BURLINGTON, Vt. — A former energy company executive from Vermont has come a step closer to becoming the nation's first transgender governor.
Christine Hallquist swept to victory in Tuesday’s crowded gubernatorial primary, besting three other Democrats — including a 14-year-old boy — to become the party’s nominee. She is the first trans person to win a major party’s nomination for governor.
"Tonight we made history, and I'm so honored to be ... part of this historical moment," Hallquist said to a room full of clapping fans at her election-night party in Burlington. "I'm so proud to be the face of the Democrats tonight."
Hallquist will face Republican incumbent Phil Scott in November. Scott’s popularity has waned in recent months, but he managed to beat his Republican primary challenger by a healthy margin on Tuesday.
The most specific parts of Hallquist’s platform follow a now-familiar progressive model: a $15 minimum wage, Medicare for all and free higher education. She is also campaigning on an aggressive expansion of renewable electricity and high-speed broadband access across the state.
Hallquist said the anti-transgender policies of the Trump administration, including the attempt to ban trans people from serving in the military and the reversal of Obama-era protections for trans people in gender-segregated facilities, were factors in her decision to run for office.
“This isn’t something I was thinking about doing,” Hallquist explained. “I say, in the physics world, for every action, there’s an opposite and equal reaction. This is a reaction to 2016.”
She said she hopes “our children and our children’s children look back at 2018 and say, ‘Hey, that’s when we all got in, and our democracy survived a despot.’”
Hallquist’s past career as CEO of the Vermont Electric Cooperative gave her a major boost going into Tuesday’s contest. She’s credited with turning the electric utility around, and a poll found she had the highest name recognition of all the Democratic hopefuls in the gubernatorial race.
On the campaign trail, she criticized Gov. Scott’s high rate of vetoed legislation, which she called a “leadership failure” and a product of his “focus on division.”
“We are a very loving state, so when people are focusing on division, people don’t like it,” Hallquist said.
Hallquist said she’s confident she has a good chance against Scott in November.
“It’s pretty clear he’s vulnerable,” she said. “I think he lost support from both the gun advocates and the Democrats who might have voted for him before.”
One element of Hallquist’s platform that generated buzz leading up to the primary is a program for rural internet expansion. Beforing the polls closed on Tuesday, Hallquist visited Brighton, a small town in Vermont’s poor northeast, where she said, “Rural America is facing a problem right now.”
“You’re seeing increasing rates of poverty, flights to the city, an aging demographic,” she said. “The same thing happened in the 1930s, when cities had electricity and rural America did not.”
That story of rural electrification and the way it transformed Vermont in the 1930s is a major theme of Hallquist’s campaign, and it featured prominently in her advertisements.
The modern-day version of stringing electric lines is stringing fiber-optic internet cables, and Hallquist, who formerly led the Vermont Electricity Cooperative, knows a thing or two about infrastructure.
“You just run it on the same poles and wires, that’s why this thing works. It’s just another wire,” she said. “If you use your utility buckets, labor and equipment, you can do it for a third of the cost.”
Dustin Tanner, a Democratic nominee for the Vermont state Senate who ran uncontested on Tuesday, said he voted for Hallquist. A self-described “Bernie-wing” Democrat, Tanner said there are parts of Hallquist’s platform that are “a little conservative” for him. However, he said her plan for rural broadband connectivity was a main reason why he voted for her in Tuesday’s primary. Tanner, whose day job is in the information technology department of a local school, said he’s keenly aware of how crucial it is for Vermonters to have fast internet.
Liz Gamache, the former mayor of St. Albans and a Hallquist booster, attributed Hallquist’s wide support in the state to “lots of word of mouth.”
“It goes a long way in this state,” Gamache said. “We see each other in the grocery store; we are one or two people removed from just about everybody.”
Former Houston, Texas, Mayor Annise Parker, now president and CEO of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, a political action committee that endorsed Hallquist, called her primary victory a “defining moment in the movement for trans equality.”
“Yet Vermont voters chose Christine not because of her gender identity, but because she is an open and authentic candidate with a long history of service to the state, and who speaks to the issues most important to voters,” Parker said in a statement sent to NBC News. “When voters head to the polls this November, we are confident Vermonters will make her the first openly trans governor in the nation.”