Stephen C. Terry: Can Hallquist follow Aiken’s path?
This week’s Community Forum is by Stephen C. Terry of Middlebury, who served as Senator Aiken’s Legislative Assistant from 1969 to 1975. He was the former Managing Editor of the Rutland Heraldas well as a utility executive at Green Mountain Power. He currently serves as a political analyst for WCAX-TV.
Christine Hallquist, the current and longtime CEO of the Vermont Electric Co-op, is now an all-but officially announced Democratic candidate for Governor who has declared that she wants to run as an “Aiken Democrat.”
So, what does that really mean?
Hallquist, of course, is referring to former Vermont Republican Gov. George D. Aiken, who served two terms from 1937 to 1941 and as long-time U. S. Senator in Washington from 1941 to 1975.
Aiken, who ran and was always elected as a Republican, was hardly that by today’s hyper-partisan standards of the GOP in Washington. For that matter, neither was Aiken ever in the good graces of the then Vermont GOP establishment in the 1930’s.
In fact, Aiken was a solid member of the Progressive-Liberal wing of the Republican Party, something now as extinct as the Dodo bird. Even back then, the Vermont bankers, business, and utility leaders who exerted political control were determined to bring to an end Aiken’s fast-rising political career and defeat him for the GOP nomination to the U.S. Senate in 1940. They failed and, instead, Aiken spent 34 years in the Senate.
During his whole political career, Aiken was a maverick and a thorn in the side of the “Old Guard” as he called the Republican establishment leaders that controlled the political levers of power in Vermont, and later in Washington.
Just like the average blue-collar Vermonter today, Aiken was never rich and he never forgot his rural roots. He steadfastly represented blue-collar Vermonters, hillside small farmers, labor union members, and those who lived on the rural back roads often without electric power during the Depression. For the most part, Aiken’s voting bloc were those who eked out a living in a small-town culture — that is what most of Vermont was in the 1930’s, and still is today in areas outside of Chittenden County.
In his storied 43-year political career, Aiken never received a serious challenge by a Democratic candidate. His last political race was a GOP primary in 1968 when a right-winger went down to defeat. Aiken was then re-elected to his last Senate term without Democratic opposition. He retired from the U.S. Senate in 1975, when he did not seek another term.
Vermont remained a solidly Republican state alongside a weak Democratic Party that never achieved political success until the election of Democrat William H. Meyer to one term in the House in 1958. In 1962, Philip H. Hoff’s upset election over Republican Gov. F. Ray Keyser to become the first Democratic Governor in 109 years, changed Vermont. It was only upon Aiken’s retirement that Democrat Pat Leahy was elected, and some 43 years later still ably represents our state in the U. S. Senate.
Today, Vermont is one of the deepest blue Democratic states in the country, and the state with the lowest support for President Trump.
So, how would or could Hallquist carry the mantle as an “Aiken Democrat” in the 2018 gubernatorial elections, assuming she wins the August primary against two challengers —environmentalist James Ehlers, and middle school student Ethan Sonneborn?
Let’s start with the obvious:
Hallquist runs a rural electric co-operative, and she is rightfully credited with restoring Vermont Electric Co-op in Johnson to financial health and stability. By comparison, Aiken was responsible for the formation of three electric co-ops — Washington Electric, the Vermont Electric, and the now defunct Halifax Electric Co-op.
While Aiken was long deceased (1984) before Hallquist took over at Vermont Electric Co-op in 2005, I have no doubt, as a former Aiken staff member (1969-1975), that Aiken would have approved of Hallquist’s stewardship and leadership.
In that regard, Aiken also would have been pleased with Hallquist’s record of leadership within the national Rural Electric Association, and her record for advocating new technologies for the betterment of her rural customer base.
Likewise, Aiken would have been very impressed by Hallquist’s personal courage when the utility executive underwent a very public transgender change in 2015 and she became “Christine” after years as “Dave.”
He would have been proud of the supportive way Hallquist’s employees, utility executives, political leaders, and many Vermonters accepted this change, as it says as much about the tolerant state in which we live as it does about her personal qualities.
Aiken also would have approved of Hallquist’s stated intention to run the “nicest race” should she face the heavy favorite to win re-election as Governor, Republican Phil Scott.
Aiken never ran a “personal” campaign against an opponent. The closest he came to it was in 1940 when he ran and won against Ralph Flanders, a Springfield industrialist, for the U.S. Senate nomination. Supporters of Aiken took a photograph of Flanders, with his starched high white collar and suit, at the Tunbridge Fair holding a wiggling small pig in his arms. That photograph made its way throughout the farming communities of Vermont much like a social media post gone viral would have today. Years later Aiken would still chuckle about that photo.
Aiken would also have likely approved of Hallquist’s push back against policies from the Trump Administration that would have hurt his beloved Vermont, much like Aiken did when he opposed Roosevelt’s New Deal policies that he thought would disadvantage Vermonters in the 1930s.
That said, Hallquist may have a hard time making that position stand out running against Phil Scott who has been very clear that as a Republican he did not support Trump as a candidate, nor does he now as President. His positions regarding the policies and actions of Donald Trump are no doubt a major reason that national polls ranking Governors show Scott with the fourth highest rating in the nation — 63 percent approval while 21 percent disapprove, according to Vermonters polled in this bluest of states.
While Hallquist is credible in her view that rural Vermont needs help, Gov. Scott said much the same thing in his State of the State address early in January. Scott was even more direct in saying that other than Chittenden County, the rest of Vermont is falling behind and there is a need to focus economic growth programs in the other 13 counties.
Hallquist will need to walk a fine line as she positions on rural Vermont when Chittenden County is the only economic powerhouse we have got. If she has any chance of being elected she will need Democratic votes from the state’s most populous county.
The Republican utility executive, who would now become a Democrat, (after voting for Scott in 2016) says she would need to raise $2 million to run and win against Scott. No doubt her transgender status would help raise money nationally as she would become a well-publicized national political figure should she capture the Vermont Democratic nomination in August.
However, herein lies Hallquist’s initial challenge in her effort to cast herself as the “Democratic Aiken.”
If Aiken were still alive today, he would be shocked at the prospect of $2 million being spent on a gubernatorial race in Vermont, just as he would have been when former Governors Dean, Douglas, Shumlin, and now Scott, have had to raise million-dollar plus campaign war chests to successfully run for governor.
While there are some issues upon which Hallquist could claim the Aiken mantle, this is one major one that she will fail on. Yes, this is a different time, but tell that to Aiken who spent $17.09 cents in his last campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1968. He abhorred big money in politics and was always suspicious of candidates who spent all their time shaking down donors, the coin of the realm of modern campaigns.
While I praise her good intentions, Hallquist may run into trouble trying to tie her Vermont political future to the idea of becoming the “Democratic Aiken” as it is terribly difficult to credibly copy a one of its kind.
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