Until Nov. 9, 2016, running for governor had never been in the playbook. A lifelong environmental activist and decade-long CEO, Christine Hallquist made a sharp professional detour after the election of President Donald Trump.
Hallquist is the first openly transgender person nominated for governor by a major party, and she is taking on Vermont’s incumbent Phil Scott, a Republican, who is finishing his first term. On Election Day, she will appear on the Democratic line.
“I’m not a politico,” she said as she sat down for an interview with The Campus at a picnic table outside Mead Chapel. “I had never marched before, was more a science, engineer-type person. But science isn’t going to solve this. You have to be political.”
After President Trump’s victory, she began participating in a series of marches as a means of dealing with her state of “political depression.” Then she made the leap into politics herself, announcing her candidacy for statewide office in March.
Hallquist arrived in Vermont in 1976 from upstate New York. She quickly settled into her new home while involving herself in an array of local issues, including challenging a mining pit. “I wouldn’t call myself an activist, but I was always doing something,” she said. “That’s what you do in Vermont if you’re responsive — you get involved. But I decided to run for governor without having a clue.”
After spending more than a decade as the chief executive of the Vermont Electric Co-op (VEC), she found that her experience in the utility sector dovetailed neatly with her gubernatorial platform. Hallquist’s political agenda is centered on the junction of economic development and environmental sustainability. The thing that ties the two together, she says, is fiber optic cable, a material made from tiny glass filaments that can transmit data at tremendously high speeds. Currently, only 17 percent of Vermonters have access to fiber optic. Her ultimate goal: providing high-speed internet to all of Vermont.
Hallquist is convinced that expanding fiber optic cable across the state would have far-reaching benefits, from drawing young people to the state to reinventing the nature of the dairy industry. For dairy, she envisions a push towards artisanal products that can be sold across the globe via online retailers (she cites the popularity of Vermont maple syrup in Japan as a pioneering industry model). It could even lead to a rebirth of Vermont’s rural communities, she said, many of which remain marginalized due to a lack of internet access.
The emphasis Hallquist places on fiber optic weaves through nearly everything she talks about. In her eyes, fiber optic applies to the range of challenges confronting Vermont: an aging population, a deficit of young people and economic stagnation. Regarding the dairy industry, Hallquist anticipates a looming transformation in the market. “Dairy is a world that’s already shifted,” she said. “We’re producing 30 percent more milk than we did in the 1960s, yet people are consuming fewer dairy products.”
Instead of wholesale milk, she envisions a move towards small-batch, boutique products like organic cheeses, labeled “GMO-Free” and “Made in Vermont” and sold across the world. “That’s where the market is: the artisanal products,” she said.
However, older dairy farmers, who make up the majority of the industry’s demographic, have not had the most enthusiastic response. “Some are migrating, but it’s like any other business; some people made buggy parts while cars were being sold,” she said. “People have a hard time letting go.”
Yet the state’s infrastructure, including fiber optic networks, needs to be there, she said. And the government has the power to spearhead that. She’s emphasized the need for new welfare programs, like Medicare for All — a sharp contrast to Scott’s recent dodging of those sorts of initiatives. Scott’s avoidance has manifested in a slew of vetoes in recent months, which have emerged as a frustration and talking point for Hallquist.
Still, she acknowledged that she supported his initial candidacy more than a year before she decided to run against him. “I voted for Phil Scott, but I think I truly represent the electorate of Vermont,” she said. Despite Scott’s shift to the center on some issues, like gun control and marijuana legalization, Hallquist now believes he has more in common with the national Republican Party than with most Vermonters. After all, Hillary Clinton beat Trump easily in Vermont, winning 56.7 percent of the vote to Trump’s 29.3 percent. “He’s just a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” she said of Scott.
Voters in Vermont are known for splitting their tickets on Election Day, pulling the lever for, say, a Democratic state senator but a Republican governor. “That’s been the trend in the state for some time now,” said Eric Davis, professor emeritus of Political Science at the college. “Half the people who didn’t vote for Trump for president voted for Phil Scott.”
