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Will Vermont send a woman to Washington?

Published: Nov. 29, 2021 at 5:23 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 30, 2021 at 5:17 AM EST
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - All eyes are on Vermont’s soon-to-be-open seat in Congress. With Rep. Peter Welch leaving office to run for Senate, it’s a once-in-a-generation chance for new blood in Washington. And with Vermont being the only state yet to send a woman to Washington, there might be a lot of female candidates.

Democrats Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint, Chittenden County Sen. Kesha Ram-Hinsdale and Essex Representative Tanya Vyhovsky have all expressed interest in running.

Former Democratic representative and speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson says she was asked to run for the Vermont House in 2000.

She was inspired to run because of the debate over civil unions.

“For me, it was really about understanding that democracy doesn’t matter if voters don’t have a choice,” Johnson said.

She was elected two years later and eventually became speaker of the House.

Johnson says personal and professional barriers around child and elder care along with different expectations, and low legislative pay have historically prevented women from seeking higher office.

“When you walk through the Statehouse and see all of the portraits of all of the people that have made decisions that are important historical decisions in Vermont, it’s suit after suit after suit, man after man after man, " Johnson said.

That tide has shifted as many of Vermont’s major leadership positions are now occupied by women.

But Vermont is the only state left in the country that has not elected a woman to Congress. In part, because Vermonters overwhelmingly choose incumbents and there’s been a logjam of candidates.

“There just aren’t the same number of opportunities as you may see in other states for women to serve in Congress,” said Dennise Casey, the owner and president of Casey, Inc.

Vermont has only a single House seat to go with its two Senate seats. All have been occupied by male incumbents since 2006.

That year, Republican Martha Rainville secured 44% of the vote but was beaten out by Democrat Peter Welch in a bid for the House seat vacated by Sen. Bernie Sanders.

This election cycle, that House seat is open again and nearly all of the suspected candidates are women.

Middlebury College Political Scientist Matt Dickinson predicts subtle pressure on Democrats and Republicans to nominate a woman for Vermont’s open House seat. But he says voters also seek candidates with qualifications and good policies.

“But qualifications also extend beyond gender but there is a descriptive aspect to this job. If we’re going to represent this state, we ought to look like this state in our congressional delegation,” Dickinson said.

He says that also includes issues of race and ethnicity. And experts say the conversation around more diverse representation isn’t just confined to the Democratic Party.

“I think a lot of Vermonters see value in a diverse representation in Congress,” Casey said.

And that, Casey says, includes Vermonters across socioeconomic status.

So far, only a few people have expressed interest in running, but analysts expect the open seat could attract numerous candidates who will vie for their party’s nominations next August.

Related story:

Rep. Peter Welch to run for US Senate

Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy won’t seek reelection

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Leahy opens Tuesday Senate session

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