For the last few weeks on the campaign trail, first-time U.S. congressional candidate Becca Balint has been driving around Vermont in her bright yellow Honda Fit, singing Alicia Keys at the top of her lungs. She has gravitated toward the song “Underdog,” in particular.
“When we started, we were the underdog by far. People just felt like there was no way I was going to be able to overcome the name recognition gap,” Balint said.
Last week, Balint, a Vermont state senator who also serves as the state’s Senate president pro tempore, handily defeated Lt. Gov. Molly Gray in the Democratic primary for Vermont’s lone U.S. House seat. The victory brought Balint one step closer to making history: If elected, she will be the first woman to represent the state in Congress, as well as the first out queer person to do so.
According to the Victory Fund, which advocates for and supports LGBTQ political candidates, there has been a notable increase in LGBTQ women running for office in the past five years: In 2022 alone, there are 304 LGBTQ female candidates, according to the organization.
Some of those candidates have been galvanized by recent political developments, such as the Supreme Court’s decision that overturned the right to an abortion nationwide, said Victory Fund President Annise Parker. Also concerning to many candidates was Justice Clarence Thomas’s statement that landmark cases supporting LGBTQ rights ought to be reviewed. Thomas’s remarks came as state bills and attacks targeting LGBTQ communities have escalated around the country.
“That’s something that motivates people to stand up and run. And we hope that it will motivate people to show up in November,” Parker said.
But what Balint believes sets her apart are the relationships she has built with communities in her state, where she said she has prioritized working on mental health issues, housing and the wealth gap, as well as her commitment to running an “openhearted” and joyful campaign. The latter seems to have resonated with voters, she said, but it’s also a deeply personal choice.
“If I don’t intentionally set myself up to think more positively, I can easily get pulled into the darkness,” Balint said. Hence Alicia Keys and that bright yellow car. “Every day, it makes me smile just to get in,” she said.
We spoke to Balint after her historic victory about Vermont, her candidacy and what this moment means to her.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You have this historic campaign at a moment when reproductive rights are being rolled back and anti-LGBTQ attacks are surging. What does your candidacy mean to you at a time like this?
A: It is a scary moment for so many people right now. It’s a scary moment for women, young women in particular, for members of the LGBTQ community, for anyone who is part of a marginalized community.
I want to bring you back to when I was in high school: I won a citizenship award. A reporter came to talk to me and she said, “Well, what do you think you’re going to do with your life?” I was 17 years old, and I said, “I want to teach. I want to write. I hope to someday run for office.” And I said, “Whatever I do, I want to be someone who tries to alleviate suffering, that is trying to make life better for people.”
Whether it be because of racial hatred, income inequality, the incredibly dangerous rhetoric coming out against LGBTQ youth in particular and their families — I feel like I am still the same person I always was. And now people are seeing that, on some level, we all need to be focused on truly, truly helping those who are being targeted right now.
Q: I know you’ve also talked a bit about your grandfather, who died in the Holocaust. And I’m curious, this focus on suffering and how to relieve it — where did that start for you?
A: So I certainly grew up in a family that talked a lot about the mob mentality, right? That things can turn quickly when people are feeling angry, unsure of their own place. There are parts of all of us as humans that look for easy answers, and oftentimes it’s about scapegoating people to try to find an easy answer.
When I think about what happened to my grandfather in the Holocaust — the way that he was killed; was he was on a forced march from the concentration camp. The Nazis were trying to outrun the Allies. And he stayed behind when they were marching because somebody else fell behind and was not able to make it. So he tried to help this person along, and they both were shot to death.
I always have asked myself as an adult: Would I have had the strength to do that? Would I have had the fortitude in the midst of all that depravity and all of that dehumanization? Would I have had the courage to do that thing?
And over time, I realized it’s actually the wrong question for me to be asking myself, and for my neighbors and constituents to be asking of themselves. The real question is: Do I have the courage day in and day out on a regular basis to talk to people who are different from us? ... That’s really what it means for me to alleviate suffering as part of a life well-lived.
So there’s the work of being a leader and a senator trying to solve problems through policy, which is incredibly important and something I take very seriously. But as an addendum to that, I face each day with that sense of, “What can I do with moments of interaction that will also alleviate suffering?”
Q: How much pain or suffering are you encountering as you go across communities and as you’re meeting individuals across the state? What are you seeing?
A: What I’m seeing is deep anxiety and concern about the future that’s sort of overlaying everything. Whether we will be able to survive this moment when our democracy is clearly imperiled. Every community that I’m in across the state is confronting mental health struggles and the opioid epidemic.
We’re also in the middle of an acute housing crisis in Vermont. So there are a lot of people who are very concerned about their place in the state. In the future, will their kids and grandkids be able to stay here?
It’s an indication of this much broader crisis that’s been building for decades, which is this incredible wealth gap in the nation. And when I look at how wages have been flat for so long, and when I look at how much money people are paying for child care to be able to get back to work — it’s a lot of anxiety. There’s a lot of anxiety out there.
There is, I think, an incredible fear about elections going forward. Will people just say if they don’t win, “Oh, well, it was rigged. It was unfair”? If this is the cycle that we’re going to be in, the only way to address it within our communities is to continue to engage with people, even when we disagree, so that we can go back to being Americans, we can go back to being Vermonters.
Q: There’s this stereotype about Vermont that people are much nicer than some other places, and that seems to apply to its politics, too. How true is that?
A: I always have to laugh when people are like, “Are you ready to, like, face the onslaught of negativity in Congress?” When I first moved to Vermont, within a few weeks, somebody had scratched “dyke” into the side of my car in huge letters, and I had to have my car repainted. I was embarrassed that that was my experience.
So both things are true. Yes, there is this desire for things to stay positive and for there to be more stability. But I have to say that’s not true for those of us who are part of a marginalized group.
They may not play out in the TV ads that are run, but they certainly play out on social media and in the calls and emails that I get or people call you at a town meeting and say, you know, call you a baby killer because you support reproductive rights. And there has been a shift after Trump’s election. There’s no denying it.
I want to be somebody in politics who can acknowledge that, yes, we should always be striving to live up to the story Vermonters tell about ourselves, which is that we’re kinder and gentler and loving, while also acknowledging that is not true for everyone. That is really important work to me.