In her first days in office, Hallquist says her number one priority would be to pass a raft of bills that Scott has vetoed in the last few months. Those bills would have enacted a minimum wage increase, paid family leave, the monitoring of toxic substances in toys and toxic pollution producer liability. Hallquist hopes to resurrect them all.
“When it comes to a living wage and Medicare for All, that’s not a political issue — that’s called being a civilized society,” she said. “If your leader’s not heading in that direction, you need to fire them and get someone who is.”
Hallquist has followed Sen. Bernie Sanders’ national trail in doggedly supporting a government-financed, single-payer system, where all Vermonters could receive healthcare coverage. Although Scott ultimately looks favorably upon Medicare for All, he is not sure the state’s economy can withstand a single-payer system on its own.
Incarceration is another issue she feels passionately about. Hallquist contests that moving people out of prison is not only more humane but will also save money. Her goal is to cut the state’s prison population in half. Last month, Vermont moved over 200 out-of-state inmates to a correctional facility in Mississippi in an effort to save money and deal with overcrowding. Each year, the state spends $73,000 per prisoner and there are currently 500 people behind bars.
The issue of mass incarceration, she said, is entangled in a bevy of other problems currently facing Vermont. Some prisoners battle alcohol and substance abuse, while others struggle with mental illness. Still, others are forced to delay their release for the simple fact that they cannot find an affordable place to live.
Aside from Scott’s policies, Hallquist is also vehemently critical of his leadership. She has often described his management style as one of “command-and-control,” manifesting in “divisional leadership.” Although she has no previous experience in politics, she says her supervision of the VEC allowed her to practice a collaborative form of leadership that she insists is more effective.
She said the way in which Scott “barks orders from Montpelier” needs to be changed. When asked how she planned to bring the leadership approach she established at VEC to the state capitol, she mused that she might remove the lock from her office door and turn the space into a conference room, something she did at the utility company.
Her campaign coffers — totaling $415,000 — are equally rooted in a cooperative effort. As reported to the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office in mid-October, the bulk of her fundraising has come from small donations. Indeed, more than 3,000 contributions were in the amount of $100 or less. Though Scott’s total contributions exceeded $500,000, only 1,100 came from donations of $100 or less, according to the same report.
“We’ve put all of our money into a ground game,” Hallquist said. “We have over 300 volunteers in the field, 30 people on staff. And we probably make 10,000 to 12,000 phone calls a night.”
Her old-fashioned campaign tactics — phone banking, door-knocking and postcard-writing — are similar to ones that Sanders spearheaded across the country during his 2016 presidential bid. And they have been used by a wave of other progressive candidates running for office this election season, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the democratic socialist who pulled off a stunning primary upset against longtime Democratic congressman Joseph Crowley of New York City.
Though Hallquist’s base of support is centered in Vermont, donations have poured in from across the country. Because of her status as the first transgender person to win a major party nomination, national media coverage spiked in the days following her primary win, with profiles in The New York Times and Washington Post. Sanders’s media team in Washington estimated that more than 3,000 news stories were written on Hallquist globally after the primary, in which she won 48 percent of the vote.
Despite the historic nature of her candidacy and her status as a national role model for transgender youth, Hallquist believes that it is another difficult issue that college students should be paying more attention to: racism. “If there’s anything we’ve learned in Vermont and nationally, it’s that we have an underbelly of racism that’s finally exposed itself to white people,” she said. “People of color have known for a long time that this is a problem that hasn’t been solved.”
Hallquist’s progressive platform and activism have also piqued the interest of Middlebury students. The student organization Sunday Night Environmental Group has held phonebanks for her campaign, and last month, the College Democrats hosted an event that featured a documentary made by Hallquist’s son about her transition, accompanied by a Q&A discussion, though this was advertised as an explicitly apolitical event.
Regardless of the outcome on Nov. 6, Hallquist’s candidacy will have had a profound impact on not only the LGBTQ community, but the state’s Democratic Party. The legacy of her campaign in Vermont has transcended her status as the first transgender person nominated for governor. With her progressive agenda, she’s pushed for the state’s legislative reality to match the Green Mountain state’s crunchy reputation.