Eric Davis: Media asks wrong question on candidate

Christine Hallquist is the CEO of Vermont Electric Co-operative, a Johnson-based utility serving over 30,000 customers in eight Vermont counties. Hallquist told reporters last week that she is giving serious consideration to running for governor as a Democrat this fall, and that she would make an announcement about her plans later in the month.
Hallquist said that, although she has known Gov. Phil Scott for some time, and admires him as an individual, the state needs stronger and more forward-looking leadership than the governor has demonstrated to date. She said her campaign would emphasize rural economic development, a field in which she has experience as the CEO of a business that serves primarily residents of small towns.
Hallquist also points to her success in turning around VEC’s finances. When she became CEO in 2005, VEC was nearly bankrupt. Its bonds are now rated A+ and it is developing many new initiatives involving community-based renewable energy.
If Hallquist does enter the race, she would join a Democratic field that also includes 13-year-old Ethan Sonneborn of Bristol and long-time environmental activist and advocate James Ehlers. To me, both Ehlers and Hallquist would be credible candidates for governor, even though neither has held or sought elective office before. Both are knowledgeable about the issues, have good communications skills, could put together a staff, and could raise enough money to get their message out to the voters.
However, many — but not all — members of the media seemed uninterested in these aspects of Hallquist’s, or Ehlers’, candidacy. Hallquist happens to be a transgender woman, and the question many reporters wanted to discuss was “Is Vermont ready to elect a transgender candidate to a statewide office?” When this question was posed to me, I found it rather offensive.
I am sure that, back in 1920, there were people who asked, “Is Vermont ready to elect a woman to the Legislature?” As I wrote in this column a few weeks ago, Edna Beard, the first woman in the Legislature, was elected to the House in 1920, and to the Senate in 1922. She did such a good job as a legislator that leaders of the Republican Party wanted her to run for lieutenant governor in 1924, a request she declined on grounds of ill health.
I am also sure that, when the first African-American, or the first gay man, or the first lesbian, announced their candidacies for elected offices, they were met with variations of the “Is Vermont ready to elect …” question. The media should focus its coverage of the campaign on the candidates’ experience, issue positions, ability to assemble a winning coalition, and leadership skills, not on their identity.
Conventional wisdom would say that the winner of the Democratic primary would face a difficult race against Scott in November. No Vermont governor has lost a re-election bid since 1962. A recent poll showed that Scott’s net approval rating was plus-42, the fourth-highest for any governor in the nation. A Scott re-election is indeed the most likely outcome.
However, Gallup poll data released last week indicated that President Trump has less support in Vermont than in any state. If a Democratic tsunami develops in November, it is not impossible that Scott could be swamped by it.
A more plausible scenario is that a strong Democratic wave nationally, and a well-organized Democratic gubernatorial campaign with an appealing message, could hold Scott’s re-election margin to the 10 to 15 percent range, smaller than the 20 percent margin by which Govs. Douglas and Shumlin won their first re-election campaigns. If so, an experienced Democratic candidate who either currently or previously has held elective office might think he or she could mount a competitive challenge against Scott in 2020, a presidential year with higher turnout.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.
Editor’s note: Due to an editing error, this column originally posted with an incorrect headline. Apologies to the writer.

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