waned, potentially leaving an opening for a well-funded Democratic challenger.
Hallquist moved to Vermont in 1976. In 1998, well before her gender identity transition from male to female, she went to work for the Vermont Electric Co-operative, becoming CEO in 2005. She was so open about her 2015 transition she allowed news organizations to chronicle the change.
She quit her job at the co-op earlier this year so she could run for governor and represent the interests of rural residents, something she said she feels Scott has been ignoring. Now, she says, she feels her message transcends simple state politics.
“Vermont is a beacon of hope not only for the rest of the country but the rest of the world,” she said.
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