Statewide candidates often launch campaigns in formal settings — businesses, hotel lobbies, fancy homes. And they attract the usual politicos: lobbyists, lawmakers, a full brace of media and well-heeled business types.
Not so, Christine Hallquist. The former CEO of Vermont Electric Cooperative officially began her campaign for governor Sunday on home turf — her regular watering hole, a dive bar called Moog’s Place in Morrisville — surrounded by a plaid and denim clad crowd of 50 or so family friends, neighbors and former employees. Hallquist’s children, Jillian, Maggie and Derek, were all on hand. Her granddaughter was playing in the front row. And friend Val Davis entertained the crowd with covers of oldies from the 1960s and 1970s.
Hallquist, for her part, wore a tasteful maroon lace and sequin dress. And her sartorial ensemble was as much an expression of who she is as a candidate as was the venue she chose for her launch and the people who came to support her.
It was, after all, a historic moment. Hallquist is the first transgender gubernatorial candidate in the nation. She has never run for office before and while she directed her brief campaign remarks at Republican Gov. Phil Scott, she faces two other Democratic candidates in the August primary — James Ehlers, the director of Lake Champlain International, and Ethan Sonneberg, a middle school student.
While the former utility executive’s transition several years ago was highly publicized, Hallquist downplayed her sexuality in remarks to the press.
“I chose to transition in a very public way because I felt I owed it to those at Vermont Electric Co-op who had put their trust in me,” Hallquist said. “That journey taught me things I never imagined,” explaining that her experience as a woman has helped her understand “the pervasive nature of sexism in our society.”
Despite the legacy of sexism, Hallquist told reporters she believes Vermonters are ready to elect a transgender governor.
“I don’t think Vermonters are going to look at that,” Hallquist said. “I’m going to get elected because of my leadership, bold vision and courage. I haven’t seen much resistance because I’m transgender.
“I don’t want people to vote for me because I’m transgender, or write me off because I’m transgender,” she said.
Hallquist says she has an “attitude of gratitude” toward Vermonters who supported her during the transition, and she wants to give back at what she sees as a critical time in the state’s history.
She believes the state needs a “bold” leader who can kickstart the rural economy, move forward on renewable energy and address opiate addiction. Now isn’t the time to let Vermont become mired in apathy and stagnation, she said.
“We must be bold in the face of headwinds in Washington,” Hallquist said. “We must be bold in the face of continuing unpredictability from Congress, and we must be bold in the face of the chaos of the White House.”
As leader of the Vermont Electric Co-operative, Hallquist focused on effective management at a time when the utility was failing. The state warned the co-op that it could lose its license to operate. “So I turned to my employees and asked them for help,” Hallquist said. “One of my core beliefs is that 95 percent of people get up in the morning and want to do a good job.
“It was my job to give the co-op employees the tools to do a good job,” Hallquist said. “This is the role of the leader of any good organization, and this should be the role of the governor.”
She sees her approach to leadership, in which employees are empowered, as a model for the kind of change she envisions for management of state government. Scott, in contrast, has a topdown style that is ineffective, she said.
“He’s a big believer in command and control management,” Hallquist said. “And that’s a failed strategy. Trashing the teachers union — that’s never going to work. I don’t see leadership in that office, I see bad management.”
Hallquist said the governor should work with the Vermont NEA and negotiate an equitable solution for the state’s school system, which has seen declining enrollment in rural areas.
Much of her 7-minute speech was dedicated to Democratic red meat rhetoric.
She promised to raise the minimum wage, train displaced workers and support unions. Hallquist promised to fix the mental health care system and address the legacy of racial discrimination. She supports the retail sale of marijuana.
Hallquist believes in “common sense gun laws.” When friends complain about liberals taking away their guns, “I say relax. Just because we regulated opiates doesn’t mean we’re coming for your Tylenol.”
Her No. 1 economic development priority is bringing access to fiber optic to every home. Hallquist told reporters that putting lines on utility poles costs a third of in ground fiber installation.
“We’re going to do this so artists can reach their customers all over the world, so that entrepreneurs can build global supply chains and so farmers can use modern field management and manure management systems and so Vermont can be a player in the world of distance learning,” Hallquist said.
On a number of issues, including opiates and declining dairy prices, Hallquist advocates for working with “like-minded states.” Vermont is producing 30 percent more milk now than the state did in the 1960s, she says, because farmers are more efficient. Hallquist says the solution is “moving farmers into higher margin [value added] businesses.”
The added pressure of phosphorus pollution abatement is putting dairy farmers over the edge, she said.
“The dairy farm industry is really in trouble, and we can’t ask the farmers to pay for some of these solutions,” Hallquist said. “There are models [for phosphorus control] that are working Denmark and Wisconsin.”
As an outsider to politics challenging a popular first term governor, Hallquist faces an uphill battle. She acknowledged that fundraising is the biggest challenge.
In the 2016 election cycle, Scott, his Democratic rival Sue Minter, outside groups, and Republican and Democratic primary candidates spent more than $13 million on the race for governor.
“I’m new to this statewide office stuff — I’m probably going to be spending 70 percent of my time on the phone,” Hallquist said. “It is hard work. We have to really raise a lot of money, and it’s important we are focusing on building a ramp to beat Phil Scott right now.
She pointed to Jillian, her daughter and chief fundraiser for the campaign, who worked for the Elizabeth Warren campaign and had just flown in from San Fransisco for the event. When prompted, Jillian made the ka-ching sound as she encouraged people to open their checkbooks. “The most important thing is to get out the vote,” Jillian said.